Wednesday, July 25, 2007

My museum of content related artefacts (11)

1993: Sony EB

In 1993 I got a telephone call from a Dutch Sony representative. He wanted to talk with me about setting up a committee to support the introduction of Sony’s Electronic Book (Sony EB) with Dutch language products. Before we had a talk I tried to scrape as much information together about Sony’s Electronic Book. I knew that it had been introduced in Japan by 1991 and in 1992 in the US. But there was not much information around (internet was still in the academic domain and other online systems such as Dialog did not have much information available). But soon I would find out, when I was given a brochure. Sony had hijacked the term Electronic Book and materialised the concept. There was a player with a keyboard, while the mini-disc served as the carrier for the content, which could consist of text, photographs, music or combinations thereof. The mini-disc could contain 200Mb in data; more than enough for an average novel and even an encyclopaedia with text, photographs and music.

The logical idea was to involved publishers, software developers and system integrators. In a short time the Netherlands Electronic Book Committee had 15 members. They went through a fast awareness program telling them about the device, the disc and the (closed) production system. The assortment of production in the US and UK were analysed; the offer turned out to be mainly reference works like dictionaries and encyclopaedias. Soon the first ideas sprang up and got realised. The dictionary publisher Van Dale Lexicografie offered the data of their bi-lingual English dictionary for production; the Sdu offered the Green Book, the standard for spelling and a software developer produced a hotel guide.

When the Sony EB was launched in the Netherlands there was a machine and two Dutch products. Sony took care of the distribution and found themselves in an area they did not know. Bookshops had never been a sales channel. But the Sony EB was selling very slow; in fact it was not selling. The first offer was 1200 Dutch florins (more than 600 euro); a very hefty price. There machine received also a lot of flack. It had a black and white screen, not exactly the most exiting representation window. Curiously the black/white screen had forty digits per line, not the usual eighty digits. It was a heavy machine of 450 grams, mainly due to the rechargeable or loose batteries; not exactly the ideal travel mate. They keyboard was not a QWERTY keyboard. And despite the initial efforts of Sony to offer foreign and Dutch titles, the machine was a non-seller; even with a German multimedia encyclopaedia with extracts of the national anthems, with novels like Sliver and non-fiction books like the Joy of Sex (can you imagine in black and white!).

By the beginning of 1995 it was clear that the Sony EB was a non-product in the Netherlands and in fact in Europe. So Sony Benelux unceremoniously abandoned the contracts with the publishers and integrators. This also happened in other European countries. When the Frankfurter Book Fair came along in October of that year, the EB committees got together and noted that Sony EB was dead in Europe and the US.

However in Japan Sony continued with the EB and also Panasonic. Soon the machine became a slimline machine on penlight batteries with a colour screen. But it never became an export product again. Presently Sony is still in e-books in Japan and the US, but this time their model is based on digital paper. Yet the company did not learn the lesson about open systems as it stuck to the closed production and operating system, which publishers hate.

The machine in my collection is still working and I still have a small collection of titles (including the Joy of Sex). To me the Sony EB is still the representative of the first wave of e-books. (The second wave was IMHB represented by Rocket eBook and the third wave is represented by digital paper machines like the iLiad).

I have attached scanned covers of a number of e-Books.

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