- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

There’s an old proverb about the dangers of waking a slumbering tiger, with the effective punch line being that you might not get a friendly greeting.

This may be the fate of Amazon.com - although, admittedly, it’s rather early to make a definitive prediction - inasmuch as the Seattle-based e-tailer of books apparently has stirred Sony Corp., which is poised to launch three new e-book readers, one priced at $199 - $100 less than the lowest-priced Kindle.

“Our commitment is to make the best products we can, for [a user’s] budget or needs,” said Brennan Mullin, a vice president in Sony Electronics’ Audio and Digital Reading unit, during a phone interview. His goal with the new products is to “make it affordable or competitive” and, one presumes, probably both.

The $199 model, pocket- or purse-size depending on your viewpoint, sports a 5-inch screen and “opens up new opportunities” to buy and sell the device, Mr. Mullin said. It’s more affordable, meaning more consumers can buy it, and the price makes it suitable for selling in Wal-Mart stores and similar outlets.

If you’re willing to spend $299 - same as the Kindle - you can get the Touch Edition of the Sony e-book reader, with a 6-inch display, a stylus and the ability to highlight passages, annotate books and export the notes to a computer.

And on Tuesday, Sony announced a $399 Daily Edition reader with a wireless 3G connection, via AT&T;, “to browse, purchase and download books as well as select newspapers and magazines,” without monthly or transaction charges for what Sony called “basic wireless connectivity.” This is clearly a move to challenge the Kindle’s Sprint-based wireless service.

What’s more, the Sony e-book platform now will synchronize with both Windows- and Mac-based computers; Mr. Mullin said the new software for this will be backward-compatible for older Sony models.

Moreover, Sony is supporting the E-Pub format for e-books, and that means access to a whole range of titles.

“There’s over 1 million public-domain titles available from Google,” Mr. Mullin explained, so a user can “go to the library and check out a digital book, emulating real-book experience - [this is] all delivering on the promise we made when entering this category, which is to provide a wide array of products and the widest selection of content out there.”

What I liked most in my conversation with Mr. Mullin was his candor about the pricing of e-books and where that’s headed: in all likelihood, down. Sony is dropping the price on some best-sellers to $9.99 or less, and while that’s giving paper-and-ink publishers agita, it’s also making e-books affordable.

“You can’t really stop the market,” said Mr. Mullin, whose colleagues saw what Apple’s iPod did to digital music sales. “What the consumer is willing to pay for a digital book is what the consumer is willing to pay. On the business side, everything is fluid. What is certain is that the market is changing in terms of the cost structure, in the way in which content is being distributed, and what the reference point for pricing is. We have to be dynamic and change with it.”

Moreover, Mr. Mullin, while not disclosing any current talks with Amazon, said he’s willing to talk with all players to make e-book formats easy to move from one platform to another. If I wanted to switch from a Kindle to a Sony, why couldn’t I take my books with me?

“In general, open content and doing what’s right for the consumer is always top-of-mind in our partnerships, our content development and our bookstore,” Mr. Mullin said, emphasizing that he “can’t comment” on talking to Amazon directly.

Another plus, in my view: Sony is willing to talk to publishers, including the Christian megaseller Zondervan, with which it already partners, about making any electronic Bibles supereasy to search digitally by punching in chapter and verse and being taken to, well, the chapter and verse. Amazon still seems to be thumbing its corporate nose at customers who want the Kindle’s search technology harnessed not only for good, but also for the Good Book.

Will Sony convert me? That’ll depend on how the hardware performs. But for now, they’ve got my attention.

E-mail mkellner@wash ingtontimes.com.

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