The Electronic Labyrinth

Sony Data Discman

Sony has chosen to support the CD-ROM standard by developing two book readers: the Data Discman and the Bookman.

The Data Discman Electronic Book Player plays both audio CD singles and 8 cm CD-ROMs. It weighs 1.5 pounds (with battery), measures 4.25x2x5.25," and includes a small QWERTY keyboard with a cursor pad. The 3.4" diagonal LCD screen can display 30 characters by 10 lines. Each character is a sharp 8x16 pixels. The battery provides 3 hours of use.

The Discman DD-1EXB was introduced to the American market in November 1991, at a price of $550. The package includes power accessories and three titles: Compton's Concise Encyclopedia, Wellness Encyclopedia, and Passport's World Travel Translator. The operating system, as described by Bonime, is fairly simple. The DD-1EXE is identical, but comes with just the first title, at $450.

Electronic books must be prepared using the Sony Electronic Book Authoring System. Older CD-ROM titles must be rebuilt to match the Sony specification. Thus, only twenty titles (in addition to the bundle) were originally available; these were reference works such as movie and travel guides, a thesaurus, and dictionaries. The only literary title is the Library of the Future. Despite this limitation, 90,000 units had been sold within eight months of its Japanese debut in July 1990. The market is comprised of "professional men in their forties who feel a need for quick access to reference information" (Herther 10).

Critics of the product have noted that:

[U]sing a battery as power source limits multimedia capabilities; the screen is small and resolution limited; the closed, proprietary architecture limits creativity; the search engine is not very robust; and the lack of DOS capability or a note field limits its current value to many vertical markets. (Herther 11)

Nevertheless, it is defended within the industry. According to Bonime, fourteen of the major Japanese consumer electronics firms plan on releasing compatible products (55). Herther quotes Chris Kitze as saying:

Data Discman is a great product. It does what it's been designed to do. It has the Sony moniker on it and that certainly helps. Data Discman will drive a whole range of publishing products in the next two or three years. (12)

The Sony Bookman is larger, weighing 2 pounds and measuring 7x2x6". It has two notable differences from the Data Discman: it plays full-length audio CDs and CD-ROMs, and it is a DOS-compatible 80286 computer with 640 KB of RAM. The monochrome display is 4.5" diagonally, and supports 300x200 resolution. According to Pemberton, both Sony and Microsoft are making authoring systems available (12).

This new product thus addresses most of the criticisms of the Data Discman. However, its price ($900) makes it unlikely to be popular with the general public. In addition, it does not play the Electronic Book format discs.

If their Walkman line is any indication, Sony will release new models rapidly. Already, a cheaper unit without a flip-up screen, the DD-8EX, has been shown. The newest model on the market, the DD-10EX, adds XA audio capability, improves many earlier interface problems, and is even smaller. Bundled with three discs, it is priced at $550.

Should the Sony Data Discman become anywhere near as popular as their Walkman line, Sony will have the privilege of introducing the concept of the electronic book to the public. Likewise, most people will get their first introduction to hypertext through the Data Discman. There is potentially a very large audience indeed for authors quick to write fiction optimized for this form.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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