Sony opened up their first eBookstore in 2004 and was selling e-Readers before Amazon released their first generation Kindle. In early 2014 Sony got out of the eBook business and closed up shop in North America, United Kingdom, Europe and Australia. They encouraged all of their customers to switch to Kobo, as an avenue to continue purchasing content.
There is a long storied history of Sony being involved in the e-Reader sector and they released more models than anyone in the entire industry. Today we look at the evolution of the Sony brand, from the first device, until their last. Incidentally, if you like this evolution piece, check out the ones we did on Amazon and Kobo.
The Sony Librie was otherwise known as the EBR-100EP and was originally released in April 2004. It was the very first commercial e-ink device, and was sold only in Japan, but many devices were sold in the US through online retailers and with a third-party English OS upgrade. This reader was the result of a three-year collaboration between Sony, Philips, Toppan printing and E Ink Corporation.
The resolution was 800×600, which was amazing at the time and many modern e-readers still adhere to this old standard. People were surprised this could hold over 10 books with the 10MB of storage and were able to listen to music and audiobooks via the speaker and headphone jack.
The Librie was interesting historically because Sony developed their own proprietary eBook format, LRF. This model basically only read books that were purchased from the Sony Japanese book store and had no support for PDF or other popular formats at the time, such as Microsofts, Nokia, or Palm.
The Sony PRS-500 was known as “A Reader” in their promotional and marketing campaign. This was the first device that Sony marketed outside Japan and was released in September 2006. This was one year before Amazon unveiled their own Kindle reader.
Sony streamlined this e-reader and discarded the physical keyboard that was on their first device ever made. Instead, they went with a unique controller system that was in essence two joysticks. One was for page turns and the other for accessing the menu, settings or dictionary.
The first Sony reader could only store 10MB of data, and this model was upgraded to hold 64MB, which drastically increased the amount of books that could be loaded on it. No longer were customers forced to delete books they finished reading, but could store over 80.
This reader had the same e-ink screen as the Libri, but had a faster processor. On November 16, 2009, Sony announced that a firmware update is available to support the ePub and Adobe DRM format and add the ability to re-flow PDF documents”. Owners must send the reader into the Sony Service Centers for the updated firmware. You can obviously tell how infant the e-reader industry was during this era, when you had to mail away your e-reader for over a month for them to load in the new firmware for you.
The Sony PRS-505 was originally released in October 2007, the same year Amazon unveiled their first generation Kindle. This model used a new e-Ink Vizplex display screen, which provided faster page turns than the prior models. Although the overall performance was enhanced, Sony still abided by the 800×600 resolution. This also marked the first time that you could charge a Sony reader via the USB cable.
Sony increased the internal storage yet again on this model, which saw a dramatic leap to 256MB and over 500 books available to be stored. Also, adding books to “Collections” (a feature to organize and group book titles) is now possible on the SD card, unlike the PRS-500 model.
July 24, 2008 marked the first time this model received a firmware update to support the fledgling ePub format Adobe Digital Editions 1.5 and Adobe DRM protected PDF files, automatic reflow of PDF files formatted for larger pages enlarges the text to improve readability, and support for high capacity SDHC memory card. This time, instead of sending the reader in to get the update, it was provided as a free download, along with written instructions.
The Sony PRS-700 was a benchmark e-reader and broke the mold on several fronts. It was the first touchscreen e-reader and the first model to feature an illuminated screen to let you read in the dark.
Sony heavily invested in touchscreen technology with their e-readers and this was the first of many to fully adopt it. Moving in this direction eliminated the D-Pad and most keys, minimizing the footprint and making it easier to hold. This was also the first e-reader that allowed you to make highlights, annotations on the fly and take advantage of the new virtual keyboard.
The LED lights on this unit was a precursor to the front-lit technology we see on the modern 2014 readers, such as the Nook Glowlight, Kobo Aura and Kindle Paperwhite 2. It all started with Sony making in-roads and taking the risk of developing technology never seen before on an e-reader. The overall experience was really lacklustre and jaded executives so much that they said they would never make a LED reader ever again.
Sony Touch Edition PRS-600
The Sony PRS-600 was known as the Touch Edition and was released the very same day as the five inch Pocket Edition on August 2009. This reader continued the trend of having a speaker and 3.55 headphone jack and relied on the touchscreen as a way to take notes and highlights.
The Touch Edition was the first time Sony marketed their readers in three different colors, black, white and red. This model also increased the storage from 256MB on the prior model to over 512MB. It had the same resolution as the older models, so did not break any new ground on the ePaper front.
