The Kindle may look like it's already got the ebook market sewn up, but Sony believes it has what it takes to steal Amazon's digital book crown.
TechRadar met with Tad Kitsukawa, the managing director of S.A.R.L (Sony Digital Reading Platform), and Fujio Noguchi, Sony's senior general manager for VIAO and mobile, at the launch of the new PRS-T1 Reader Wi-Fi and found them in bullish mood.
They said there were four good reasons why they could still beat the Kindle. So is their confidence well founded?
1. It's lighter
That's one key advantage right away, says Noguchi-san. He's right: the new PRS-T1 is much thinner than its better-known competitor. For that matter, it's also prettier, coming in black, white and a rather melodramatic shade of red.
"We've reduced the weight of the PRS-T1 to just 168g by removing all the heavy components," he told us. "Other Readers weigh over 200g - especially the Kindle (241g). That's about the heaviest ebook reader around now."
Sony says it managed to slim the PRS-T1 down to 8.9mm by jettisoning the original model's aluminium chassis for a glossy plastic shell. While that may smack of cost cutting, Noguchi says the real reason they had to lose the shiny bodywork was because it was reducing the sensitivity of the Reader's Wi-Fi receiver - an essential fix if the unit was to work seamlessly with Sony's online bookstore, which opens for UK business in October.
Not that the aluminium finish has gone completely. A vestigial strip still lingers above the function keys. "It looks cool and feels nice," says Noguchi.
2. It supports ePub, the open ebook standard
While the upcoming Reader store takes the Sony ebook experience closer to that offered by Amazon, there's one key difference: Kindle favours the Mobipocket standard while the Sony Reader embraces the open platform ePub format.
"Open access is very important," says Noguchi. "It means that users of the Reader Wi-Fi are not locked to a single ebook store." They have a choice of suppliers (in the UK this includes Waterstone's and WH Smith), not to mention books from Google and public libraries.
Noguchi says that the latter is increasingly becoming a factor in the US where large numbers of people are now reading ebooks from public libraries.
Digital book lending in the UK may be off to a slow start (restrictions that insist ebook owners visit their local library in order to download from a PC probably don't help), but it could yet catch on.
"Why would you want to stick to one store for your books when you can have a choice?"
KINDLE KILLERS? Sony's Tadamasa Kitsukawa (left) and Fujio Noguchi (right) believe they have what it takes to beat Amazon's Kindle
3. Harry Potter is on side
Sony is prepping a themed Harry Potter edition of the Reader Wi-Fi. Details have yet to be announced, but a special limited edition model will come with a voucher to download the first Harry Potter ebook, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, free of charge from Pottermore, J.K. Rowling's online destination for all things Potterish.
This could make the Reader Wi-Fi a very hot item with Potheads pre-Christmas.
4. It supports pinch and multi-touch
"No one else can do this kind of stuff on an ebook reader," says Tad Kitsukawa. "Our reader supports swipes, pinches and finger notations."
The Sony Reader Wi-Fi uses an infrared matrix around the edge of the screen to make swipes and assorted screen gestures possible. There're 20 IR blasters located along each edge of the bezel.
Having a touchscreen interface on an ebook device makes for a convincing book-like experience: you can swipe to turn a page (no need to lick), zoom in and out by pinching your fingers and tap a word to access its meaning from one of the two built-in English language dictionaries. You can also use a digit (or stylus) to casually make notes on a page.
The colour e-ink question
Sony says full-colour e-ink is on the cards, it just doesn't know when it'll become a reality. "Every time someone asks me when we will launch an ebook reader with colour, I say the same thing," confesses Noguchi. "I say it'll be in three years. When I was asked last year I said it would come in three years. Next year I'll still be saying the same thing. I do think it'll come, though. Maybe in three years…"
But will tablets kill the ebook market before Sony can take down Kindle? The men from Sony don't think so.
"From our point of view we think they complement each other," says Kitsukawa. "Actually, we hope people buy both, of course."
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