Why the Kindle Really Beat the Sony Reader (Or, Fast Company is Full of Crap)

I've just finished reading a blog post over at Fast Company, and it has me peeved. They've posted an excerpt from a new book, The Wide Lens. It focuses on innovation and how a good solution beats a great product. This particular excerpt discusses the Kindle and how it surged ahead of the Sony Reader. I am rather peeved at the moment because that excerpt has numerous factual errors as well as being wrong from the very concept. A strong argument could be made that the Kindle was both a better solution and a better product.

I know the author is wrong because I was there. I might not have been a visible presence at the time, but I was already deeply interested in ereaders. I had the original Sony Reader and I was one of the very first to order a Kindle. (The product page was live from about 5am the day the Kindle launched, and mine arrived Tuesday morning.) I know exactly what each device could do and their specs.

Luckily for me, the author collected his errors into one location:

Described by one analyst as “downright industrially ugly,” it was larger than the Reader, weighed more, and had an inferior screen. Moreover, it was a very closed platform that was able to load content only from Amazon, and which precluded users from transferring the books they purchased to or from any other device, sharing with friends, or even connecting to a printer.

How could Amazon engineer a triumph with a weaker product? The company did it by engineering a superior solution.

First, the Kindle did not have an inferior screen. It used the exact same screen as on the original Sony Reader. While the second gen Sony had a newer screen, that device was far less common.

Second, the Kindle was no more a closed platform than the Sony Reader. That is utter nonsense. In fact, I would say that the Kindle was more open than the Sony. And no, the Sony Reader did not read Epub in 2007 (I can read your mind).

Everyone knew, from long before the Kindle launched, that it would read Mobipocket format (the user manual leaked). The ebooks had to be DRM-free, but they still worked. That means that a Kindle owner could use all the existing Mobipocket tools to make their own ebooks. And for 2007 (pre-Epub), that was a great ebook format.

The Sony Reader, on the other hand read BBeB, RTF, TXT, or PDF (badly). Unless you wanted to buy ebooks from Sony, you were stuck with RTF or TXT. You could also do PDFs, but generally that sucked ass (unless you formatted them for the 6" screen).

BTW, that supposedly wonderful Sony Reader was supported by some really shitty PC software. I only have vague recollections of using it, but that is because I have blocked the memory.

Third, the Sony Reader's DRM didn't allow for transferring, printing, or sharing ebooks, either. You could register several devices to one account, yes, but loading ebooks required plugging the device into the computer. Thus you cannot hold the lack of these features against the Kindle.

How could Amazon engineer a triumph with a weaker product? The company did it by engineering a superior solution.

Weaker product? By whose standard?

On a final note, I'd also like to point out that the blog post is illustrated with the wrong Sony Reader. The one pictured is the PRS-700, which was not released until late 2008. BTW, that device also disproves the initial point of Sony having better hardware. It had a poorly designed touchscreen component (which gave the 700 a poor reading experience).

About Nate Hoffelder (11393 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

32 Comments on Why the Kindle Really Beat the Sony Reader (Or, Fast Company is Full of Crap)

  1. Nice rant. Only add, Sony used a single-source for content in the pre-Epub days for Reader. That source demanded publishers pay $200 upfront to produce a single book for the device. Err, then there was no content for Sony’s Ready…

  2. I’m 100% with you on this one Nate. I too had a Sony Reader (PRS-500) and compared to my first Kindle, it is a total piece of crap.

  3. This one really got your goat, huh!

    I noticed you even registered an account at the Motley Fool just to leave some comments on the subject. Good points, BTW.

    I always kinda figured the success of the Kindle had something to do with the fact that every Kindle launch was front page news, both on Amazon and in the press, and Amazon started running Kindle commercials with that catchy “Fly Me Away” song and floating girl every 60 seconds or so, on what seemed like every channel, pretty much from day one.

    Then, after the nook came out – the Kindle commercials even started to show you the product and explain what it did! That way, you knew it was an ereader and not some sort of itunes competitor.