Up until the launch of the Touch Edition all Sony e-Readers were unable to read PDF or EPUB files out of the box. You had to either send them to Sony via snail mail for them to manually patch or do it yourself. This was the year that Sony firmly switched over from their own LRF format to EPUB and native PDF support.
The move to firmly embrace EPUB and PDF allowed a new generation of users to be able to not exclusively shop at Sony anymore for their books. Instead, they could deal with other retailers and use Adobe Digital Editions to sync up the purchases.
This was the first e-reader that Sony really stepped their marketing efforts on. They made a number of stock images for bloggers to use in their writeups and started blitz campaigns in the Sony Style stores and also expanded their retail distribution into countries like Canada.
Pocket Edition PRS-300
The Sony Pocket Edition was released on August 2009, the same day as the PRS-600. Sony went back to their roots by offering an entry level reader for a solid $199, which made it one of the cheapest models at this point in time.
One of the ways Sony saved many was abandoning the costly touchscreen technology and instead went with physical page turn keys, D-Pad and manual page turn buttons. It also had no MP3 audio or expandable memory. It has a similar interface to the PRS-500 and PRS-505.
Sony Daily Edition PRS-900
When the Sony Daily PRS-900 was first unveiled in December 2009 it bucked the trend of the standard six inch device and incorporated a 7 inch screen. Sony also borrowed a page out of Amazons playbook and offered free 3G internet access to the US version of the Sony bookstore.
Sony increased the memory yet again to a whopping 2GB, which allowed over 1700 books to loaded on it. It also boosted up the resolution, making it the best on the market at this time. It had 1024×600, which was ideal for reading texts in landscape or portrait mode.
The Daily Edition was the first time there were no hardware buttons at all. It was completely reliant on the touchscreen and Stylus for all of your inputs. 2009 was a big year for Sony with 3 new devices hitting the market months within each other.
This model was really expensive and set you back US$399 at the time of release. This was mainly to offset the costs in the internet access, which at the time was a pricey value proposition. It was considered to be the very best e-reader on the market and was more accessible than Amazon.
Setting The Stage for the Next Generation
August the 10th 2010 was a milestone for Sony as they released the second generation Pocket Edition, Touch Edition and Daily Edition. The company really refined all of their technology and this lineup of devices was at the height of the e-reader and eBook boom period.
2010 was the year that competition really started to heat up between Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Kobo. E-Ink, the Taiwan company responsible for all of the e-paper displays made over 3 billion in this year alone and even NEONODE, the company responsible for the IR touchscreen tech was making millions.
Sony used their advanced e-readers as an avenue for growth. They opened up online bookstores in the UK, Europe and Australia. All of these models were highly visible in the retail sector, but it was costly. Australians were paying almost 2x the retail cost in North America and most flocked to eBay or other online merchants to save a bundle.
This was the final year that e-Reader revenue was expanding at a geometric rate and it started to decrease in the following years. This was also the last year Sony released three new devices annually and only did one, focusing their efforts on the more lucrative smartphone and tablet market.
Sony Pocket Edition PRS-350
The second generation Pocket Edition was launched on August 2010. This was the first modern line of Sony readers to adopt E-Ink Pearl, which provided a better experience than the antiquated Vizplex technology.
The Pocket Edition continued to be Sony’s smallest ever Reader, clocking in at five inches. It hit the market cheaper than the previous PRS-300 at US$179. Unlike the first generation model it incorporated a touch screen, and two GB of Memory but lacked an SD Card Slot and does not support MP3 playback.
Sony PRS-650 Touch Edition
The Sony PRS-650 was released August 2010 and was announced at the same time as the touch-screen PRS-350. It is Sony’s mid-range device, priced at US$229. As the replacement for the PRS-600 model, it is Sony’s higher-scale, touch-screen edition of the reader. It has a similar interface to the PRS-350.
This reader was fully touch screen but brought back physical buttons, such as the settings, options, home and manual page turn keys. The Touch Edition is a compact and lightweight e-book reader; responsive touch-screen interface with no glare or contrast issues; high-contrast E Ink Pearl display; zippier performance than its predecessor; integration with Sony e-book store; good battery life (up to two weeks); supports EPUB e-book standard, which allows for e-book downloads from libraries; audio playback; SD and Memory Stick Duo memory expansion slots.
Sony was unprepared for the Q4 demand for the 650 e-reader. There were a few key reasons why this model in particular is so hard to purchase anywhere in North America, UK, Australia and other countries. Sony in early December recently did a relaunch of their new e-readers in Japan. This was the company’s second attempt to penetrate the often fickle Japanese market. Sony actually diverted shipments from all over the world to Japan, creating an international scarcity.
