The Sony PSP is the Sony Reader that Almost was
Anyone who knows their ebook history can tell you that Sony was one of the companies to lead the second wave of ereaders. They released the Sony Librie in Japan in 2004 and the Sony Reader in the US in 2006, briefly putting Sony one step ahead of Amazon.
But as groundbreaking as the devices were, the Sony Librie and the Sony Reader weren’t the sum of Sony’s ebook projects. There was of course the Data Discman, a line of portable reading devices sold in the 1990s, but there was another project which never made it to market.
Some time back I got my hands on a trio of screen shots from a reading app which was developed for the PSP but never released.
No, I’m not talking about the digital comic app which was released in 2009; this earlier unnamed and never released reading app dates from 2005, a time very shortly after the first PSP was released and before Sony released the Sony Reader PRS-500.
The Sony PSP was initially unveiled in 2004 and released in various parts of the world in 2005. It was equipped with a 4.3″ LCD screen (480×272 resolution) and ran Sony’s proprietary OS on a 330MHz CPU with a graphics chip, Wifi, and a minimal amount of on board RAM and storage. Games were sold on UMD, one of Sony’s proprietary 3.5″ CD format, and the PSP could also take a Sony Memory Stick.
There have been several reading apps developed for the PSP in the years since it launched, including some semi-official apps, but this almost became the first:
The font looks kinda ugly by today’s standards, but for an unreleased and unfinished app from 2005 that is not bad.
This app was the work of Bluefire. These are the folks that developed the Bluefire Reader apps for Android, iPhone, and iPad, but as you can clearly see they’ve been involved in ebooks since long before Android or even the first iPhone was released in 2007.
I got these screen shots from Bluefire, and while they were made with an emulator I’m told that the app really could run on a PSP. One developer even set it up so his kids could read books on their PSP.
It’s not capable of displaying any known ebook format, only a limited form of XML, but that limitation came about only because the project was shelved before it was finished. By the time Bluefire stopped development, the app was capable of displaying text and images. It supported different font sizes, bookmarks, highlights and annotations.
Bluefire never quite got the page turn animation done, so instead this app scrolled chunks of text at a time. But in spite of its limitations, the app did have some subtle refinements. It was even capable of displaying the bookmarks and chapter headings in a scroll bar along the bottom of the screen (see the first screenshot).
And of course there was a library menu with book covers:
So why wasn’t this app released, given that Sony released an ereader before and after the time when this app was under development?
All I know is that it was developed nearly to the point that it could be released, and then Bluefire pitched it to the Sony PSP folks – who turned it down.
I can’t tell you exactly why (I only got this info second hand in 2013), so I would deeply appreciate any first-hand accounts that could explain what happened. But even without more details I’m not sure that it was the wrong decision.
Even if it had been released I am not sure it would have amounted to much. The PSP was an expensive device, and ebooks weren’t cheap or plentiful in 2005. The odds are good that this app would have suffered the same fate as the later digital comics service.
Sony launched a digital comics service for the PSP in 2009 and was shut down in October 2012. That project was a failure, so it seems likely that this app would also have failed due to a lack of people buying ebooks to read on the PSP.
And given the general lack of ebooks on handheld gaming devices today (many independent efforts but few official apps), I’m not sure that the PSP team made the wrong choice. I’m not sure whether it’s ergonomics, insufficient interest among device owners, or what, but ebooks just don’t seem to be all that popular on gaming devices.
In fact, aside from a bunch of independently developed apps, I only know of one large scale ebook effort on gaming devices, and that was the one that Nintendo launched last year in Japan. I’m also told that the Sony PS Vita has a manga reader, but it’s gotten so little attention that I can’t say more than that.
The fact that there is so little interest in developing an ebook platform on handheld gaming devices never ceases to surprise me; my first ebook reader was the Tapwave Zodiac, a PSP-like PDA/gaming gaming device.
It ran PalmOS 5 on a 200MHz CPU, and I read Mobipocket format ebooks on it. It had a huge 4″ screen and I loved it.
eBooks got their start on PDAs, so I would have expected that the obvious next step would be an expansion on to handheld gaming devices. But it never happened.