Google begins its rumble with Amazon

Summary:Amazon has some new competition for the hearts and minds of book publishers and readers, which is a very good thing. But the news that Google is poised to enter the downloadable bookselling market is of mixed value to readers and publishers, because we're headed into a format/delivery model war that will wipe out the value of many millions of books people purchase over the next year.

Amazon has some new competition for the hearts and minds of book publishers and readers, which is a very good thing. But the news that Google is poised to enter the downloadable bookselling market is of mixed value to readers and publishers, because we're headed into a format/delivery model war that will wipe out the value of many millions of books people purchase over the next year.

Google is talking about a "digital book ecosystem," which is essentially a closed system that depends on authentication of users, caching of limited numbers of HTML books on a device, and a security regime that probably will discourage any deep linking or social features for the time being. Google's current book downloads, consisting of about 500,000 out-of-copyright and a few tens of thousands of copyrighted books available only in "limited preview" and "snippet" sample forms, uses a "My Library" approach to collecting books and providing repeated access access to them. Books downloaded from Google Books are presented in PDF format, different than the reported formats discussed by Google this week.

Think the music subscription approach that Microsoft takes with Zune Pass, where ongoing access to the service is required if you are going to keep using your library. One of the primary benefits of the Kindle, at least for people I've talked with, is the ability to access their books locally rather than over the Net. For all the proprietary issues Kindle-formatted books have, they do the one thing readers want well: make e-books useful anywhere. The same is true of books downloaded onto various mobile phone and PC platforms.

Moreover, the Google service will apparently rely on some form of authenticated HTML access to books purchased, rather than the PDF format it currently uses for downloadable books in Google Books. Not the ePUB format, which the entire industry should be adopting (and adapting, because it needs work, too), nor any of the downloadable formats, such as .MOBI or other formats compatible with the popular Stanza reader from Lexcycle, now a subsidiary of Amazon. Adoption may not rely on downloading a new reader, since Google's service will reportedly work in a browser, but so many people have installed these other readers that there will be some perceived migration cost among users.

The battle may take the form of a price war, though I think it will not end until e-book data is standardized enough to work across hardware and software platforms is over. That means that after the shake-out is over, most of the e-books purchased by now and during the e-book wars will likely be obsolete and unreadable sometime in the future. Compared to books, which are infinitely useful, that's a big step down. And for publishers, who will likely face readers' wrath without Google's help, that's a reason to think twice before doing a deal that allows Google some input on pricing.

Accounts vary as to whether Google will set prices or whether publishers will—I tend to believe the publishers will have control of prices for the most part, as the private briefing Google held with publishers during BookExpo America this week would have turned into a bloodbath if they'd tried to dictate prices, as Amazon has.

I'd only point back to my recent posting on the curation of e-books being a significant value-added service as a way of advising publishers to think twice before moving forward. Facilitating social connection through books is an extremely viable way to support profits. The privacy concerns raised by Richard Koman are also a concern, though I don't think Google will display ads in the books it sells. It will, however, harvest more personal data from book usage.

All in all, the field is only being set for a showdown, one that is going to produce upheaval in publishing (a good thing) and a lot of wasted spending by readers (which is a bad thing).

Topics: Hardware, Google, Mobility

About

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran journalist, media executive and entrepreneur. He was editor of the ground-breaking Digital Media newsletter in the 1990s and a frequent contributor to ZDNet over the years. He led development of the first Web audio/video news network at ON24, sat on the board of Electric Classifieds Inc. and Match.com, and wor... Full Bio

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