With little fanfare, Google on Monday introduced its long-anticipated entry into the billion-dollar online ebook business. Google ebookstore joins the ebook online sellers party currently dominated by Amazon, and challengers Barnes & Noble, Sony, Apple, and Borders.
While Google has long been active globally in copying/digitizing vast quantities of books, and is now free from the wrath of book publishers around the world over copyright issues, this week’s announcement shows the search giant’s approach to bookselling doesn’t much vary from its competitors — at least at this point.
As it does with other Google applications, such as Google Docs, you can buy, store, and read Google books and eBooks in the digital cloud; i.e., stored and fully accessible from the internet. They are also published in the Adobe Digital Editions EPUB format, which is readable on many different devices. That is one of the company’s major selling points, obviously attempting to blunt the efforts of Amazon.com, whose proprietary AZW book format, readable only on handheld Kindle reader devices and Kindle-branded computer desktop and mobile software have become the largest U.S. ebook seller by far. (Exactly how big is open to question, and Amazon isn't telling).
While sellers in the past rolled out software readers slowly — a PC reader, then an iPhone reader, etc. — Google opened the door with reading available on any computer browser, ereader hardware including Barnes & Noble's Nook and Sony ereaders, and a variety of reader apps on multiple devices including iPhones/iPads and Android systems. (Here's a brief video that explains their vision.)
The company draws a distinct line between "Google Books," which are books it has copied from the libraries of the world, and "ebooks," which are published by other publishers and available for purchase through the Google ebookstore. If you want to see the books currently in Google’s own library, here’s a link for that. And if you just want to explore the ebooks, here’s the ebookstore link. It’s a bit confusing.
I tried the Google reader in different forms, using a free copy of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” as my test on a PC and Mac desktop computers, an Android phone, and the iPad.
Reading on a computer, I first went to the Google ebookstore, scrolled down a list of books until I found “Great Expectations,” and clicked on the “Read Now” button. The link instantly took me to a book cover picture and the announcement, “This is a digital copy of a book that was preserved for generations on library shelves before it was carefully scanned by Google as part of a project to make the world’s books discoverable online.”
Turning the page, I saw that the book was published by a Boston firm, Estes and Lauriat, in 1881. The book itself included illustrations from the original volume, but the text was in contemporary type. I could adjust the font and size as well.
To test it on other devices, I downloaded the reader on my iPad and Droid X Android smartphone from the apps store (under “Google Books”) and found the book equally readable there.
In this first version of the software, only a portrait (straight-up) orientation is supported on the mobile devices. And I thought that Google ebooks are supposed to synchronize from device to device; if so, I couldn’t make it work.
Regarding the selection of today’s popular books, Google’s ebook store has much the same top-tier selection of books as do other stores, including The New York Times list of best sellers. It claims to have a library of 3 million books, although as some have pointed out, most of them appear to be Google’s free books.
The battle for the hearts and minds of readers is still in its earliest days. Last July, Amazon reportedly said it was selling more ebooks than hardcover books. Its new compact Kindle ebook reader is among the hottest must-have electronic goodies this holiday season.
Since Amazon introduced the Kindle in 2007, it has emerged as the clear industry leader, beating back as formidable an opponent as Sony, whose own line of ebook readers, launched in 2005, hasn’t seemingly fared as well.
But Sony along with such odd bedfellows/competitors as Google, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and several major publishers, all sellers of ebooks, are fighting back by centralizing on the EPUB format: itself a derivative of the ubiquitous Adobe Acrobat PDF portable document format and the gold standard around the world for document exchanges. And while it's too early to know how successful Google's market entry will be, it certainly brings another major player into the fray. Meanwhile, Amazon and its closed-to-the-outside-world Kindle technology, stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Hmmm . . . Does this remind anyone else of Apple vs. the world?