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Old 09-24-2006, 01:15 PM   #1
Bob Russell
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Will Sony ever be Sony again? The Sony Reader might just do it!

John Dvorak at PC Magazine has written the question that many of us have been asking ourselves. "Will Sony ever be Sony again?" Those of us awaiting the Sony Reader are even more interested in the answer to that question, and wonder if their upcoming e-ink reader might be a new "Walkman-like" revolution for the e-book world.

Many of us fondly remember how we used to go out of our way to find Sony equipment. Sony hardware had always been solid and was nice to look at. We got exceptional battery life in the old Walkman cassette players. Our trinitronTVs and stereo components seemed to last forever and provide exceptional quality. But then the world changed. We moved from strictly hardware products to a world of formats and software. It was no longer just about hardware, and Sony stumbled.

I still have quite a bit of Sony minidisc hardware. Ooops. Betamax players are probably only in museums these days, but nobody ever questioned the hardware. The glory days of Walkman devices ended with the mp3 revolution because Sony wasn't willing to support the most common standards. Instead, they went with a closed and less-popular music format, and it hurt sales. Apple and others stole the market that Sony had dominated.

How about storage standards? Another nightmare. Proprietary formats all over again. There's Memory Stick and Memory Stick Pro and Universal Media Disc. If not for the success of Sony cameras the Clie PalmOS pda line, I don't think anyone would have wanted those media sticks. But the hardware products were great, so consumers were flexible. Kill the Clie line? We were wounded by the move and the quick withdrawal of developer support, but the devices were so good that we still use them, and remember them fondly. Provide less than stellar support? No problem, the gadgets are solid so we probably don't need great support.

The proprietary and control wars even extended to things like the Sony DVD burner I bought. I already had a CD burner in another slot with some CD burning software. I installed the Sony DVD burner which came with it's own Nero burning software. Then one day I got a rude surprise. I tried to burn a CD, and I couldn't do it any more. Nero gave me a message saying that it can only burn to the one Sony drive it's now tied to! There may be a good business reason for that, and I'm sure Sony got a great deal on the Nero bundle. But it really frustrated me. I found a great free CD burning alternative, but it didn't make me happy. Who would have thought that Sony's control-oriented way of doing business would have reached all the way to my DVD burner? I regressed to the point of avoiding the Sony brand as much as I had previously preferred it.

Dvorak says, "The latest fiasco is the recent revelation that Sony's Blu-ray player for the PC will not have the ability to play HD movies on the PC. This is to protect the interests of the movie makers somehow. Are they kidding us?" We even have rumors of Sony trying to prevent sales of used PSP3 games. (Don't know if that was just a rumor or if it was confirmed.) And we top it all off with the infamous rootkit fiasco.

So the question is a natural one. After such a proud and wonderful history of great hardware and market development, can they regain their former glory?

As we consider this question, I think we need to remember a few things:
* Sony still makes some great hardware
* Sony appears to have plenty of motivation to ease up on the proprietary lock-down, assuming they want to succeed with future products. A few extra sales of proprietary storage cards is probably not going to be their primary goal in uncertain times ahead.
* Sony is one of the largest content owners, and like most content owners they want to leverage that value as effectively as possible, and are quite scared of the potential loss due to illegal passing of copies.
* In the midst of all the turmoil, Sony produces some really great Clie pdas. If the Sony Reader product is anything like the Clie pdas, we will most likely be absolutely delighted.

Okay, so we are e-book fans, anxiously awaiting the Sony Reader. What are we to think? Is this the beginning of the revitalized Sony, and the start of another Walkman-like product category? Will Sony be the star of e-book and content readers? Or will we live through one more generation of nightmarish format lockdowns?

I think that we already have the answer from the preliminary glimpses of the specs, and supported by the Sony Q&A published recently on the MobileRead wiki. This is going to be a device that is a user-friendly compromise between openness and devastatingly closed formats. We will get the best of both worlds.

Sure, there are those that will immediately say that the online Sony Connect store is a step backwards because it uses DRM, and that the Reader is too closed because it uses the BBeB e-book format.

