Sony on Tuesday launched a wireless edition of its electronic-book reader, closing a key feature gap with Amazon's market-leading Kindle.
The Sony Reader Daily Edition is the third e-reader introduced by the consumer electronics company in as many weeks. However, the latest model is the only one with a built-in wireless connection that enables people to buy digital books directly from Sony's eBook store.
With the Reader Daily Edition, Sony now has three products at different price points: $199 for the Reader Pocket Edition, which has a five-inch diagonal display; $299 for the Reader Touch Edition with a six-inch display; and $399 for the Daily Edition, which sports a seven-inch display. The latter model is scheduled to be available in December during the holiday shopping season and the other two editions have already been released.
In terms of price, Sony's product line fills gaps between Amazon's two Kindle offerings, which include a model with a six-inch display for $299 and a version with a nearly 10-inch screen for $489. Sony's lineup gives consumers the option of an under-$200 e-reader and one priced between the two Kindles.
The wireless connection in the Reader Daily Edition is provided through AT&T's 3G mobile broadband network. The connection enables the user to buy digital books directly from Sony, similar to how Kindle customers can buy e-books directly from Amazon. Neither company offer Web browsers in the devices nor the ability to use the wireless feature to buy directly from other bookstores.
However, where Kindle owners can only buy from Amazon, Sony is taking a more open approach by supporting the EPub format, an e-book open standard created by the International Digital Publishing Forum that makes it possible to buy and read content from other stores. To buy books from other online stores, Reader customers would have to download them first to a PC and then transfer the content to the device.
Today, Sony's open approach is unlikely to provide much of a competitive advantage against Amazon, if the price and selection of e-books are about equal, Ross Rubin, analyst for NPD Group, told InformationWeek. For example, Apple has become the largest music seller in the United States by tying its market-leading iPod portable player with the company's iTunes store.
However, where Sony's open strategy could pay off is if colleges significantly boost the number of textbooks available in digital format, Rubin said. "Educational institutions, boards of education, and other organizations may take a stand that leads to a more open ecosystem."
In addition, EPub support makes an increasing number of public domain books available online at no charge through libraries and Google's book service. "The availability of free content really brings down the cost of using the device over time," Rubin said.
Increasing the value of e-book readers is important, given that the majority of consumers today still prefer to buy actual books. An NPD survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults found only 37% "very interested" or "somewhat interested" in buying an e-reader.
The Association of American Publishers says e-book sales in June amounted to only $14 million, a sliver of the month's overall sales of $942.6 million. However, e-books was the fastest growing category, with sales rising 136.2% from the same month a year ago.
Competition in the e-reader market is expected to heat up by the end of the year with the entry of start up Plastic Logic. In addition, e-readers are facing increasing competition from e-book applications available for smartphones, such as the Apple iPhone and Research In Motion's BlackBerry. Such devices may prove good enough for casual readers.
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