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8/13/2009
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Sony Battles Amazon With Open E-Book Standard

Sony is backing EPub, an e-book publishing standard which will allow electronic books to be read on hardware from multiple vendors.

Sony, which is running a distant second behind leader Amazon.com in the market for electronic-book readers, is hoping to close the gap by embracing an open standard that would make digital books readable on any supported device.

Sony said Thursday that it would sell books in the EPub format by the end of the year and adopt Adobe's technology that restricts how often an e-book can be copied. The open format would replace the proprietary technology Sony has been using to tie books sold through its online store to the company's Reader gadgets.

EPub is the creation of the International Digital Publishing Forum. Members include Book publishers HarperCollins, McGraw-Hill and Random House.

The idea behind EPub is make a level playing field for device manufacturers to avoid creating another Apple, which used the popularity of its iPod to dominate the digital music market. Apple's online iTunes store is the largest seller of music in the United States. The consumer electronics maker has used its market power in the past to keep music prices lower than what record companies wanted.

Over the last year or so, however, record companies have licensed their libraries in the open MP3 market, enabling the music to be played on any player. Nevertheless, Apple remains the market leader with the iPod.

EPub supporters are hoping to keep the e-book market open from the start. Amazon is the current leader and is following Apple's playbook by tying its popular Kindle e-reader to is online store. But the market is still very young.

The Association of American Publishers says e-book sales in June amounted to only $14 million, a sliver of overall sales for the month of $942.6 million. However, e-books was the fastest growing category with sales rising 136.2% from the same month a year ago.

With Amazon accounting for the majority of e-book sales, there's no incentive for the retailer to change the status quo. As a result, Amazon has not announced any plans to change its business model. Second-place Sony, on the other hand, is singing the praise of EPub's advantages to consumers.

"A world of proprietary formats and DRMs creates silos and limits overall market growth," Steve Haber, president of Sony's Digital Reading Business Division, said in a statement. "Consumers should not have to worry about which device works with which store."

Sony this month introduced two Reader models and lowered the price of best-selling e-books to $9.99, matching Amazon's prices. Competition is expected to heat up further early next year, when startup Plastic Logic releases its e-book reader, which will also support the EPub format.

Amazon's proprietary approach came under fire when it deleted George Orwell's classics "1984" and "Animal Farm" from customers' Kindles without warning after learning the retailer learned it didn't have the license to sell the books. Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos apologized for the snafu and said such deletions would not happen again.

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on Google's upcoming Chrome OS. Download the report here (registration required).

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