But I think Sony is showing it's new colors by putting out a device that is a real stretch for them. We are seeing something from Sony that a few years ago we probably wouldn't have believed. Specifically, we give them kudos for some of the most critical choices in the product design:
* SD card compatibility, and
* Native standard format support (e.g. txt, rtf and pdf)

I'm not sure, but this may be the first Sony product to allow not just Memory Sticks, but also standard SD cards. I, for one, already have more than 12gig of SD cards, so that's good news for me. It's like reducing the price of the Sony Reader by more than $100 dollars because I don't have to buy the memory sticks! Well done, Sony!

And with regard to the e-book formats, we see that txt, rtf and pdf are supported, along with other formats like the most common picture formats and mp3.

For those who hate products that have a completely closed and barely usable nature, the Sony Reader is a breath of fresh air. You can even use it with any platform that allows you to write to an SD card... Mac, Linux or whatever.

Combine Sony's knack for great hardware, and their new approach to increased openness in this product, and it just builds the excitement.

But as I did say, it's a compromise, a balance. And it comes into play when you talk about the Sony Connect store. It provides a very important service if this product is to succeed like we hope it will, and especially if it's going to penetrate the general consumer market. Few mainstream book readers are going to buy the device just because it's got a great screen and supports standard formats. We geeks consider that to be sufficient, but not "real people."

The Sony online store will be the analogue to iTunes. We can all complain about the restrictions and DRM associated with iTunes, but you can't argue about it's success. The Sony online store is going to be the source for modern popular e-books, and is critical to the success of the Sony Reader. It will use DRM because publishers require it. And it's not likely to support other DRM'd formats out the gate. So yes, books will be in the BBeB format. But does that really matter very much what format an encrypted book is in if you can't read it on any other device anyway? Until there's a common and universal DRM, it just doesn't matter. More important is how well it ends up working on the device.

So back to the original question - Will Sony ever be Sony again? I don't know. We see some signs of change. And we continue to see some great hardware. The Sony Reader has broken loose of the old mentality, and provides a level of openness that could propel Sony forward to recapture the glory days. (Yes, I know that full openness connotes more than what we see with the Sony Reader, but you know what I mean... SD, rtf, txt, pdf, etc.) Or it might be just one bright star in a fading sky of Sony products. Either way, for the e-book world, it's a big step. It reminds you in a way of Neil Armstrong... "One small step for Sony. One giant leap for e-books."
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Old 09-24-2006, 03:14 PM   #2
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Nice write-up, Bob! Deep thinking for a Sunday.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for good things as we aproach the nominal release month (October) for the Sony Reader.

Can't I make the clock run faster by staring at it hard enough?
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Old 09-24-2006, 03:18 PM   #3
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>>I'm not sure, but this may be the first Sony product to allow not just Memory Sticks, but also standard SD cards.<<

I have a Sony DSC-R1 camera that takes CF cards as well as Memory Sticks. My Vaio laptop has about every imaginable slot for all present day memory devices.
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Old 09-25-2006, 04:58 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bob Russell
How about storage standards? Another nightmare. Proprietary formats all over again. There's Memory Stick and Memory Stick Pro and Universal Media Disc. If not for the success of Sony cameras the Clie PalmOS pda line, I don't think anyone would have wanted those media sticks.
Include PSP gamers who dependent on memory sticks. My brother has one of these, and it is for the exact reason why he also decided to buy a Sony digicam, to avoid having to deal with different flash media formats. I guess this is an example what Sony had in mind - to bind their customers to their products through introducing proprietary formats.

Quote:
Nero gave me a message saying that it can only burn to the one Sony drive it's now tied to! There may be a good business reason for that, and I'm sure Sony got a great deal on the Nero bundle.
In defense of Sony, a lot of optical disc drive manufacturers include the OEM version of Nero which is usually tied to the writer.

Quote:
Okay, so we are e-book fans, anxiously awaiting the Sony Reader. What are we to think? Is this the beginning of the revitalized Sony, and the start of another Walkman-like product category? Will Sony be the star of e-book and content readers? Or will we live through one more generation of nightmarish format lockdowns?
I am convinced that Sony has the capacity to revolutionize the e-book market, if and only if they take format issues seriously and listen to their customers. Most of what I've seen and read about the Sony Reader sounds promising, and it's now up to Sony to do things right with their Connect Store (hint, Sony: make it cross-browser compatible!).

