Why Amazon Wins

Remember not so long ago I complained about Amazon's ebook download links disappearing? Well, they're back; I can download my Kindle books form the website again, just in time for my employer to be purchased by that etailing monolith. Soon, I will be an Amazon employee, a curious turn of events considering how we've occasionally pilloried them on this site. Granted, the most vocal pillorer (pillorizer? pilliorian?) has been Quackenbush, but I'm hardly innocent.

Here's the thing: My first ebook reader was a Palm Pilot in the late 90's, and I loved it. Later, when Palm sank, I bought a Sony Reader, the first real dedicated e-reader. When the first Kindle was released, I joined the choruses laughing at its hideous design and fearing Amazon's fomenting reach and power.

However, it wasn't long before it became clear that Sony wasn't really going to compete in hardware or software. Reluctantly, I switched to the Nook. And I was happy for a while. But now Barnes and Noble has fired its hardware engineering staff and looks to be eager to offload the whole platform as a money-loser and a failure. Meanwhile, on hardware and features, the Kindle is constantly improving, and is now better by every possible measure to any of its competitors.

The Ebook Reader Landscape Changes Again, Translation Dictionaries Are Buried Lede

After the vertigo-inducing price drops in the Kindle and Nook a month ago, the other ebook reader producers have unveiled their new lines and strategies (though in some cases, as with the Cool-Er Reader, the strategy is to go out of business). First the Kobo Reader, which is newly released and sold in Borders and elsewhere, is on sale for $129. That ebook reader is a lot like the old Sony Pocket Edition: no connectivity, no keyboard or touchscreen, eink screen. Borders is also selling the hideous Libre Pro ereader for $100, but it has an LCD screen and not eInk, and looks like it was hammered together in someone's high school shop class. Bleh.

Meanwhile, Sony is showing off its new Pocket, Touch and Daily Editions. Rather than competing in the race to the bottom, Sony is concentrating on quality, and the new readers are slimmer and lighter than the Kindle or Nook, and all have a new touchscreen that's supposed to be a big improvement over Sony's old, glare-ridden one. The touch screen also means that now the Sony Pocket edition is capable of annotation and highlighting, like its bigger brothers. However, still only the Daily Edition has connectivity, through 3G and WiFi, which is a strange decision considering that they're still selling it for $299, an absurd price compared to the $139 wifi Kindle/$189 3G Kindle and $150 wifi Nook/$199 3G Nook. The Touch Edition is now $229 and the Pocket Edition is now $179. Sony will also be coming out with iOS and Android apps to read books from their ebook store, ala the Kindle, Nook, and Kobo apps.

However, I think most people reporting on these new Sonys are burying the lede. The one feature I'm most excited about? According to the press release the new readers have translation dictionaries. Meaning, I can read a book in Spanish, highlight a word, and get the definition in English. Nobody else has this feature. Even on the iPad, where it would seem obvious, it doesn't exist. In iBooks you can't even look up a word in a foreign language and get a definition in that language; only an English dictionary is available, even if you've localized your device to another language.

This is a huge feature for anyone learning or practicing a second language. Indeed, one of the reasons I often resist picking up a book in Spanish is because I know I'll have to read the book in front of a computer so I can look up the handful of words on each page that are unfamiliar to me (or worse, cumbersomely thumb through a translation dictionary). With the new Sonys, I wouldn't have that problem -- and I know the translation dictionaries will work on the subway or wherever else I might be without connectivity, because two of the readers don't have connectivity at all. Brilliant! This would completely change the way I read books in my second language, and would be a mammoth boon to the hordes of people learning foreign languages, including English, if only Sony would have the presence of mind to market to them directly. (One assumes that they'll do this at least in their native Japan, where English is the most popular second language class in schools--which shows how big the market is in the educational sector alone.)

In short, this one feature, which most news organs aren't even reporting on, is the one thing that might make me give away my current ebook reader and buy a new one. It's certainly more important to me than wireless connectivity, which I do just fine without. In fact, there are only two reasons I read a book on my iPad rather than on my Sony Reader; one is the iPad has a book available (usually through the Kindle app) that isn't available from Sony, and two is that I read non-fiction on the iPad because I can highlight and annotate there. The new Sony Pocket Edition, however, solves this second problem handily. As for the first; well, I still dream of a day when all books are available as non-DRM'd ePub editions that can be read on any reader.

What? I can dream, can't I?

A Brief Note on the State of eBook Readers

So Kindle just announced a $139 wifi ereader along with their new $189 3G Kindle model. This competes with the Nook's $150 wifi and $199 3G readers, the price just enough lower to be giving B&N the finger. Only a little while ago, Sony's $199 reader with no connectivity at all seemed like a decent buy, but now it looks ridiculous, even with it's own price dropped to $150. And the 3G Sony Reader that was $400 and has now plummeted to $250? Still an overpriced joke. Since the introduction of the iPad, ebook-only readers have been engaged in a vertigo-inducing race to the bottom. Meanwhile, independent ebook readers, like Cool-Er, have been driven out of business because they can't meet loss-leader price points.

So how long until there's $100 reader? A $50 one? How about a free ereader, given away to lock you into an ebook format? Time will tell.