What’s Going On With Sony And Its Reader?

Back from the filthy analog world of fleshy beings (nod to Warren Ellis there), and I’m catching up.

I have some sites I hit to do a triage catch-up. They aggregate from a ton of sources. So if I want to see if something is popping on a specific subject, I can do a quick search and pull up all the presshackery about it.

I wanted to know more about this Sony Reader PDF announcement… but guess what? There was nothing! No official press release. In fact, the only mention of the Sony Reader at CES that I’ve found was a single picture. And it didn’t even mention the PDF development!

I hopped over to Teleread and found David citing me (recursion alert!) — and adding the salient and insightful questions I expected of him. Then I went over to MobileRead and discovered they had just a wee bit more, with an URL to a transcript of Sony’s CES kickoff speech that briefly mentions the Reader:

With Sony’s latest Reader, the future of digital books is here.

The Reader continues to win critical praise and for the month of December, it was the number one selling device on SonyStyle.com.

What’s more, we’re excited to announce enhanced support for Adobe PDFs which improves the reading experience and underscores our commitment to open formats.

When you combine a vast library of reading material with Sony technology that’s geared toward ease of use and convenience, well, let’s just say that’s a best-selling proposition.

Now of course, combining reading and even listening to music on headphones while driving simply isn’t a wise move.

Huh? What?

Does that guy — and who exactly the guy is, is unclear from the transcript — know what he was saying?

Re-quoting:

underscores our commitment to open formats

Well, those are very pretty words, but does he know what they mean? Or was this bit of the speech simply filler and no one thought deeply about it?

Let’s review:

The Sony Reader uses a proprietary Sony-created file format called BroadBand E-Book (BBeB). This is not an open format. In fact, it could be argued that it’s the least open format around. In order for writers — or even readers — to get texts with the benefits of BBeB onto the Reader, they have to use non-Sony homebrewed programs created by private individuals. And the file that’s created is LRF, not BBeB. I’ve said it recently and I’ll say it again: Sony, give away BBeB to everyone and anyone, royalty-free! Make it a universal format!

The Sony Reader also offers TXT, RTF, and PDF file support. These are, in the first two cases, open formats. The third, via non-Adobe products, is about as open as can be expected. This Sony technology demonstration of reflowable PDF — when it finally produces a finished upgrade/update — will make PDF support better for readers and easier for PDF creators.

Let me re-quote again:

and for the month of December, it was the number one selling device on SonyStyle.com.

But how was it doing in November? And October?

Does the December swell of sales indicate holiday gift buying? And if so, by whom? People who had previously purchased Readers and were now getting one for a friend or relative?

And what about that Amazon Kindle announcement that happened in November?

Hello, Sony! Remember this?

6032-newsweekkindle.jpg

Could any of those sales be due to people who really wanted a Kindle, found it sold out, yet decided they still wanted to try ebooks, so they went for the Reader?

What disturbs me in all this is Sony’s silence on their true commitment to eBooks.

Look, eBooks are potentially revolutionary in many ways, some of which none of us have yet envisioned.

Personally, I believe ebooks can be the salvation for many professional writers. I’ve been getting very frightening and ominous communiques from well-established writers who are finding themselves being dropped by publishers they have had relationships with for years. This is not good. It’s bad because it means there will be even less out there to read. It’s bad because it means publishers seem to be moving towards formulaic books, following a Hollywood-like box office strategy. It’s bad because ebooks have not yet standardized on a universal file format which can be read on an e-reading device regardless of its brand name.

print-murder.jpg

Ebooks are needed more than ever. They’re needed to guarantee that our reading tastes aren’t restricted to what print publishers think we want to read. They’re needed to provide a new way for professional writers to stay connected with their devoted readership after they’ve been jettisoned by their ungrateful former print publishers. They’re needed to provide an inexpensive way for new writers to get their unique and expressive voices out there.

It’s distressing to me to see Sony — a company that dwarfs Amazon in terms of its technology and marketing muscle as well as its global reach — acting as if its Reader (which I still consider to be the best-designed e-reader out there) was a minor product, as if it was some strange hobby a few marginalized fanatics are playing at in a dark corner of their vast and mighty empire.

Howard Stringer was written up in the New York Times. What did he focus on? OLED TV screens!

tv-screen.jpg

Really, tell me what is so special about Yet Another TV Screen? It’s still a TV screen, no matter what number of colors or contrast ratio it can offer versus previous iterations.

Sure, it’ll bring in money for Sony. It might even be a prestige (read: macho boasting) item.

But TVs are an established market.

The Sony Reader, however, has the potential of creating a new global market and impacting every country that it enters.

Does Howard Stringer understand that? Does Howard Stringer even use a Sony Reader?

Sony, it’s time to hit the accelerator. The lead you’ve enjoyed is diminishing with each day. Commit to winning!

Maybe it’s time for me to quote another bit of your corporate history.

The management meeting on June 24, 1992, was critical. The fate of the project would be decided at the meeting, which was chaired by Sony president [Norio] Ohga. The situation seemed hopeless. Nearly everyone present argued that Sony should pull out of the games market. [Ken] Kutaragi thought the situation had reached a critical juncture and said: “Having listened to what everyone is saying, I can see three options. First, to continue indefinitely with the traditional, Nintendo-compatible 16-bit game machines. Second, to sell game machines in a format proprietary to Sony. Third, to retreat from the market. I believe Sony should choose the second option of selling proprietary-format machines.”

“What reasons do you have to justify pursuing that option?” Ohga demanded.

As if on cue, Kutaragi explained, “We’ve been secretly developing a new format using 3-D computer graphics separately from the Nintendo-compatible machine. Using this technology, we can produce astounding 3-D graphics that the Super Famicom can’t hope to compete with.”

“What scale of LSI Chip do you need?”

“In terms of gate arrays, about one million.”

“What? A million gates?”

“We already have a basic design concept, though it’s still at the architecture stage.”

Suddenly, Ohga burst out laughing. Kutaragi had shaken Ohga’s composure by citing a figure beyond his comprehension. “You’re dreaming! A million gates is impossible! The best we could do is twenty to thirty thousand, a hundred thousand at most” Ohga’s estimate was based on figures he had heard from Sony’s semiconductor division. With Sony’s capabilities at the time, the best LSI chip it could hope to build was one with 100,000 gates.

But having done his own research, Kutaragi knew that the figure of one million gates would soon be an achievable target in the industry. “lt’s by no means impossible to integrate one million gates on an LSI chip. Unless we can do that, we can’t produce three-dimensional computer graphics. Are you just going to sit back and accept what Nintendo did to us?” He appealed intensely and repeatedly to Ohga in this manner, provoking the Sony president. Finally, having reignited Ohga’s rage against Nintendo and stirred up his emotions, Kutaragi demanded: “Please make a decision!”

Unable to control his fury, Ohga replied, “lf you really mean it, prove to me that it’s possible.” Then he formed a fist, pounded on the desk, and shouted: “DO IT!”

— Revolutionaries at Sony: The Making of the Sony Playstation and the Visionaries Who Conquered the World of Video Games by Reiji Asakura, pgs. 36-37

Emphasis added by me.

I’m taking a cue from Ohga and pounding my fist on my desk: Get serious about the full potential of ebooks! Sony, DO IT!

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