Sony (NYSE: SNE) is ramping up its challenge to Amazon’s Kindle with three versions of its eReader, which it unveiled at a press conference at the main branch of the New York Public Library. The choice of venue was, in part meant to highlight the ability of users to borrow eBooks from libraries’ databases, something its main rival doesn’t do. But the big news was Sony’s clearest challenge to the Kindle yet: a 3G wireless reader called the Daily Edition, which is powered by AT&T (NYSE: T), announced Steve Haber, president of the Sony eReader business division.
At least cosmetically, the Sony devices look a lot better than the Kindle, thanks to their different sizes and color skins. But the prices aren’t that much lower. Clearly, Sony is trying to cast its devices as much more mass than Amazon’s Kindle, but it’s still an open question whether the mass reading public are ready for an eReader, especially one that doesn’t offer color pictures. So with this announcement, Sony’s still playing catchup, but it’s getting much better at doing so.
— Pocketsize and Touchscreen in living color: Well, the skins are in color at least, not the screen. The smaller Pocket version is about 5 inches diagonally — about the size of a large notebook. The Reader Touch Edition, which is an inch larger than its smaller companion, comes with a stylus that lets users mark up the page. It also boast page turns with a finger, achieving greater verisimilitude than the Kindle, which turns “pages” with a button click. Both come with new software that works with the Mac & PC — unlike the Kindle, which has a wireless connection, you still have to connect directly to a computer to get your Sony eBooks. And they come in cool colors: the smaller one come in Rose (looks pink), while the larger one comes in red. Both have silver and blue as well. The Daily Edition comes in black and measures 7 inches diagonally. It will retail for $399 this Christmas.
— The right price points: Haber spoke about the access to Google’s one million digitized books and will have 8,500 stores by this holiday season, starting at $199 for the Pocket Reader, $299 for the Touchscreen. “Hitting those price points will make this a mass market item very quickly,” he said. He saved the big announcement for last: Sony’s Daily Edition, a 3G powered wireless device meant to go head to head with Kindle. Will ship this December for $399. Although the Daily Edition implies that there will be newspapers available on the device, Haber said Sony will be announcing publishing deals within the next few weeks.
— Bookstores, Europeans will have to wait: Aside from libraries, titles for the new devices will only be accessible through the Sony eReader Store. “We have no deals to announce,” Haber said when I asked him if there were any deals with Barnes & Noble or even, Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN), a Sony rep added that, “We want to have our content available as widely as possible, so as far as anyone is interested in talking to us, so are we.” The Pocket and Touch editions will be available in Europe, with more specifics set to come tomorrow, the Sony rep said. However, Europeans will have to wait a bit longer for the Daily version to arrive, the rep added, offering no timeline on when Sony expects a release there.
— Open format: Sony is also using the event to tout its EPUB format, an open standard that will let consumers buy Sony eBooks and read them on any other device that can run that software. The company is moving its entire content library to the EPUB format, and offers another advantage for Sony’s eBooks store independent of the device. After the press conference, I noticed a rep from social publishing site Scribd. Again, no deal in the works yet, but it looks like Scribd, which has been signing its own deals with publishers lately for its online store, is working on it.
— Remember the Kindle?: In terms of a physical comparison, what does Amazon’s choice of devices offer? The Kindle DX boasts a 9.7 inch screen, 3.3 GB storage for 3,500 books, all for a $489 price tag. The regular Kindle comes with a 6 inch screen, with a capacity for 1,500 books and now costs $299.