Quote:
Sure, there are those that will immediately say that the online Sony Connect store is a step backwards because it uses DRM, and that the Reader is too closed because it uses the BBeB e-book format.
DRM is undoubtly a burden to the user, but if done properly, it's a burden one could deal with. The key is to keep DRM-protected content as user-friendly as possible (which may sound like a contradiction to some). Sony did not win our hearts when they first introduced the Sony Librie and made purchased DRM content expire after a certain amount of time. By now everyone should know that people who buy e-books don't want their content to expire - we've plenty of proof for this.

Quote:
And with regard to the e-book formats, we see that txt, rtf and pdf are supported, along with other formats like the most common picture formats and mp3.
Definitely a big step forward for Sony. But to succeed they must offer cross-platform compatibility. It should not be too difficult for giant Sony to hire a couple of computer science geeks who'd port the CONNECT Reader Software to Mac OS, Linux and other OS platforms.

Quote:
So yes, books will be in the BBeB format. But does that really matter very much what format an encrypted book is in if you can't read it on any other device anyway? Until there's a common and universal DRM, it just doesn't matter. More important is how well it ends up working on the device.
Exactly. See my note before. The key is that DRM must not spoil user experience.
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Old 09-25-2006, 08:44 AM   #5
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I thik the Mini disc is the perfect example of why it is dangerous to be tied to the Sony Reader. If it is not successful and you were an early adopter, what happens to all the books that you purchased in BBeB format when the Sony Reader becomes defunct or when a new and better reader comes onto the market. Even thought Itunes is tied to the IPOD, you can still burn a CD of the music and play it on ANY cd player or even rip it again to form mp3s to play on ANY mp3 player.
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Old 09-25-2006, 10:31 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by da_jane
I thik the Mini disc is the perfect example of why it is dangerous to be tied to the Sony Reader. If it is not successful and you were an early adopter, what happens to all the books that you purchased in BBeB format when the Sony Reader becomes defunct or when a new and better reader comes onto the market...
Well, I think I would say it slightly differently - Simply that one should be aware of the limitations when buying DRM'd e-books (not just from Sony, but from anyone). As you say, there is no reason to expect that the e-book will be available long term. If the seller becomes defunct or reader technology changes, the books may no longer be available for reading. But there are a lot of public domain books that can be read on Sony Reader or almost any other book reader.

We have similar frustrations with computer software, which we have to keep upgrading also as technology advances. I'd like to see some kind of deal with the publishers so that when you buy an e-book, say at the Sony store, you get assurances from the publisher that you can get future formats at no cost or a small conversion cost. We at least get a discount for most software upgrades, and that is entirely new "content." It seems reasonable that e-book buyers should be able to "upgrade" their existing e-books to another format, at a price that simply covers the administration cost of such a program. However, my concern is that the publisher would not view it as an assurance to the customer, but that they would view it as a revenue stream, and prices for conversions would be too high to be worthwhile. Administration of such a system might also be a challenge.

Fortunately, most people probably buy the DRM'd books for things like novels and best sellers and be willing to acknowledge that the books might not be available in 5-10-20 years. We've been living with that imperfect reality for many years already. It's not a great situation, but it's all we have right now. A Sony purchase will be very much like buying an eReader book. In either case, you probably won't want to buy one if your driving motivation is to read it over and over for the next 50yrs and don't want to repurchase it multiple times. But people might still want to buy it in e-book form for the short run, especially if it's content for their e-ink device. The portability and convenience of the e-book file might be a driving factor in the purchase for a lot of people instead of a physical book. It's easy to see, though, why so many people cry out vehemently that "DRM stinks!" or have decided to stay away from DRM as a matter of principle. Nobody (except maybe publishers and the politicians that they support) wants to see the shift from paper to electronic books cause the rights of the reading public to be diminished. That's going to be a huge fight in the years to come.

As a side observation, the other e-ink readers don't really even have any options to buy newer copyrighted e-books, do they? The thing about Sony is that it gives you that option, plus the ability to read non-DRM'd books to your heart's content.

Sorry, didn't mean to go on and on. But it's a big big topic, and I think we're only getting started on all of the discussion. In fact, if Sony succeeds at moving e-books into the mainstream public, the discussion should really explode. Lots of fun in store!
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Old 09-25-2006, 11:03 AM   #7
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Definitely a big step forward for Sony. But to succeed they must offer cross-platform compatibility. It should not be too difficult for giant Sony to hire a couple of computer science geeks who'd port the CONNECT Reader Software to Mac OS, Linux and other OS platforms.
Given how much of a disaster the CONNECT software has been so far, I wouldn't place bets on that. Sony has never been a player in the Mac market, notwithstanding Final Cut Pro's last upgrade. Depending on how the original was coded (and Sony does not own it, iirc) porting to a different platform could be major pain for a small market segment.

