Friday, September 17, 2010

Sony: No Baloney or Too Little Too Late?

A new suite of Sony Readers will soon be available and the big question I've been grappling with is whether or not this is Sony's last chance to be a competitive player in the e-Reader showdown.

With Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook making major inroads it's no stretch to conclude Sony has to work harder than ever to hold on to what slice of market share they have (had?) in the U.S.

It's too bad because Sony was one of the first to provide a well designed, fully functional e-Reader back in 2006. However, it never quite had a robust or easy-to-use online Bookstore to support it. Unfortunately, all these years and several models later, the latest devices still don't, especially when compared to Amazon's vibrant Kindle store. Even the valiant effort Sony has made aligning its e-Book program with big players like Google to expand their e-catalog with free public domain titles or Overdrive to enable digital "checkout" from local libraries, hasn't really seemed to capture the interest of consumers the way Amazon and Barnes & Noble have managed to do in recent months. And when Sony tried to develop a strong alliance with Borders to place devices in stores so people could try them in person, the effort simply fell flat. Yes, you can still purchase a Sony Reader from Borders, but then again, you can buy one from Amazon too.

Over the years I've owned several Sony Readers and although each scored points for having a sleek design, they've consistently fell short due to mediocre functionality and a fairly poor interface. Part of the problem is that each time a new device is released, the redesigns and navigations tend to change so dramatically, that one has to re-learn how to use it. And this can be frustrating. Apple has demonstrated time and time again how to balance the new with the familiar. In other words, if I already own an Apple product, whether it be a iMac, MacBook, iPod, iPhone, or iPad, there is a consistency to the way I'd expect to control each platform. The navigation is simple, intuitive, and new features are typically welcomed as opposed to puzzling.

Now I confess so far I haven't actually held one of the latest Sony Readers to take it for a test run, but I've watched enough demos to determine when it comes to choosing one comparable e-Reader over the other, I would guess most folks will gravitate towards purchasing a Kindle 3 or Nook.

But even for those who were/are considering one of the new Readers, I imagine the higher price tags (the lowest priced model is $179, $40 more than the Wi-Fi only Kindle) have put the kibosh on any enthusiasm they may have had. Sony publicly claims their own studies show people are not overly concerned about price point when deciding what matters most before purchasing a dedicated e-Reader. I find this surprising 'cos I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't consider cost before purchasing electronics (unless it's made by Apple). So what's going on here?

Well, one explanation might be that throughout parts of Europe and Asia, Sony Readers are quite popular and firmly established as the e-Reading device of choice. But as the Kindle expands beyond American borders, this may or may not continue to be the case. Regardless, one would expect Sony to do everything it can to attract American consumers during these tough economic times, especially as we head into the holiday season.

What do you think? Is Sony still in the e-Reader game?

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