Thursday, May 6, 2010

In Thinking About Google Books, the Kindle, and the iPad, How About a Little Reality?

Just as many of us are coming to grips with the reality that Apple and Amazon have more to gain as partners than as adversaries when it comes both to hardware and content, along comes Google this week with yet another Google Books launch date and all kinds of attention paid in the media to whether Google Books will be a Kindle Killer, an iBooks Killer, or both.

I'll devote another post to some of the fun we can already have downloading content to iPads and other devices from Google Books, but for not it is important to note that there is a colossal amount of misinformation being passed around about all of this, and how it all relates to the ebook offerings of Apple, Amazon, and other entities. The basic mythical narrative that is being spread about the Google initiative is that its ebooks will be "open" in all kinds of ways in which Kindle and iBooks offerings are "closed." It's simply not true. Here are the two main points to remember.
  • The Kindle, the free Kindle apps for other devices, and the iPad are all, each and every one, capable of reading millions of books that are available from the Internet Archive, Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks, Manybooks, Baen Books, and many other ebook sources, without any purchase necessary from the Kindle or iBooks stores.
  • Any of the 512,000 books that can currently can be purchased and downloaded from the Kindle Store can be read with or without a Kindle. Repeat: you don't need a Kindle to buy them and you don't need a Kindle to read them. What you do need, depending on what kind of hardware you intend to use, is a free download of one of the Kindle apps for the PC, the Mac, the iPad, the Phone, the iPod Touch, or the BlackBerry. If you do not own any of these, you are not reading this post anyway, right? 
The Kindle platform has dominated the ebook content market up to now, and may continue to dominate. The iPad is a beautiful device that will revolutionize the ways in which people use technology and the internet. The iBooks reading environment is also pretty cool, but as long as the actual iBooks Store has only 12% to 20% as many titles as the Kindle Store, and as long as Apple lags behind in the kind of search/browse/sort features to which Amazon and Kindle customers have become accustomed, it is likely that the majority of ebooks bought and downloaded to iPads will come from the Kindle Store. In the digital age, after all, most of us have become pretty good at shopping around.

The Google Books Store, by all accounts, may have a serious edge when it comes to catalog offerings, although it remains to be seen how contemporary and commercial the Google catalog will be right from the start. But assuming that Google can make beneficial deals with rightsholders so that it offers the kind of frontlist, midlist, backlist, and indie offerings of distinction that serious readers want to read, it will have two main hurdles to overcome:
  • Ironically, the current search/sort/browse infrastructure of Google Books comes up way short compared to the Kindle Store.
  • There's nothing at present to suggest that the device-agnostic Google Books reading environment will be nearly as neat a reading environment as we're used to with the Kindle and the iPad, but we'll see.
  • As powerful as Google is in the internet world, it will still be coming late to the party that -- as of this summer -- will be dominated by the Kindle and iPad platforms, and to a large extent its success will be driven by its ability to fit in nicely with the core groups of series readers who are already reading on those platforms, so it will need to step carefully and be more collaborative than adversarial.


  1. Am I incorrect, or don't you have to read Google books on your computer screen? If so, that's a deal breaker. I adore my Kindle and my iPad but read very little on the iPad because it is too heavy to hang onto and the Kindle is just right. I love its gentle-on-the-eyes screen. I cringe every time I hear the phrase Kindle Killer because I want my Kindle or its successor to live forever.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mary, and nice to see you again. I'll have a post in the next 48 on this, but I expect to see Google Books on the K and i devices.... Cheers, Steve