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Has Either Sony or Amazon Moved The E-Reader Ball Forward?

Sony may have leveled the playing field with Amazon's Kindle via the launch of its three new Readers, but how will either Sony or Amazon advance beyond the dedicated e-reading device?

That's part of the reason that no matter what Sony Reader or Amazon Kindle have going for them now, any immediate e-reading victories awarded to either will be short-lived.

It's plenty useful to compare the two e-reading vendors side by side, as we've done, adding a third contender, Plastic Logic's forthcoming e-reading device, for good measure.

But wireless connectivity, sweet touchscreens and expansive content catalogs aside, Amazon's Kindles and Sony's Readers are still dedicated e-readers -- the notion that an all-in-one device, such as Apple's often-rumored tablet, could instantly level the entire e-reader field as presently constituted is no longer a quaint idea, but a coming reality.

True, the many features of the new Sony Readers, from the touchscreens, the variety in sizes and prices and the deal with libraries to loan out e-books through the Overdrive service, are enough to put a scare into Amazon. Until now, the Kindle held most of the e-reading limelight, especially after Amazon re-upped with the Kindle 2 back in February and followed with a large-screen model, the Kindle DX, a few short months later.

What Sony has brought to the fight are devices that can compete with Amazon on just about all fronts, along with the type of name recognition -- Sony being an internationally known brand in electronics and plenty of other industries -- that Amazon's other, more obscure competitors don't have. More importantly, Sony has expressed support for ePub -- the open e-book publishing standard that Amazon has effectively shunned -- and publicly championed DRM-free e-books and a variety of platform options as key to the future of the market.

Granted, Amazon understands a multi-platform approach, too. Sure, it's holding tight to a proprietary format that forces customers to use only Kindle-accessed content on Kindle, but it's also spread its Kindle brand to applications -- most notably, the Kindle application for Apple's iPhone -- and has bought up competitors like Lexcycle's Stanza to add more tools to how it markets the Kindle brand.

But are either Amazon or Sony's efforts going to matter if an Apple tablet -- or any competitor who pushes the e-reader agenda past the level of the dedicated device -- comes to the fore? The NPD Group recently found, in a survey of about 2,000 U.S. adults, that only about 37 percent were "very interested" or "somewhat interested" in buying an e-reader.

Data like that might suggest the Kindle and the Sony Reader aren't catching on fast enough to interest more than a third of the consumer electronics buying public, and by the time e-reading is finally mainstream enough that, like smartphones or at least mobile e-mail, it can no longer be ignored, the time of the dedicated device might already be over. While we wait for their next moves -- and eyeball the holiday shopping season and its effects on both Kindle and Sony reader -- is it worth wondering if they're fighting a battle that's already over?

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