Sony Reader Reviewed; Ebooks Still Hard To Cozy Up To

Like an untrustful lover who keeps saying “I can change, this time it’s different,” makers of ebook readers have made promises they’ve been unable to keep. Even companies you’d think would see the strategic value of delivering top-quality ebook readers, like Palm, have wound up either selling or abandoning their ebook initatives. As we reported here last month, Sony is making another run at this market, and the high-profile reviews have started to come in. In The New York Times, under the preposterous headline “Trying Again to Make Books Obsolete,” David Pogue opines that, as these things go, the Sony Reader is pretty good even if it’s not quite what he thinks such a device should be. He lists the expected complexities and incompatibilities without making too much of them, and he zeroes in on what makes this latest attempt at an ebook reader more compelling: the use of E Ink technology that leads to a reading experience that is “pleasant, natural and nothing like reading a computer screen.”
Pogue’s senior equivalent at The Wall Street Journal, Walt Mossberg, has been weighing in on ebook readers for years — he once regaled a TED audience with their possibilities — but in his look at the $350 Sony device, he delivers (as he often does regarding anything not produced by Apple) a mixed verdict. He likes the design and battery life, but, like Pogue, bemoans the lack of search and other tools. He ends up calling the Sony Reader “a good start,” not exactly a rave review for a technology that has been pushed on laptops since the first Clinton administration. Mossberg touches a bit on its bare-bone Word- and PDF-format features, but doesn’t even bother to address the Reader’s even more bare-bone newsfeed-reading features.
The truth is — and I write this as someone who, several years ago, on a dare, read Joyce’s Ulysses on my Treo — that all evidence suggests there is not yet a consumer market for ebooks. Paperback books are still more portable and much less expensive than ebook readers, and few nonstudents need to carry more than a book or two at a time. Ebook readers have clear applications in industrial settings — would you want to walk around with a Boeing 747 repair manual? — but vendors have yet to convince the vast majority of readers that they need this thing.
On another front, today Sony snuck a bit of interesting news into a ho-hum unveiling of me-too Walkmen for the holiday season. The company announcing that it is developing a video-capable Walkman, although no release date was announced. “We are developing a product that handles images, but I cannot make any comment on specific plans,” said Sony Senior Vice President Hiroshi Yoshioka. We’ll see whether Sony gets more traction challenging consumer attitudes toward ebook readers or consumer adoption of the video iPod.