Will Google shake up the e-book market?

Google is poised to enter the e-book market with Google Editions, but how appealing will its unique no-device/any-device model be to consumers?

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Google may be almost ready to the wraps of its online bookstore known as Google Editions. This could have a massive effect on the existing electronic bookstore market space and on the current big three e-reading powerhouses: Amazon, Apple, and Barnes and Noble.

To me, what's most fascinating about Google's approach (and something that is touched on but not really explored in a lot of the commentary pieces I've seen) is that Google is eschewing the idea of a dedicated device (and possibly even a dedicated app). Google Editions purchases will be tied to a user's Google account and book would be accessible from any device with a web browser.

This approach doesn't immediately conjure up direct comparisons to the Kindle, iBooks, or Nook experiences (be it on a dedicated device or through an app as Amazon and Barnes and Noble offer). Instead it reminds me more of Safari Books Online, a joint venture of several technology publishers to make tech books ranging from introductory to advanced material available via the web using a subscription model.

Although I like the breadth of content and the subscription model of Safari (after all, you mostly read technology books to learn something specific or use them as a reference as needed), the interface has always seemed clunky (particularly the search function, though I'm sure Google will more than succeed when it comes to catalog and in in-book searches). It's pretty clear reading a book using Safari that you're looking at content that wasn't designed for the web and that has been pushed or stretched to fit in a web-based format. That said, for an extra fee, Safari does offer the ability to download and print chapters or even whole books for offline reading which mitigates its design limitations.

Although this sounds pretty critical of Safari, it isn't a big problem when you're using the service as a reference source. The subscription nature that gives you access to all these books at a flat fee as well as the different style of reading more than makes up for the limitations and it is a service that I recommend to IT departments and professionals.

But, I wouldn't want to read a novel that way. The reason e-readers have succeeded (either dedicated devices or as smartphone/tablet apps) is that they provide a truly immersive experience that is very similar to reading a book. The ePub format (using by Apple, Barnes and Noble, and the lesser known Kobo platform) is brilliantly designed to flow text (and occasionally images and charts) into various formats without making it seem chopped up in any way.

I'm not certain Google can achieve this successfully in a browser-based solution, particularly if the company wants to support every PC, tablet, and smartphone on the planet. I'm sure they'll be able to develop something that works, but I'm not sure it will work as well. I also think some users might be put off by the web-based option in the same way that some users prefer to use Office on their PC rather than Google Docs (even though Google Docs is free). The interface is more familiar and they don't have to worry about losing their Internet connection. The fact that e-readers only need connectivity to download books, not to read them also gives them an advantage (yes, browsers can do offline content and Google will no doubt build in support for Gears, but the average user may not realize that possibility exists or think it's too complicated to use).

Even if Google is successful with its design of the concept, I doubt people will rely on Editions on anything other than a smartphone or tablet. Reading long passages on a computer (desktop or notebook) produces eyestrain and is generally neither comfortable nor ergonomic.

As far as a catalog goes, however, I see Google eventually becoming king. The company is actively courting smaller publishers and booksellers (often the people left out of the mainstream e-book market), can probably already provide a staggering amount of free material thanks to its Google Books service, and is in talks with major publishers. Ironically, I think the major publishers might be the hardest source for Google to secure. Publishers weren't happy with how Google handled their titles when it came to Google Books and Google is using an untried business model.

Another challenge is that many e-reader owners have made their choice of platform and are most comfortable dealing with the associated retailer. The difference being iOS and Android devices, where multiple e-reader apps are available (allowing users to select books from different retailers based on availability or price).

One thing in its favor, is that Google doesn't need to make a fortune right off the bat with Google Editions. The company's major source of revenue, despite all its services, is search and context appropriate ads. This gives Google time to test its model, fine-tune it, and make it more successful.

One thing is certain, if Apple shook up the e-reader market with the iPad and its iBookstore (now accounting for 32% of e-book sales), Google's presence will do the same possibly seeming like a earthquake instead of just a shake up.

What do you think? Is Google going take over the e-book arena or are they missing the mark (in a similar way to how you could argue they missed the mark with Google TV)? If you use an e-reader, would you be tempted by Google Editions? Share your opinion in the comments.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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