Sharp launching Android e-book reader Galapagos

Sharp will enter the e-book market this December with two Android-based readers that it collectively hopes will sell a million units within their first year on sale. The aggressive sales target is matched with an equally aggressive plan to enter the U.S. market in 2011 and compete head-to-head with companies like Amazon, Sony, Samsung and Apple.

The December launch will see a domestic e-book and e-newspaper store set up with about 30,000 titles and Sharp is already in talks with Verizon Wireless on a U.S. launch, but Sharp is sure to face a tough battle in the competitive e-reader market.

The readers will be sold under the “Galapagos” brand name and the initial two models are differentiated by their screen size. One has a 5.5-inch screen, around the same size as Amazon’s Kindle, and the other a 10-inch screen, which is just slightly larger than Apple’s iPad.

Sharp says the e-readers are meant to compete more with products like Amazon’s Kindle and the Barnes and Noble Nook than tablet PCs like Apple’s iPad and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, but comparison with the latter devices might be difficult to avoid.

With their bright, colorful LCD (liquid crystal display) screens and shiny finish, the e-readers look more like these latter devices than traditional e-book readers. Sharp’s choice of LCD over the grey-ish e-paper screens used in e-readers isn’t a surprise — it’s one of the world’s major LCD makers — but that choice and the Android operating system could see some consumers thinking of them more as tablet PCs.

Future plans call for the addition of wider e-commerce services, music, video and a Web browser, which could further distance them from the e-book market. Unlike tablet PCs they won’t necessarily be able to run Android software of the user’s choice. The devices come with some Android apps already installed, but users might not be able to download additional apps. Also, the first models have Wi-Fi but don’t come equipped with 3G wireless.

Price could do a lot to define their position in the market but Sharp wouldn’t disclose that on Monday. It said pricing and full technical details would be announced closer to the launch date.

For the domestic market, perhaps Sharp’s biggest challenge lies in changing the perception of the word it’s chosen as the brand name for the products: Galapagos.

Best known around the world as the islands off Ecuador that are home to a large number of endemic species, “Galapagos” is perhaps most often used in the Japanese business world to refer to products or technologies that have evolved differently in Japan from the rest of the world.

One of the best examples of this is the Japanese mobile phone industry, which took off with feature-rich handsets and heavy use of the mobile Web. Once celebrated as a technological leader, it later became viewed in a negative eye because the gap between Japan and the rest of the world left domestic cell-phone makers unable to compete overseas.

“Sharp regards Galapagos as a positive terminology,” the company said in statement issued to specifically address the brand name. Sharp said the name, “will now represent a global-standard tablet terminal with cutting-edge technology and know-how cultivated in Japan, integrated with global de-facto standard technologies.”

That may be the Sharp’s ambition, but the two e-readers unveiled on Monday and a planned e-book service that will launch in December are based on XMDF (ever-eXtending Mobile Document Format), a format developed by Sharp and largely confined to Japan.

Sharp said it will later add support for the ePub format, used by Barnes and Noble and Sony in their e-readers, and other document formats including HTML, the basic language of the text Internet, and Adobe’s PDF.

Sharp has chosen XMDF for some of the features it offers over competing formats.

In a demonstration of the e-readers, Sharp showed how video can be embedded and played from documents, support for vertically orientated Japanese script and the changing of font sizes without altering the content and picture layout on the page.

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