December 06, 2010, 11:22 AM —
Last week, I speculated on how Google's eBook service might fit into the overall e-reader marketplace. This morning, Google took the wraps off the service, officially know as simply Google eBooks. Despite not partnering to provide a dedicated e-reader device, Google has covered its bases in providing a native app for both Android (naturally) and a universal iOS app the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. Google hadn't initially announced plans for dedicated apps and previous attention was focused on the web-based reading experience with an expectation that native apps, particularly for Apple's iOS might come later(this is actually somewhat the case as links to download the apps for both platforms aren't active as of this writing).
Perhaps more important than providing native apps for the two major tablet platforms available at the moment (Apple's iPad and the growing number of Android tablets – most notably the Galaxy Tab, which reached the one million units sold mark last week), Google also partnered with Adobe to offer access to ebooks on a wide range of existing e-reader devices including the Barnes and Noble Nook and Sony Reader.
Using the Adobe Digital Editions software, users of the Nook and Sony Reader (along with other devices), users can download an EPUB or PDF version of purchased books and transfer them to their existing e-reader. Books will still be DRM protected through a .acsm file that the free Adobe Digital Editions software can unlock and then transfer the purchase to a user's device(s).
This is a huge competitive advantage for Google (and bound to be a headache for companies with their own dedicated ebooks stores like Barnes and Noble). It's also good for users of dedicated device because unlike the iPad or an Android tablet where apps for multiple ebook stores available, users of dedicated devices like the Nook have only had access to one major store. Unsurprisingly, however, Kindle users are out of luck as Amazon uses its own proprietary format for ebooks.
Whether using a dedicated app (either on a smartphone or a tablet) or transferring a book to a dedicated e-reader, the entire book will be available for offline reading (much as ebooks from other publishers) and will not require a web browser or Internet access.
Speaking of web browsing, one of my initial concerns about Google's web-based e-reader approach was that the interface might not be conducive to sustained periods o reading. Having read some sample chapters through the Google eBooks site, the interface is pretty good. Navigation is easy and intuitive and Google has kept the actually book content portion of the interface exceptionally clean and free of features that might be distracting (though a well done context-sensitive dictionary feature like the ones found in other e-reader platforms).
I still question can't see users cozying up to the web feature on a computer (desktop or notebook) as they would an e-reader, but for Windows 7 tablets and even BlackBerry devices (or RIM's PlayBook when it ships), the approach will probably work well assuming Google doesn't continue to add more dedicated apps.
Regardless of design and forms of access, Google's biggest accomplishments are in helping users find books. As you might expect, the search experience mirrors Google's other search products and is simpler and more effective than the options built into most dedicated e-readers and native apps. It's even simpler and faster to navigate than Amazon's website.
Equally important is the catalog contents, which appear to be quite well stocked (though many of the books scanned by the Google Books project aren't included). To date, I've relied on Amazon and the Kindle app as the source of last resort for ebooks I can't find in either Apple's iBookstore or for the Nook. I picked a handful of obscure titles not even available via Kindle that were easily available from Google eBooks. I did strike out when it came to out of print books, which could be an interesting area for Google to leverage.
All in all, I'm not sure Google will completely shake up the ebook and e-reader market space. But, Google eBooks offers a lot of additional choice for pretty much everyone (theoretically Kindle owners should be able to access the service via the Kindle's web browser, though my guess is most will stick with just Amazon) and demonstrates the power for users, publishers, and small book sellers of an ebook ecosystem built on open standards like EPUB.
Curious about the selection an reading experience, head over to Google eBooks and check it out for yourself. Then feel free to come back and share your thoughts here in the comments.