Sony moves its e-book reader technology in the right direction

I recently proclaimed the dangers of vendor lock-in in the nascent e-book reader market, so I was delighted this week to see Sony take a very positive step in this direction: The company has announced plans to support the ePub standard in its own eBook Store.

Sony is competing with Amazon and its popular Kindle device to be sure. E-books bought through Amazon.com for use on the Kindle are encrypted in .azw format, a proprietary scheme that limits their use only on Kindle devices or using Kindle software. Amazon makes Kindle software available for free for the iPhone and iPod touch, but has heretofore not licensed the format for use on any other e-book reader. The company wants its own device to succeed, so why would it?

While the market is still burgeoning, content providers aren’t going to back any e-book format that doesn’t protect their copyright, so at least for now, digital rights management (DRM) is a fact of life. But DRM doesn’t need to lead toward vendor lock-in, which prevents consumers from using content they’ve purchased for one device on another reader.

ePub is an open industry standard for encapsulating DRM around the contents of an e-book. It’s not the totally open DRMless world that the Free Software Foundation would envision us living in, but at least until the e-book market is mature enough that content providers can be comfortable to live without DRM—similar to what’s gradually happened with digital music. But ePub offers a way to make sure that content bought through one e-book store can work on a different device.

Sony’s new and old Reader devices support the ePub format, so all users of Sony’s Readers should be able to transition to the change without any problem.

With the e-book market still in a formative stage, vendors hawking e-book readers are anxious to carve out a market for themselves. That’s led to the rise of competing devices (like Sony’s Reader, Amazon’s Kindle and Plastic Logic’s forthcoming device, due out early next year) along with competing proprietary formats for the content to be displayed on those devices.

Sony has actually been in this market longer than Amazon, but Amazon has captured the spotlight through savvy marketing of its Kindle. By lowering prices of its Readers and its eBook Store content, though, and now by supporting the epub standard, Sony has proven that it’s willing to fight for this market.

Sony’s motivation is clear. Besides wanting to spike the tires of Amazon’s Kindle, the company’s management is anxious to avoid losing another war of attrition involving DRM.

Sony squandered one of the best-known brands in portable consumer electronics—the Walkman—by being comparatively late to to the MP3 player market and saddling its early digital incarnations with proprietary DRM that no one wanted to use.

Sony saw the Walkman brand wither to irrelevance while Apple’s iPod and iTunes store rose ascendant. Now “iPod” has become a generic word for “portable digital music player” much in the same way that “Walkman” meant portable cassette (and later CD) player to an earlier generation. Similarly, I’m certain that Sony would much prefer to hear about people reading e-books on their “Reader” rather than their “Kindle.”

Will history repeat itself? It’s too soon to say, and this market is still to young to declare a victor yet. Amazon certainly changed the digital music store game by offering its own DRM-less MP3 store; Apple was eventually able to shake the shackles of DRM from the iTunes Store, but only once Amazon proved to the record companies that people were willing to pay for music even if they could steal it instead.

Hopefully Jeff Bezos, Amazon, and Kindle content publishers will similarly recognize that trying to lock in customers to use the Kindle exclusively won’t do anything long-term but breed discontent and distrust, and will open the Kindle up in the same fashion.

In the interim, Sony’s got a new Reader device that’s $100 less than Amazon’s latest offerings, and it’s looking awfully good to me right now.

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