Although a number of companies, including Sony, have been in the e-book reader business for a while, Amazon really seems to have taken the category by storm, at least in terms of buzz, even though Sony has been moving a fair number of units -- witness the Forrester report that estimated 600,000 readers for Amazon versus 400,000 for Sony. And then there are the rumors that the reported new Apple tablet will act, among other things, as an e-book reader. The point is that rather than remaining a curiosity, readers are slowly becoming mainstream, and some powerful forces are moving into place.
Look at bit more at what Sony is doing -- not in hardware but software. Specifically, the consumer electronics giant plans to throw its weight behind the ePub format. This publisher-driven "open" format has the advantage of being the preferred choice of the Association of American Publishers and Adobe, and so with buy-in from the big book publishers and a technology icon. (Every time I heard the term "open," I'm tempted to paraphrase the playwright Peter Brooks: "All formats are open when spoken of in the first person, such as our format. It's only in the third person -- their format -- that it becomes closed.")
Playing to such companies as Penguin (caveat: I've written a few books for them), HarperCollins, Wiley, Hachette Book Group, Oxford University Press, Simon & Schuster, and Harlequin, which produce most of the books sold, has to be a smart step toward business partners. Especially when they're chaffing under the grip of Amazon, which has clearly been trying to control the emerging new publishing industry, from print-on-demand to e-book titles.
This also works neatly with the big retailers other than Amazon. Border has been developing its own inexpensive reader, at least in the UK. Barnes & Noble is pushing its e-book site. These companies can't afford for Amazon to control e-books and, over time, marginalize its competitors. And the best way to avoid this, as Sony knows well from positive and negative experience, is to create the format that most players adopt.
Just as important, Google supports the ePub format and also has made many public domain books available in electronic form on Sony's reader e-book store. All of these companies have much to gain and little to lose from caging Amazon. I suspect we will see the following in the not-distant future:
- Google makes a deal with Barnes & Noble and/or Borders to carry public domain books.
- Sony adds a reader model with wireless capability, while still keeping a tethered-only model to achieve a lower price. (There are already rumors that it will roll one out by September, though it already introduced a couple of new models this month and it seems odd that it would split up related introductions. Unless, of course, they were concerned that the wireless model would drown out the others, including the touchscreen version.)
- The chain stores add an in-house service where you can browse the shelves, look at additional titles at a kiosk, and then download an e-book into a reader or made available for retrieval from home.
- Sony, which has never been shy about subsidizing sales to chase after a market, makes its readers inexpensively available to universities and even secondary schools to lock people into using its products.