NEW YORK — Three weeks after the release of Amazon.com's Kindle 2, Sony Corp. -- the first major company to introduce an electronic book device, the Sony Reader -- said it would offer customers half a million public domain books that have been optimized by Google Inc.
These books, which will join the 100,000 or so available for purchase at the Sony bookstore and other sites, will be free and searchable by title, author and topic.
"We have focused our efforts on offering an open platform and making it easy to find as much content as possible -- from our store or others -- whether that content is purchased, borrowed or free," said Steve Haber, president of the digital reading business division at Sony Electronics.
For several months now, Sony has been under pressure to respond to the success of the Kindle, which has taken the e-book market by storm. If this was the company's much-awaited return volley, the news appeared to fall short of the publishing industry's expectations.
Part of the Kindle's appeal is that it is wireless, using what Amazon calls "whisper" technology allowing users to download books in about 30 seconds. Users can buy the Kindle only from the online bookseller.
And yet, for Sony users, the process can be agonizingly slow. Users of the Reader device must plug it into a computer and log onto a site that sells books in the e-format. It takes minutes for a title to download, after which it must be dragged and dropped into the plugged-in device.
Technophiles and readers have expected Sony to go wireless. But rather than announcing a wireless technology for the Reader, Haber instead trumpeted the broad library of content that would be made possible by the Google deal.
"We don't think it's right that you can only get content from one retailer," Haber said. He did not identify the Kindle by name, but the implication was clear: Sony has decided to concentrate on a model in which sales are driven by an e-book device that offers access to the widest available selection of content from the most sources.
Although Sony's televisions and other consumer electronics have long been status symbols, the company has lost much of the e-book heat to the upstart Kindle. When Amazon unveiled the Kindle 2 last month, the event was the publishing industry's version of a celebrity news conference, with standing room only for hundreds of journalists and heads of publishing houses.
Author Stephen King showed off a new hot-pink Kindle (made specially for him) and read from a novella he had written for (and about) the Kindle.
Never mind that Amazon is not exactly chatty about the nuts and bolts of its business -- executives have never revealed how many Kindles have been produced or sold -- the company's brilliant marketing stole the show. Except for the download capabilities, however, the Sony and Amazon devices are similar. Both models of the Sony reader, the 550 and the 700, are actually smaller and sleeker than the Kindle 2.
Indeed, the "reading experience" of the Kindle and Reader is nearly identical. Neither device is backlit, and both allow for note-taking, highlighting and the importing of PDF, Word and other files. The machines are also similarly priced.
Yet none of this really matters because Kindle has the public's mind share. Why Sony has seemed to punt by refusing to make the one adjustment to its reading device that would put it back into contention mystifies some in the publishing industry. More editors use Kindles than Readers, it seems, although the Reader has its fans.
More than a year ago, David Young, chief executive of Hachette Book Group, gave Readers, not Kindles, to his staff.
"I like my Kindle," he said, "especially the ease of the download, which is brilliant, but for reading books and manuscript, I find the Reader more satisfying. I like its heft and prefer the page-turning buttons."
Kindle 2 has made improvements. It's less Fisher-Pricey; the buttons are sleeker. It's thinner and easier to handle. Although no Amazon executive would ever put it this way, it looks and feels more like a Reader, except that it's a little bigger.
But if Amazon has, in this way at least, learned from the competition, Sony has not. Does the company not care that Amazon looks to have it beat?
Sony seems, instead, to be hitting hard on the theme that it's giving options to publishers, who have not been shy about their complicated feelings toward Amazon and the power it wields.
Making public domain books more available is all to the good. But at the moment, Sony's move appears to be too little, too late.