Sony Daily Edition PRS-950
The PRS950 model of the Daily Edition was released August 2010 and adds Wi-Fi to the free 3G wireless access to the Sony eBook store. The Reader Daily Edition features a high contrast E Ink Pearl technology on its anti-glare touch screen. It is otherwise similar to the older PRS 900 model.
This was the last 7 inch model that Sony sold and many users still have this model in 2014. One of the downsides is that the 3G internet has been shut off, because Sony closed their bookstore in North America. The only way to be able to connect up to the internet and use the web-browser is to utilize your personal or public WIFI. It retailed at the time for US$299.
The Sony PRS-T1 came out in October 2011 and marked the first time Sony only released one new e-reader model. The T1 was also known as the Reader Wi-Fi and was billed as the world’s lightest 6″ e-Reader with a glare-free, paper-like display designed for hours of comfortable reading, even in direct sunlight.
The big hyping factor behind the T1 was the new product design, that would shape the next two iterations of the PRS-T product line. It was the first Sony branded device to have built in WIFI to purchase books, magazines and newspapers at Sony Reader Store. Customers could also browse the internet with the built in browser. It also had a built in Overdrive APP, to allow customers to borrow books from the public library.
Sony adhered to the 2GB of memory size, which they found to be enough for your average user. They have also used the same resolution 800×600 that they employed for the last five years.
The T1 was very internationally friendly with 12 Built-in Dictionaries with 2 English and 10 others, such as French, German, Spanish, Dutch and Italian.
The Sony PRS-T2 was released September 2012 and mirrored the PRS-T1 in almost every single way. One of the most striking differences was the home, settings and manual page turn keys. The T1 had long rectangular buttons, which was a bit unwieldy. The T2 has really small buttons that actually had a ton of torque, it made interacting with them more intuitive and made the device more streamlined.
One of the big deals Sony trumpeted was their business relationship with Evernote. You could save your notes, highlights and annotations directly to your Evernote account, which made students and academics lives a bit easier. The average person really did not care and the T2 update really felt like the iPhone 4 and the 4S, in terms of a very incremental update, not really needed.
The Sony PRS-T3 is the most current generation commercial reader that is still being sold online and in many retail stores. Currently it has no built in store, but a firmware update will be adding the Kobo Store as an avenue to purchase content.
The Sony T3 was released September 2013 and bypassed the US to be launched in Canada, then the UK, Europe and Australia. This was the first true high-resolution e-readers that mirrored what Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Kobo were doing at the time. 1024×758 is currently the gold standard for e-Reader resolution and it is hard for text to be anymore crisp.
Sony sold two different versions of the T3 e-reader line, the second many just came with a case and reading light, it was an extremely limited release, mainly just in Canada.
Sony Digital Paper
The Sony 13.3 inch e-Reader is going to usher in a brand new era of high quality e-Paper that allows for a true PDF experience. Sony has exclusivity over this brand new technology called Mobius, which they developed with e-Ink.
The screen itself is quite respectable in terms of resolution and pixel density. The resolution on the display is 1200×1600 with 150 PPI. The main attraction is using the active digitizer and interacting with complex PDF documents. You can edit documents by jotting down your own handwritten notes, or even highlight passages to go back to later. You may elect to save your notes as independent files, which makes referencing them in the future easier.
The large screen display will simply give you the best PDF experience you have ever had on an e-reader. I have personally reviewed over 83 different e-readers since launching Good e-Reader in 2009, and this was the first one to give me a quality PDF experience. It is only available at two online retailers, both who have been sold out for over a month. You can take your luck with Amazon, who sell it for a cool $1400.00.
Sony was once the most dominant player in the e-reader revolution and was the primary mover in selling hardware and eBooks. Rising competition from small companies such as Pocketbook, Onyx and Ectaco slowly whittled away market share in Western and Eastern Europe. North America and the UK saw Amazon, B&N and Kobo take them to the cleaners and eroded the profitability of the e-reader division.
Sony now intends on only marketing their phones and tablets and has given up on e-readers. The company has signed a longterm agreement with Kobo, to have their eBook app preloaded on any future Sony branded Android device. Each book customers purchase will pay Sony a small commission, similar to how Kobo cuts in indie bookstores all over the world.
The current e-reader industry would not be where they are today if it weren’t for Sony. The made one of the first mainstream touch screen e-readers and the best with LED lights to read in the dark. The 3G Daily edition inspired Barnes and Noble to offer a similar service with their first Nook 3G model. Sony may have lost their shine, but historically very significant to a billion dollar publishing industry.
Michael Kozlowski has been writing about audiobooks and e-readers for the past twelve years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times. He Lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.