Sony Plans New Kindle Rival, Adopts Open Format

Sony is aiming to take on the Amazon Kindle with an upcoming wireless e-book reader that could be unveiled later this month and through adopting the open standard ePub format for its digital bookstore.

Valerie Motis, a Sony spokesperson, confirmed that the electronics giant has a wireless e-reader in the works. The company also is slated to hold a press event Aug. 25 in New York City, but Motis declined to provide additional details on the device.

The plans follow on Sony’s introduction of two new e-readers just weeks ago. However, they both lack a wireless connection on those devices, which has become a key selling point of Amazon’s (NASDAQ: AMZN) Kindle devices.

Though Sony began selling e-readers more than a year before the Kindle debuted, the company today lags behind Amazon. But now, the company is banking on a move to open formats — which Amazon does not support — coupled with new wireless connectivity to make up lost ground.

Amazon and Sony aren’t the only two combatants in the space. Sony’s wireless e-reader comes just weeks after Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS), in a partnership with hardware vendor Plastic Logic, announced its own wireless e-reader to challenge Amazon — but that won’t be available until early 2010.

If Sony does unveil a wireless model before then, it could be a coup for the consumer electronics giant in the increasingly competitive digital book war.

Moving to open standards

Sony today also said it would scrap its proprietary technology and convert its e-book store to the ePub format by the end of the year, making its digital books compatible with multiple devices.

“Our intention is to lead by example,” Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading division, said in a statement. “Our Readers have long supported industry-standard formats such as EPUB and [Adobe] PDF. Now, what is quickly becoming the de facto standard for eBooks will be available in our store.”

Right now, Sony’s e-book store uses the BBeB platform, a licensable XML-based format that Sony developed back when there were no industry standards for e-books.

Sony is also ditching its proprietary anticopying software to switch to Adobe’s (NASDAQ: ADBE) program that restricts how many times e-books can be shared or copied. The ePub format, though an open standard, still can support digital rights management.

Once the conversion is complete, digital books purchased from Sony’s online bookstore will be supported by the company’s Reader series as well as other e-readers that work on the ePub format.

“A world of proprietary formats and DRMs creates silos and limits overall market growth,” Haber said. “Consumers should not have to worry about which device works with which store. With a common format and common content protection solution (DRM), they will be able to shop around for the content they want regardless of where they get it or what device they use.”

This strategy differs from that of Amazon, which is in the lead in the nascent e-reader market, as digital books purchased from the online retailer can only be read on the Kindle or iPhone.

In other developments that show Sony is ready to aggressively contend in the digital book arena, on Aug. 5 the company introduced the PRS-300 Reader Pocket Edition and PRS-600 Reader Touch Edition, which will sell for $199 and $299, respectively, but have no wireless functionality. Both will go on sale at the end of August. Sony also cut the price of e-books it sells to d$9.99, from $11.99, bringing them inline with the rest of the industry.

Meanwhile, Sony may also have to catch up in the number of non-public domain titles it can offer. Not counting the Google public-domain titles, Sony offers around 200,000 books. Barnes & Noble said its e-book store has 700,000 titles, also with best-sellers and new books priced at $9.99, but that number includes many older books, like Sony’s library, that are part of the public domain. Amazon, meanwhile, has 330,000 digital tomes, and most are not public-domain titles.

Google, is also jumping into the mix by embracing open standards. Google in June announced it’s entering the e-book market through a partner program that allows authors to sell digital versions of their books online.

“We’ve consistently maintained that we’re committed to helping our partners find more ways to make their books accessible and available for purchase. By end of this year, we hope to give publisher partners an additional way to sell their books by allowing users to purchase access to Partner Program books online,” Google’s Gabriel Stricker told at the time. “We want to build and support a digital book ecosystem to allow our partner publishers to make their books available for purchase from any Web-enabled device.”

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