Sony Stocks Its Shelves With Google E-Books

The deal is sure to get the attention of Amazon, which has been building its Kindle e-book device into a respectable business.

The latest model of the Sony Reader will cost $100 more than older model, but include software and hardware enhancements.

Sony Reader Digital Book
(click for larger image)

In yet another sign that tech companies see a market for digital text, Sony on Thursday announced a deal with Google to include over 500,000 public domain books scanned by the search company in Sony's eBook Store.

Sony's deal with Google is sure to get the attention of, which has been building its Kindle e-book device into a respectable business.

Amazon sells more than 245,000 books for the Kindle, as well as assorted newspapers, magazines, and blog content. Sony, which previously had less than half as many titles in its eBook Store, now counts its number of available titles at more than 600,000.

E-books and the publishing industry may actually have a future.

They had a future in the past, too. Back in 1999, Microsoft and Adobe were sold on e-books. Startups like SoftBook and NuvoMedia were trying to sell their first generation e-book reading hardware. At the time, Dick Brass, then Microsoft's VP of technology development, said that the biggest problem with onscreen reading "is that the [electronic] books look like crap."

To solve that problem, Microsoft was pushing its ClearType font technology. But it turned out that other things, like clunky hardware, lack of an e-commerce ecosystem, and too few publishing partners, were the real issues.

Now the devices are better, the e-commerce stores are easier to use, the DRM works better, more publishers are onboard, and the tech industry is trying again.

"We have focused our efforts on offering an open platform and making it easy to find as much content as possible -- from our store or others -- whether that content is purchased, borrowed or free," said Steve Haber, president of the digital reading business division at Sony Electronics, in a statement. "Working with Google, we can offer book lovers another avenue for free books while still providing a seamless experience from our store."

The latest model of the Sony Reader will cost $100 more than older model, but include software and hardware enhancements.

Sony Reader Digital Book
(click for larger image)

Keep in mind that "open platform" as defined by Sony doesn't mean free of digital rights management software. Sony's e-book devices, like Amazon's Kindle, do support DRM; it's Google's public domain texts that are unprotected, along with other unprotected formats supported by Sony's devices, including Adobe PDF files and Microsoft Word files.

A spokesperson for Google explained that Google's interest in the deal arises from its mission to make the world's information universally accessible and useful. Its arrangement with Sony follows a similar announcement in February when Google offered users of Android mobile phones and Apple's iPhone access to more than 1.5 million public domain books for free.

For Google, further moves into online book distribution seem inevitable. "We're actively exploring ways to give authors and publishers more ways to sell books," Google's spokesperson explained, adding that the company had nothing specific to announce at this time.

Sony of course would like to move more e-book hardware, specifically its PRS-505 ($300) and its PRS-700 ($350). But it would also be happy to become a stronger player in the digital content distribution business. It faces significant obstacles, however, in the form of both Amazon and Apple.

Apple already dominates the digital content market with its iTunes Store, which sells music, movies, games, audiobooks, and applications. Its newly introduced iPhone 3.0 beta software includes support for in-app payments, which could jump start the iPhone e-book market. The problem this presents to Sony is that every e-book app developer, suddenly empowered to sell e-books and other content, would become a potential Sony eBook Store competitor.

And if rumors suggesting that Apple is planning to release a portable media device later this year prove true, the device in question is likely to work better as an e-book reader than the iPhone does. It could be a direct competitor to the Amazon's Kindle and to Sony's e-book hardware, but it's likely to be even more than that, given that Apple would generate more revenue from its iTunes Store if the new device could be used to consume not just e-books, but movies, music, and applications too.

In the face of what Apple and Amazon have accomplished to date as digital content merchants, Sony might do well to develop its relationship with Google further.

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