    I think Sony had one marketing campaign for their ereader, then they went back to pushing laptops or Justin Timberlake or something.

    • They had a third of a campaign; the “experts” campaign flogging the reader, cameras, and TVs.
      http://www.tgdaily.com/business-and-law-features/43937-sony-marketing-campaign-plumbs-new-depths

    • I’ve always felt that Amazon “won” because of better marketing and visibility. I hadn’t owned any previous ebook devices, and never enjoyed reading on computers, but I had seen buzz about the sony reader on web sites like Gizmodo, and felt it was time to try a reading device, so I pre-ordered the original prs-500 and got one of the first ones. I fell in love with it immediately. The software was profoundly bad, but usable, and the store had enough books to jump-start me until I found other sources. It was easy enough to convert Project Gutenberg books to usable formats, and I used Microsoft Word to create rtf files, or a pdf printer driver to create readable files from web pages.
      However, when I took the reader places–reading on planes and trains or by the pool on vacations–no one knew what it was. For the first 2 years I had it I don’t remember seeing a single advertisement. Most people didn’t know that eBook readers existed, much less one from Sony. They were on display in Sony stores, but I think the $400+ price prevented anyone from spending any time figuring out what it was good for.
      Shortly before the prs-505 came out, Sony was offering the reader for $50 is you opened a Sony credit card account. I bought a second one for my wife.
      Then the Kindle came out, and all of a sudden everyone who saw me with the reader was asking “oh, is that a Kindle?” The Kindle was immediately a well known product with a catchy name. “No, it’s a….Sony ebook reader”? Such a useless marketing-castrating name. No one buys “Walmart facial tissue” even when they have a closet full of it. They buy Kleenex. Right then the Kindle won.
      I didn’t buy a kindle, or a prs-505. a while later when the prs-300/600 came out Sony did some advertising, but I didn’t buy those either. The 500 was still good enough. And the new models were getting a bad rep for having glare from the touch screen technology.
      When Barnes and Nobel brought out an eBook reader, they didn’t sell a “Barnes and Nobel ebook reader”. They sold a Nook, and marketed it heavily in their stores.
      Last year the Sony T1 came out, and I bought that. I’ve used Nooks and Kindles and I like the T1 reading experience better. But still no advertising. The T1 is nice. it’s small and light and sturdy, and classy looking, compared to most other readers that just look functional, or the Nook simple touch which is “cute”. It should be a big seller, but it isn’t.

      • Sony did give their ebook gadget a name.
        It’s called the Sony Reader. It’s trademarked, too.
        (Hey, Microsoft got away with MS Word, MS Publisher, etc. for years.)

        As to the T1, yes it’s nice; small and light. But not sturdy.
        I don’t particularly mind it but its not quite as stiff or solid as a Kindle Touch.
        More importantly, as much as I like it, the T1 is half a product when it comes to mainstream consumers. Sony supporters keep pooh-poohing the issue of the Sony ebookstore but to most entry-level buyers the choice of bookstore comes *before* the choice of device.
        That much Adner got right; in the content-delivery business the gadget alone is not the product, the product is the ecosystem: the device and its support structure. That is why even after Sony killed HD-DVD, BluRay *still* didn’t take off for two more years.

        And why its going to be hard for any new ebook ecosystem contender (iBooks, Blio, whatever) to get much traction against Kindle; their ecosystem is the biggest and most mature, with more devices, more ways to access the content, better prices, and more content. When it comes to emerging tech categories, the more the category matures, the higher the bar to entry.
        Sony got in early but they wasted the first mover advantage and it fell to Amazon.
        It’ll stay with them until they screw up or a new (tech) disruption arises.

  4. I totally agree, and would add that even if the Kindle had been “closed,” it still have been a better ereader for the average (non-techy) person than Sony Reader because Amazon had (and still has) a much better ebookstore than Sony.

