I Owe My Soul to the Company Store

By Tom Peters | Tom Peters Head Shot Like a puny but feisty kid trying to grow up and gain respect in a blue-collar town, portable electronic devices designed primarily for reading digital-textual documents, such as ebooks, are about to re-enter the general U.S. consumer electronic fray. When dedicated reading devices hit the U.S. market in the late 90s, they were soundly drubbed, or worse, laughed at and ignored. Will 2006 be just a re-match with the same, predictable result?

At the heavyweight Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this week, Sony announced its plans to begin selling a Sony Reader device to U.S. consumers in 2006. In addition, the Dutch company iRex Technologies previously announced plans to Sony Reader manufacture and sell an Iliad portable device. Other dedicated reading devices, such as the V2 from Jinke, a Chinese company, continue to spar and jab with the U.S. market.

Is there any possibility that this re-match could produce a different result than the 1990s over-hyped rumble in the jungle of American consumerism? Could portable readers catch on with gadget-toting Americans? In this round, will these devices float like a butterfly and sting like a bee?

Electronic ink has matured and put on some muscle since the last bout. The primary advantages of an e-ink display over more traditional displays is that it does not flicker, thus reducing eyestrain, and it consumes an amazingly low amount of energy. Sony reports its new Reader will enable 7,500 page turns before the rechargeable battery needs to head to its corner to be revitalized via an AC adapter or USB connector. The grayscale screen resolution should be able to contend with the resolution of a typical printed newspaper.

The price point has not come down much, even if the size of the purse remains very much in doubt. Sony states its MSRP for its Reader will be in the $300 to $400 range. If the content cost is considerably lower than that from other suppliers and in other formats, avid readers may do the math and find this reasonable. Who knows...

Speaking of content, the main reason I will not be betting on this fight, despite what the CES bookies in Vegas may be saying, is the fact that Sony plans to sell content for its Reader only through the Sony Connect online store. Sony plans to follow dubious fight-management advice from Apple and offer only one distribution point for its content—the company store. When all the spirited kids bouncing to their iPods grow up—and wake up—they may realize that they owe their souls to the company store.
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