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Problems with the Readman

Readman discs are read-only memory (ROM), that is, they can be read but not changed, its screen is too tiny and too low-resolution, and it deliberately has no provision for computer attachment. The last was a foolish decision on Sony's part, caused perhaps by fear of reaction from the publishing industry. (In the late seventies the movie industry tried to obstruct videocassettes by suing Sony for contributory copyright infringement; they lost [46].)

But making the Readman's memory rewriteable (so that users can change it) and connecting it to a computer should take under a year. If Sony does not do it someone else will. Commodore already has a compact disc player out for $1,000 that sports an advanced microprocessor (the Motorola 68020) [48].

In September 1991, Philips introduced the Magnavox 461; a computer that plays music discs and comes packaged with WordPerfect and Grolier's Electronic Encyclopedia. In October 1991, both Tandy and CompuAdd unveiled their CD-ROM computers; they are the first to introduce multimedia personal computers (MPCs). These computers add sound, animation, and near photo-quality images to normal personal computers. Users can upgrade their personal computers to become MPCs for about $1,000.

It cannot be coincidental that in March 1991 Philips, Matsushita, and Sony formed a consortium of over 180 Japanese companies to develop and market interactive compact discs (CD-I or compact disc interactive). These discs allow interaction by users and they combine sound, pictures, text, graphics, and data on a single compact disc (for technical information see [63], for an overview see [24]).

By Christmas 1993, Readmen or Readmen-equivalent systems may cost $200. Parents may buy them by the hundreds of thousands to give their children access to the information readable on the new media. If Sony, or any of the other suitably positioned companies, is as astute in 1994 as Apple was in 1984, then they will drop prices even further and sell in quantity to high schools and universities. By 1995, high schools may incorporate them into their classes and curricula, as happened with the more expensive personal computers in 1984. If Sony is clever they could also rent their units instead of selling them, just as AT&T rented its phones until deregulation in 1984. If Sony does not do it then a third-party company could do so.

The problem with introducing new technology is a classic chicken-and-egg: being unable to sell hardware unless there is software to run on it, and being unable to sell software unless there is hardware to run it on. Unlike many U.S. companies that just sit on their hands and bemoan the problem, the Readman-equivalent companies solved the problem by buying the chicken. They started in 1988.

Sony lined up 63 Japanese publishers and other companies to produce the books that will be read on the Readman. And just as Sony, Fujisankei, and Matsushita bought major U.S. film, music, and entertainment companies (in 1990 Sony paid almost $5 billion for Columbia Pictures), Sony, and other capital-heavy Readman-positioned companies like Toshiba, Philips, and Matsushita, will surely continue to buy or co-opt western publishing companies, to use their stock as software for the product.

All 6 of the world's largest music companies are now owned by international corporations; the only remaining independent music company is the 7th largest, Virgin Records--and it is British. Bertelsmann Group, A.G. already owns similar properties in 20 countries [51]. Of the major U.S. entertainment companies all but one, Warner Brothers, are now foreign-owned. And in October 1991 Toshiba and C. Itoh paid $1 billion for 12.5 percent of Time Warner.

next up previous contents
Next: Dynabooks Up: Appendix: Electronic Book Players Previous: Readmen
Gregory J. E. Rawlins