  5. Logan Kennelly // 1 March, 2012 at 5:55 pm // Reply

    We could go around and around on this, but you are wrong Nate.

    The Kindle did have a better screen than the original Sony Reader (PRS-500), but the same as the second generation (PRS-505) which came out six weeks before the Kindle (it seems longer in my head).

    Sony did release tools for users to create LRF files and libprs500 (what is now Calibre) was widely known by that time. (Plus, you know, RTF as you mention.) I am fairly certain that Amazon had pulled the Mobipocket creation tools from the public by the time the Kindle shipped (but I may be incorrect about that.)

    The PC software was really shitty, and it never got much better. (The ePub re-launch was later attached to Digital Editions, which was slightly better, and we’ve been waiting on an update for that thing for years…)

    Anyway, I owned a PRS-505 and a Kindle, and the PRS-505 was, and sort of still is, fantastic. Sony still makes the best devices for user-managed content, but their solution is still less compelling than those from B&N, Amazon, and, I hear, Kobo. It’s a shame, really.

    By the way, Karen, the argument is that the product was better, not the solution (read, the bookstore).

    Just like the Prius couldn’t be plugged in because people hated electric cars, the Kindle was easy for the public to accept because it wasn’t meant to be plugged in.

    • Yes, you *are* wrong.
      Amazon never pulled the Mobi creation tools.
      You can still get them today:
      http://www.mobipocket.com/en/DownloadSoft/default.asp?Language=EN
      And MobiPerl dates from early 2008, with other tools going back even further.

      As for managing user created content, what I remember about the PRS-505 was that adding 100 ebooks at once would tie the gadget up for hours.
      Even today’s T1 still takes longer to process side-loaded content than the K2.

      • Logan Kennelly // 1 March, 2012 at 7:41 pm // Reply

        I know they are available now, but I recall them being unavailable sometime after the Mobipocket acquisition. Unfortunately, I don’t have a link handy (and I may be wrong).

        MobiPerl, much like libprs500, was also an option. I was ignoring third-party software in the context of the discussion.

        Yes, it took a long time to simultaneously add a large number of documents on the Sony. It is a side effect of being able to navigate via Collections, Author, Title, etc. Amazon simply didn’t support those features. (Today, of course, the “problem” is that Amazon is the only company using a format optimized for mobile devices.)

        • Logan Kennelly // 1 March, 2012 at 8:09 pm // Reply

          I am wrong. If Amazon had removed Mobipocket Creator for a while, there should be some discussion on MobileRead. There is not. Sorry for the noise.

          However, skimming the threads “What do you think the Amazon Kindle means for the Sony Readers?” and “Amazon Kindle might be the worst thing that could happen to e-books?” leads to some amusing nostalgia.

    • You misunderstand me on the screen; he said it was worse and I disagreed. And the 505 had Vizplex, which I’m pretty sure the Kindle did not. But I’ll concede the point.

      “Sony did release tools for users to create LRF files”

      link?, and were those tools as user friendly as the Mobi tools? Also, Sony didn’t release calibre so it does not count in their favor.

      “I am fairly certain that Amazon had pulled the Mobipocket creation tools from the public by the time the Kindle shipped”

      Nope. I used them in 2007 and I still use them today. Mobipocket stopped developing the tools by late 2008, yes, but they were and are still available for download.

      • Logan Kennelly // 1 March, 2012 at 7:49 pm // Reply

        Sony most certainly did not release libprs500. As ugly and slow as it was, that side project of a grad student was still leaps better than the Sony software.

        Unfortunately, the manual only indicates the automatic Word-to-RTF conversion, and the forum posts don’t go into specifics. Perhaps I am mistaken, and the Sony tools were all geared toward RTF. If so, I apologize. (I’ll try to dig up the CD later, but it’s been a long time. I don’t have much hope of finding it.)