What destroyed Sony most was becoming a content provider. The original motivation was to be able to push proprietary media products by having the content without having to negotiate for it, but now the tail is wagging the dog. Sony doesn't think like a consumer electronics company, they think like a copyright owner. They don't think like customers, they think like marketing managers. Today they can't even manage their way out of a wet paper bag - PS3 and Reader delays just don't stop coming - and for a company of Sony's history they inability to ship a flagship product is an embarrasment.
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Old 09-25-2006, 11:45 AM   #8
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Given how much of a disaster the CONNECT software has been so far, I wouldn't place bets on that. Sony has never been a player in the Mac market, notwithstanding Final Cut Pro's last upgrade. Depending on how the original was coded (and Sony does not own it, iirc) porting to a different platform could be major pain for a small market segment.
I think I read somewhere that the Connect Software for the book side was functionally a separate deal from the music side. I don't know what that might mean for this aspect.

Quote:
Originally Posted by rmeister0
...PS3 and Reader delays just don't stop coming....
That may be a bit unfair, well okay: not the PS3 part.

What I mean is that the first announced release date on the Reader (that I know of -- let me pre-admit I could be under-informed here ) was April~May. The second one, August, was apparently colonically generated by the PR firm, and the last, "Fall, in time for the Holidays" with PC Mag saying sometime in October, hasn't come yet, by any interpretation.

I submit that the August date doesn't really count, since it doesn't seem to have been based on anything more than the PR firm's burning urge to put out "a date." Which leaves only one real delay (so far).

Add to that the fact that of the three e-ink readers slated to release in spring of '06, exactly none of them made it. Sure iRex let themselves be pressured into a beta-oid release about a month later, but look at the flack they've gotten as a result! I imagine they've spent at least a few moments wondering whether that was such a good idea.

All I'm saying is maybe we should let them pass more than one deadline before we accuse them of unending delays on the Reader. I'm not saying that they haven't had any delay, only that characterizing it as unending might be just a slight exageration.

I've been called an optimist before, go ahead, I can take it!

Of course the reason we're all so spirited in our disgust with the lack of a launch to date, is that we want the thing! So I join you in hoping for a quick release. I feel like that lady in the old Mervyn's commercial, standing at the locked doors, tapping on the glass and chanting "open, open, open ...." except, she knew the sale started that day.
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Old 09-25-2006, 01:40 PM   #9
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i'm not sure that support for .txt and .rtf means much, bob...
how far would they have gotten if they hadn't supported them?

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Old 09-25-2006, 01:43 PM   #10
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i'm not sure that support for .txt and .rtf means much, bob...
how far would they have gotten if they hadn't supported them?
To me, the hopefull point is that they recognized that little detail.

They haven't been so good about that sort of thing in the past....

Last edited by NatCh; 09-25-2006 at 01:48 PM.
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Old 09-25-2006, 02:56 PM   #11
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i'm not sure that support for .txt and .rtf means much, bob...
how far would they have gotten if they hadn't supported them?

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Agreed. Where is the native HTML support?
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Old 09-25-2006, 02:56 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by Bob Russell

Sorry, didn't mean to go on and on. But it's a big big topic, and I think we're only getting started on all of the discussion. In fact, if Sony succeeds at moving e-books into the mainstream public, the discussion should really explode. Lots of fun in store!
You're pretty well excused Bob, and welcomed, the pertinence of your comment is always judicious.

By the way it was fun to read John again. I have not done so since the "Mac User" days when he was my favorite Apple iconoclast.

Now back to the thread. I'd like with this little analogy about today's image of Sony. If Sony were a car manufacturer, It would have bought up a quarter of the country's highways and made them "pay to use". Then the vehicles It makes would only be usable on It's roads, nowhere else, and these would consume only It's proprietary fuel. Now, how can that be realistic in the world we are accustomed to live in? I wonder if there is someone in the company who has ever compiled a calculation of what ifs, like; what if we had made all our products with a universal standard in mind? What if we had made our products open? What if we had helped to simplify all our clients lives? How much more profit and how much more satisfaction would we have gained?

