Posted by: Steven Harris | March 29, 2009

Ebook Catfight

The last few months have been pretty exciting in the ebook world. Last Fall Sony released their latest reader, the PRS 700, with a touch screen. This February we have the new Kindle 2 as well. Since then the big developments come one after another:

  • Amazon announces a Kindle books application for the iPhone.
  • Sony announces a partnership with Google to make public-domain Google books available through the Sony Reader store for free.

Since Kindle came along, a lot of folks give the nod to Amazon as the most likely to capture the imaginations and pocketbooks of those who have been reluctant to adopt ebooks. The wireless feature of the Kindle does mean you can find, buy, and download books from virtually anywhere. Whereas, the Sony requires that you connect your reader to a computer in order to download ebook files.

Sony had always, in my opinion, had the lead as far as the aesthetics and usability of their reader were concerned. The first Kindle had a cheap, clunky ugliness about it. All the Sony Reader models have been pretty slick looking items. Some of that advantage is diminished with the Kindle 2, which has a sleeker look. A lot of pundits have been talking like all this means that Amazon has won the ebook reader wars. I think they’re just beginning.

One reason why I don’t think Sony is going to roll over and die is wrapped up in the idea of openness. The Google deal and Sony’s decision to enable use of the Epub standard on their more recent devices suggest that they realize the importance of interoperability in the race to capture as many eyes as possible. Amazon, on the other hand, apparently believes that it can corner the market and create a monopoly of ebook distribution. The Kindle, to them, is simply another storefront for their huge warehouse of ebooks.

Until the Google deal, Amazon clearly had the edge in titles available. They sell more recently published titles (about 245,000 to Sony’s 100,000). With the Google books, Sony now can boast a larger selection of ready-to-download titles. These aren’t the frontlist, mind you. Some folks think that means the Google deal is insignficant in the ebook war. Google and Epub together, however, mean that Sony may have access to a growing library of ebooks. Sony users will be able to get ebooks from a variety of sources. If, as is rumored, Sony eventually releases a wireless model, Amazon will have little advantage. Kindle ebook titles are cheaper now, but Amazon is subsidizing those low prices. They won’t be able to keep that pricing model going forever.  More evidence of Amazon’s desire to quickly corner the market and drive all competitors from the field?

This kind of competition is good for the market. It will spur the development of better devices. It will also improve the variety and quality of ebooks available in the marketplace and perhaps lower their prices. Sony is still the underdog here, but I think they are going to hang on for a good while longer. If the Epub standard becomes more accepted, Amazon’s proprietary format may begin to seem more and more cumbersome. Readers will simply want to get their ebooks from any source they desire, much like they can for MP3 files. I’m not sure monopolies can exist in that kind of environment.



  1. I agree that the ebook wars aren’t over. My hesitation over Sony has been–and this is funny, in light of your analysis–their draconian DRM policies in other arenas (Sony Music rootkits come immediately to mind, but there are other examples). Sony has tended to be a force for evil, but perhaps their recent actions show that they have learned their lesson. Perhaps they will take the high road from here on out.

    As I keep saying, on Twitter and elsewhere, I’m still holding my breath–and pursestrings–until the Plastic Logic Reader comes out. I want to see how it stacks up.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Coral. I agree about Sony. In fact, I think they are generally just as bad about DRM as Amazon. It’s only the acceptance of a standard that would allow purchase and download of items from other sources that makes them even marginally acceptable to me. Irony on irony: I prefer buying MP3s from Amazon for this very reason. No DRM. I can use it where I want, load it where I want. Give me the same for ebooks! 🙂

  3. What are you saying?! Sony has learned the Betamax lesson after all?!!
    I’ve been downloading some free materials through Amazon onto the Kindle2 through the wireless and while I appreciate that, it is a bit of a pain navigating the free, extremely cheap, and low-cost editions of public domain materials.

  4. Good case in point. They probably haven’t learned the Betamax lesson, but I will say that Betamax was better than VHS. Sony’s problem was thinking their superior technology would make them the winners–instead of making it easier to adopt, lowering barriers for adoption. I think Amazon may be surprised that their dreams of monopoly don’t play out for the same reasons.

  5. Personally, I’m more of this take: I haven’t been able to get into the whole notion of an e-book reader, Sony or Kindle, because I don’t want another device to lug around and charge and worry about losing. Phone, plus IPod, plus MacBook already too much! I want something really integrated.

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