On Thursday Sony announced its electronic book readers will switch to using an open e-book standard promoted by several US publishers.
Sony thus demonstrates yet again the number one axiom of open standards: open standards are embraced by vendors that are not powerful enough to get their own proprietary standard adopted.
The ePub standard was developed by the Open eBook Forum (now International Digital Publishing Forum), which is trying to promote the adoption of electronic book sales through a common standard. The Association of American Publishers has thrown its weight behind the ePub standard — ironically via a letter stored in a proprietary file format on the IDPF website. (The website certainly is not of the standard one would expect from an international trade association.)
Not only has Sony given up on its e-book file format, but its DRM too. As the NYT reported:
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.Of course, open standards and low switching costs mean (as some have hoped for) commoditization of reader devices and competition based on price — certainly not Sony’s preference.
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.
“There is going to be a proliferation of different reading devices, with different features and capabilities and prices for a different set of consumer requirements,” said Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading unit. “If people are going to this e-book shopping mall, they are going to want to shop at all the stores, and not just be required to shop at one store.”
As always, where you stand on proprietary standards depends on where you site. In the NYT telling, Amazon is the big bad proprietary vendor of e-books, and the publishers want to gang up to reduce its buyer power.
But with music downloads, Amazon was the leading challenger to the big bad proprietary dominant iTunes, and record labels wanted to do anything they could to help it gain market share and reduce Apple’s clout. This included abandoning their pro-DRM position to give Amazon a DRM-free advantage.
And then we have Sony, the onetime master of proprietary and semi-proprietary standards strategies (PlayStation, Memory Stick, Compact Cassette). Its biggest gamble and most recent success came with the multi-billion dollar gamble on getting Blu-ray established.
As with music downloads, Sony has concluded that it doesn’t have the market power to establish its own proprietary e-book format. Unlike IBM, I believe Sony’s nominal embrace of open standards is only tactical and not permanent.
Like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and others, Sony believes that an open standard shared with rivals is the third best alternative, after establishing its own proprietary standard (Memory Stick) or being part of a consortium that controls patent rents for a semi-open standard (Blu-ray).
Hat tip for original story about Sony to Matt Asay via Twitter