  6. Revisionist history needs to be whacked hard and often.
    It’s like the people who keep ranting about Amazon not supporting epub when it didn’t exist when they were developing the Kindle and it wasn’t until years later that the annointed “standard” could begin match the PC-free functionality of the Kindle ecosystem.
    And with the example of Sony’s fall staring them in the face: Kindle beat Sony because Sony got standards religion and wasted 2008 and most of 2009–when Amazon was growing their ebookstore like a weed–transitioning from their proprietary lrf walled garden to Adobe’s proprietary walled garden. Sony effectively Osborned themselves for a whole year at the very moment the business was exploding.
    By the time the Kindle 2 came out the die was cast.

    • Logan Kennelly // 1 March, 2012 at 8:00 pm // Reply

      Well, okay, ePub wasn’t around, but OEB was, and they are practically identical. The large problem is that neither format is as appropriate for small, under-powered devices as Mobi and Peanut. Even then, ePub is actually pretty decent, but most the of software supporting it is not geared toward either large documents or large libraries.

      These companies were getting behind a standard, but then letting Adobe put minimal effort into developing the tools and engine for that standard. Amazon owns the whole taco so, while far inferior as a format, they can be responsive to customer needs. Plus, it simply doesn’t matter for novels. (It would be easy to argue that the limitations of Mobi actually make it a better format for fiction.)

      I still don’t really care for the original Kindle, but it wasn’t like it was a flat-out bad product. (To jump back into the present, I find the Kindle 3 to be extremely impressive. It’s unfortunate that Amazon felt the need to move away from it.)

      • So was LIT, which was OEB with a Microsoft wrapper.
        And it worked fine on PocketPCs and Smartphones and not just with MSReader(Check Golden Crater’s Tiny Reader).
        But OEB was never intended as a consumer-level format.
        OEB was explicitly intended solely for *publisher* workflows and archives and the stated intent was that ebookstores would convert OEB to their own retail formats, which is what Mobipocket and Microsoft ebook stores did.
        At the time, Amazon did exactly what everybody else was doing.
        They just did it better.

        And, as to the better format; may I suggest that “better” is a relative, application-specific term and that for the intended purpose, narrative-text commercial ebooks, there is no *significant* difference that the paying customers find compelling.

        Specs don’t sell products, benefits do.
        Like it or not, consumers don’t care about ePub’s theoretical superiority; all they care about is whether or not they can read the book at a reasonable price.

        • More on OEB:
          http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/formats/fdd/fdd000054.shtml
          Quote: “This bundle of files is likely to be used primarily as a middle-state format, with dissemination to end-users managed through publishers or aggregators who provide in a form appropriate for different ebook viewers/players.”
          We’re talking 1999, here. At that time publishers/aggregators were Softbook, Nuvomedia, Peanut Press, and Mobipocket. Also involved in creating the format were Microsoft, who built LIT off it, and Adobe.

  7. Sony was never going to win the ereader battle, and I say that as the owner of a lot of Sony products (but not a Sony ereader.) Sony doesn’t do customer service and support. They’re really terrible at it. I’ve used Sony laptops for years because I like their laptops, but I’m careful about recommending them to anyone else because I would only recommend them to someone who basically doesn’t need customer support.

  8. Re LRF tools, there were some Librie addons that produced LRF: http://www.sven.de/librie/Librie/AddonSoftware
    Also, some time after the release of the Reader, Sony announced some kind of “developer program” and did release a DLL that allowed HTML to LRF conversion.

  9. The writer does have one point, the Kindle was so ugly, I wouldn’t even want one if it came with free money…. And the Sony’s looked slick from day one…

  10. I worked in the industry at the time doing Sony e-book development and MobiPocket development and some of the earliest Kindle titles.

    I won’t comment on the ugly factor, because there’s no doubt that it wasn’t good looking.

    The two biggest issue that lead to Sony’s loss of the market were the format wars and wireless. The latter being more important than the former.

