Gutenberg 1, Sony 0

Its reader is hurt by clunky software and a clueless bookstore


In an age when digital distribution of content is becoming the norm, the oldest mass medium has remained stubbornly resistant. Most recorded music is available for download, as are newspapers, magazines, and some TV shows. But books remain stuck in the Gutenberg era, with minuscule sales of the few titles that exist in electronic form.

Sony's much delayed Reader aims to change that. It will be available in October for about $350, which includes a credit for $50 in book purchases. Even though the Reader has its flaws, it's a vast improvement over various other e-book designs rolled out in the past decade. I can't say the same for the clunky software that manages book purchases and Reader downloads on a Windows PC, or for Sony's attempt at an online bookstore, which is reminiscent of its clueless efforts to sell music online.

The 12-oz. Reader is about the size of a standard paperback. Just half an inch thick in its handsome black leather cover, it has enough memory to store dozens of books. When the Reader is set to a standard type size, the 4 3/4-by-3 3/4-in. screen contains perhaps half as much text as a typical book page. The display itself is revolutionary. E Ink, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spin-off, has been laboring for years to perfect the technology, which generates crisp black letters by selectively rotating millions of half-white, half-black balls.

While far better than the monochrome displays on earlier e-books in both appearance and power consumption (it will run for days on a charge), the Reader falls short of real print on paper. The promised black-on-white effect is more like dark gray on light gray. And when you press a button to turn a page, it takes about a second to respond, during which interval the page turns black, a minor but distinct annoyance.

ANY E-BOOK READER IS BOUND TO INVOLVE compromises. The Sony Reader's storage capacity is effectively unlimited, since you can add memory cards. This lets you carry a library of books in a tiny package. On the other hand, the reading experience is far inferior to that of a real book, partly because all concept of page design is lost. For example, in the best-selling Freakonomics, tables that are barely legible on the Reader to begin with sometimes break over two pages. Files downloaded from a computer (via a usb cable) fare worse. I found that most pdf files were unreadable even in the largest type size, and I could not get Word files to download at all.

Another big limitation is that the display can show only four shades of gray, thus restricting graphics to line drawings. This essentially disqualifies the Reader from one of its most attractive uses, textbooks.

These deficits, however, pale compared to Sony's Connect bookstore (, which seems to be the work of someone who has never visited (AMZN ). Sony offers 10,000 titles, but that doesn't mean you will find what you want. For example, only four of the top 10 titles on the Oct. 1 New York Times paperback best-seller list showed up. On the other hand, many books are priced below their print equivalents—most $7.99 paperbacks go for $6.39—and can be shared among any combination of three Readers or pcs, much as Apple (AAPL ) iTunes allows multiple devices to share songs.

The worst problem is that search, the essence of an online bookstore, is broken. An author search for Dan Brown turned up 84 books, three of them by Dan Brown, the rest by people named Dan or Brown, or sometimes neither. Putting a search term in quotes should limit the results to those where the exact phrase occurs, but at the Sony store, it produced chaos. "Dan Brown" yielded 500 titles, mostly by people named neither Dan nor Brown. And the store doesn't provide suggestions for related titles, reviews, previews—all those little extras that make Amazon great.

The problems of the store and software are fixable. But unless Sony repairs them fast, the Reader may be headed for the scrap heap of failed e-book readers.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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