Luckily they have made a little exception to their way of doing things, by the way the reader will be implemented. They allowed us SD, PDF, RTF, and TXT. That is a big concession to our way of life. This is the main reason why I'll buy this reader instead of not buying it. I wonder if they'll keep this or if they'll impose limits . I surely will not buy books there.

DRM is a disguised way to transform the longest lasting knowledge repository, mainly the book, into a refuse of this throwaway culture's way. This is a great ploy, that has started with music, movies and every art form I can remember of, to transform what we use and care for dearly, and to adapt everything to a manageable unidirectional profit sheme. In my mind the book was the last place strong enough to resist this expendable trash culture. Don't get me wrong, I love the fact that using a book is more practical in an e-form, but a physical state is important to preserve It. I would rather have a book in both It's forms.

Let's go back to the begininngs of digital photography, it was so practical to delete the badly composed or out of focus pictures, to keep just what we liked. Of all the pictures we took, just a few remained, stashed on a disquette somewhere, unprinted. How long will that diquette last? Those we did print have faded away and were thrown to the dumpster with the rest of our culture. More of them were destroyed with an unbacked up failing hard disk, or were so low res. that we couln't stand them and erased them. If we had used an ordinary film camera, these pictures would be in a box somewhere, in perfect condition. A historian in my surroundings told me that the most important pictures they use to reconstruct part of a point in time, are the bad ones that were "missed" and discarded. When all pictures were printed, the best ones were kept, put in scrapbooks and used at family gatherings and whatever happenings, and with time degraded by wear and tear until they were faded and thrown out. Those that were not in favor were stashed in a box or a drawer, and after generations of being handed down with inheritances, survived in very good condition. I know this, because many pictures I took have disappeared. I forcibly learned to have everything printed by experts with no exceptions.

It is important to remember the nature of e-data. It is a temporary state of code and must not remain so. Every attempt to maintain data in an other format than It's document of origin, will be made to fail, for profit, by corporate entities.[I] Print your data. Pictures, text, everything.

What we do now with the written word, the way we use it with internet, will not survive. That does not scare me because it is an intended parallel world, which we know is expendable, although I wish it was'nt. But if this ephemerical state propagates to the printed book, I'm afraid that a great part of the details of our present history will not remain. DRM is a great factor in this deterioration because it does not permit the longevity of a book beyond the central storage in a caretaker's mainframes. By rendering the use of cultural media a disposable produce, Sony is one of many entities responsible that might not be remembered for the disappearance of the Book in our culture. I do not blame Sony for this. I blame us. We have decided for ourselves that this will be the way of things. Our kids have been thrown into this. It's a shame that in a few generations the perception of physical media existence will be irrelevant.

What I believe will affect Sony's image the most is the fact that it has too many interests that are in conflict. A good hardware maker should never be involved in content. Period. This is a Godly act, unforgiveable in any culture. Why? The ownership of both markets creates a finite universe, unexpansible, trapping a user. Unless this bubble is big enough, no one can be comfortable enough to remain there. And if the powers that be decide to limit the life of this bubble, all those entrapped will react negatively with urgency. This is the reason and explains why Apple is successful with the Ipod / Itunes combo. They do not own any content and they use a universal music format like MP3. So users can decide what they listen to and buy wherever. Sony has finally learned, but can they resist the temptation to play God again like they did with movies?
Following John's words I'll add that Sony looks half on the right track with this reader!

I'll finish with these questions. The reader will be sold only in the US. Why? Will it not be sold in Japan? Where is it made? What is the main thought behind this unconventional approach?
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Old 09-25-2006, 03:04 PM   #13
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Even thought Itunes is tied to the IPOD, you can still burn a CD of the music and play it on ANY cd player or even rip it again to form mp3s to play on ANY mp3 player.
That's today. Apple can (and has) change the conditions anytime they want without notification, without consent and without compensation.
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Old 09-25-2006, 03:08 PM   #14
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Apple can (and has) change the conditions anytime they want without notification, without consent and without compensation.
Right now they are way too busy sending out C&D letters to "podcast" users
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Old 09-25-2006, 06:19 PM   #15
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If I can't read my ebooks in 20 years, I am going to stop buying them. Romance readers are big re-readers. I have beloved books in my library that go back 20 years. I would be so sad to have to repurchase them. And moving to the digital age shouldn't mean that I have to.
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