    The Sony format was nearly impossible for anyone but the most experienced people to successfully and repeatedly generate. Sony also had a very firm gatekeeper that prevented any book that was not perfect in their estimation from getting through. Amazon did use the Mobi format for their early Kindle, but it was hobbled. Compared to the Sony, you really could only do headlines, body text, and images. Tables were not supported. Linking, while supported, did not work well. Sony’s format was by far superior, but the average person couldn’t create a file.

    While the early Kindle-limited Mobi format lacked most of the tools that e-book developers (then and now) took for granted, it was easy to produce. The MobiPocket tools were pretty close to user friendly for a number of formats. The output wasn’t always nice, but it worked for the average person, who would overlook the limitations of the Kindle at the time.

    The more important factor in Amazon taking over is how they marketed the Kindle. They went after their existing business travelers. That’s why the wireless was so important. They were telling those people that they would never be somewhere in the United States where they couldn’t get a book if they wanted. That was the game changers. It was the single most important factor in Amazon capturing the market. Because even though Sony didn’t have many books, at the time Amazon didn’t either. It created momentum that Amazon built on to capture the market.

    “MOMENTUM: Once a company in any given space has it, the incumbency of another company, no matter how entrenched, is irrelevant…. Basically momentum begets momentum, which begets yet more momentum, and so on. It’s a virtuous cycle that feeds on itself. It’s part of the software economics which propel once minuscule companies into hegemony status.” Nicholas Mercader, Internet Market Anaylst.

  11. Actually Sony had promised well before the Kindle Release in Nov 2007 that a firmware update would allow 505 to support epub. (I believe Cybook did so as well a month or two after that). Epub in 2007 was hard to figure out, but mobipocket was even harder. their creation tools just weren’t that user-friendly, and it seemed ridiculous to expect people to maintain two different formats. For publishers, it must have been hellish.

    • It couldn’t have been well before; the 505 launch on 2 October and the Kindle launched on 19 November.

      And the Cybook was in the middle of being launched on 19 November (it took a while), so I’m not sure that Bookeen could have made any promises about future features.

    • No.
      There was no ePub spec to support in Nov 2007.
      Sony announced they would begin to transition to ePub in March 2008, delivered the update in July 2008 and completed the switch in Aug 2009.
      During that time, the Kindle ebookstore grew to 275,000 titles at the end of 2008 and over 600K by the end of 2009.

      • I didn’t think there was. The first I heard of it was spring 2008. First I saw it was the IDPF con in May 2008 (Sony guys demoed loading an Epub from Adobe DE).

        • Exactly. Adobe DE wasn’t final until Spring 08 which is why Sony wasn’t able to ship until July and it really wasn’t baked until ’09. The Sony clones didn’t start to show up until mid/late ’09 and by then Nook was around the corner.
          Which is why ADEPT, has such a minimal ebook footprint; it was late to the party.
          There really was no epub product of consequence until well after Kindle was rolling merrily on its way.

  12. I have been quite happy with the PRS-T1 I got about a month ago. I don’t see any reason to buy books from Sony, but it is great for library books. And it was also great way to consume free Google Books until some time in the last few days, when Sony removed them from their store without any notice. I assume the decision was theirs, not Google’s.

    Still, from my perspective, it makes their store even less attractive. That’s always been a weakness of Sony’s and apparently that is not going to change. Either that, or they are about to partner with Google to provide content.

  13. You know, I’m currently looking into buying an ebook reader and naturally the Kindle came to mind because of my awareness of the product (marketing!). I spent 20 minutes or so reading all the thread on the subject of Sony vs The Kindle, which is better, availability of tools, build quality etc etc etc. Now I’m just your average person with a little technical know how but really can’t be doing with all the RTF this and OEB that and all the other acronyms that have been talked about (as interesting as I’m sure they are to all you techy’s). So, the bottom line is that I will be buying a Kindle. Why? Because it’s available, it’s a reasonable price, seems to have a pretty good ebook store, it looks good and from what I can tell is easy to use. So, thanks guys you really helped me.

  14. I have had 3 kindles and they all had faulty screens. moving to Ipad.

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