New York Times / August 13 2009 / Brad Stone
Paper books may be low tech, but no one will tell you how and where you can read them.
For many people, the problem with electronic books is that they come loaded with just those kinds of restrictions. Digital books bought today from Amazon.com, for example, can be read only on Amazon’s Kindle device or its iPhone software.
Some restrictions on the use of e-books are likely to remain a fact of life. But some publishers and consumer electronics makers are aiming to give e-book buyers more flexibility by rallying around a single technology standard for the books. That would also help them counter Amazon, which has taken an early lead in the nascent market.
On Thursday, Sony Electronics, which sells e-book devices under the Reader brand, plans to announce that by the end of the year it will sell digital books only in the ePub format, an open standard created by a group including publishers like Random House and HarperCollins.
Sony will also scrap its proprietary anticopying software in favor of technology from the software maker Adobe that restricts how often e-books can be shared or copied.
After the change, books bought from Sony’s online store will be readable not just on its own device but on the growing constellation of other readers that support ePub. Those include the Plastic Logic eReader, a thin device that has been in development for nearly a decade and is expected to go on sale early next year.
Companies like Sony and Adobe do not want to abandon anticopying measures, fearing that piracy of books would run rampant. Rather, they want to push the e-book industry toward common standards to avoid a replay of Apple’s domination of the digital music business.
Sony recently introduced two new, less expensive devices and announced it was dropping its price for new releases and best sellers to $9.99. Later in the year, the company will begin selling a third Reader that will, like the Kindle, allow users to buy e-books wirelessly.
Amazon, for its part, believes it can go it alone, without embracing industry standards. An Amazon spokesman would not comment for this article, but Mr. Bezos has said before that his goal was to “make Kindle books available on as many hardware devices as possible.” That suggests it will soon introduce versions of its Kindle software for the Palm Pre and other reading devices.
Allen Weiner, an analyst at the technology research firm Gartner, says there is one more company that must declare its allegiance to either an open or closed world for e-books: Apple. If, as expected, Apple soon introduces a tablet computer that can function as a reading device, and if it embraces an open standard like ePub, Amazon will have to reconsider its closed approach, Mr. Weiner said.
“If you see some Adobe executive up on stage with Steve Jobs when they announce the tablet, at that point Amazon has a lot to worry about,” he said.