Retailers in Japan began accepting reservations for Sharp's new Galapagos media tablet on Friday ahead of its launch next week. Sharp hopes to sell a million of the devices and in doing so take the lead in Japan from competitors like Apple's iPad and Amazon's Kindle.
With a bright, colour LCD screen and Android operating system, the Galapagos tablet appears closer to an iPad than a Kindle, but users can't download or install software of their choice. The device is limited to Sharp's ebook reader software and, from next year, a multimedia player that will bring video and audio.
The device is available in two versions: one with a 10.8-inch screen and one with a 5.5-inch screen. The 10.8-inch model is midway in price between Apple's 16GB and 32GB Wi-Fi iPad models and the 5.5-inch model is more expensive than all models of Kindle and Sony Reader.
To the gadget-minded this might make the Galapagos a tough sell, but it's coming into a market where ebooks have yet to take off beyond the cramped enclosures of a mobile phone screen. Consumer opinion in Japan about what an ebook reader should look like and cost is yet to be shaped.
Amazon's Kindle has been on sale for just over a year, but it's only available online so isn't visible in any of the many electronics stores where Japanese typically evaluate and buy gadgets. Apple's iPad launched earlier this year, but there's been more of a focus on apps than books.
When the Galapagos goes on sale on December 10 it will have little competition on retail shelves with one exception: Sony's Reader is launching in Japan the same day.
Cornering the local market
Sharp is emphasising local content and convenience.
It promises 30,000 books, newspapers and magazines will be available by the end of this year, said Keiko Okada, a group general manager at Sharp, speaking outside a central Tokyo electronics store where reservations were about to begin. See video of the launch on YouTube.
"The automatic scheduled delivery service is a big feature," said Okada. "You won't need to visit your mailbox each morning, your newspaper will automatically arrive. Even if you're overseas on a business trip, it will be automatically delivered."
Sales of books, magazines and newspapers in Japan has been declining in recent years although the markets remain relatively strong. Anyone riding a morning commuter train will notice many passengers reading books and newspapers, but phones are increasingly commanding their attention.
The ebook market in Japan was worth ¥52.9 billion (£404 million) in 2009 and is expected to grow to ¥87.6 billion by 2014, according to a report published in January by Fuji Chimera Research. At present the market is almost entirely comic books, which can be easily read on phones, and most readers are in their teens and 20s according the report said.
Proprietary file format
The tablets are based around a Sharp ebook format called XMDF (ever-eXtending Mobile Document Format). It supports embedded video and allows the size of text to be changed without affect to the format of the page, but it's incompatible with formats used in other countries.
If Sharp succeeds in selling a million tablets, it could popularise XMDF and result in the Japan market evolving differently from other countries. The same thing happened a decade ago with I-mode on mobile phones and helped popularise the use of the term "Galapagos" to refer to products or technologies that have evolved differently in Japan from the rest of the world.
Sharp says that's not the intention this time and Galapagos was chosen to "represent a global standard tablet terminal with cutting edge technology and know how cultivated in Japan."
Time will tell how suitable the name turned out to be. Sharp plans to sell the Galapagos tablets overseas but has yet to detail launch dates, locations and prices.
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