Sony, An Open Book

Looking to get the jump on Amazon, Sony's announced it's <a href="" target="_blank">changing the format of the e-books it sells to an open standard</a>. So does this constitute irony or progress?</p>

Serdar Yegulalp, Contributor

August 14, 2009

2 Min Read

Looking to get the jump on Amazon, Sony's announced it's changing the format of the e-books it sells to an open standard. So does this constitute irony or progress?

Irony, because Sony has not made a name for itself by playing well with other people's standards. From the Betamax all the way through to the Blu-ray Disc, they've more often than not simply created their own technology "standards" and expected other people to follow along. Blu-ray Disc has, at least, emerged as a standard, although it only did so after a frustrating struggle with a rival format in which a great deal of money, energy and patience disappeared.

Progress, because Sony has started to learn, however minimally, that you cannot expect to make headway in this world without doing what other people do when the situation demands it. When the newest generation of Walkman music players came along, Sony wisely ditched the requirement that people use their own proprietary ATRAC audio format and made the devices native MP3 compatible.

I don't know if the parallel applies completely to e-books, though -- if only because the market is still relatively new and untested. I use the word market specifically: it's not just a matter of what can be used, but what people will pay for. E-books are still a niche item for a host of reasons: there's relatively little incentive for most people to stop buying dead tree books; many books are still not available as e-books in any form; Amazon's implementation of same (the most successful so far) is very closed-ended. But one thing that's clear, if only because of the lessons provided elsewhere -- like in, say, digital music! -- is that open standards help.

Sony could get ahead of the game by doing something proactive about #1 and #3. #3, they're already working on. For #1, there's a waiting market in the form of students and teachers being set free from giant stacks of expensive textbooks. California recently threw open the doors to e-textbook creators to prove they could create something as good as or better than their paper counterparts.

Also, if Sony's smart, they'll get to work trying to coordinate between school boards, universities, and digital textbook creators - and make their device available at an educational discount if possible. It's not as if they wouldn't already have competition: consider an outfit like Cengage Learning, which rents textbooks by the term for around half to two-thirds of the cover price. Still, I can't think of a better captive market for e-books than education, and a better way to provide it than through open standards.

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Serdar Yegulalp


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