Google Editions brings "open ecosystem" to ebook market

Google's foray into the ebook market brings new approaches and another killer app for the Android ecosystem. But is it enough to break Amazon's stranglehold on the market?

Google Editions has been on my radar for a while now, primarily for its potential applications to educational technology. After all, while the Kindle and Sony Reader were great tools for bookworms, they were hardly the sort of devices that could bring the next generation of interactive books to students with their gray-scale low-resolution screens. Besides, the iPad was just around the corner, right? Google's distribution model seemed a perfect fit for web-centric tablets like the iPad and any other smartphone or computer to which users happened to have access.

For those of you not familiar with Google Editions, this will be Google's entry into the ebook marketplace. Ultimately, it will probably include millions of scanned titles from their controversial Books project, but until the legal wrangling over Books is wrapped up, Editions will feature both Google's own Amazon-style store as well as partner sales channels for small distributors and bookstores when it launches this summer.

A look at the existing Books site gives a sense of what we should expect from the Editions experience. Editions is fundamentally different from other ebook distribution models in that the books you buy will live only in your "library", a cloud-based collection of your books rather than files downloaded to an e-reader or local repository of some sort. Google Books currently renders quite well on Android smartphones and iPhones, although it isn't clear what sort of Apps will be available at launch that optimize the reading experience on smaller screens.

The idea of a library that can be accessed from any web browser, ensuring that you aren't tied to a given device, operating system, or even a particular vendor brings what Google calls an "open ecosystem" to the ebook market. According to PCWorld,

That open nature may have its benefits: [Google engineer Dan] Clancy is cited as saying that Google Editions will offer a substantially greater selection than other e-book retailers. For publishers, it could also mean greater control over their products and how they're sold.

But is openness enough? Is the average consumer ready for a more obviously subscription-based approach to ebooks? I say "more obviously" since most ebooks sold by Amazon, Sony, and Apple are actually subscriptions or limited licenses; however, consumers still feel (if incorrectly) as if they've bought something tangible because it can be downloaded to a device.

The short answer, I think, is yes. Google's timing here is impeccable. The emergence of tablet devices and really outstanding smartphones makes cloud-based storage of whatever you might be reading very attractive. A giant selection ranging from the self-published to the mainstream to the esoteric from a small publishing house will make sense for consumers and verticals like education. And publishers, authors, and resellers would be foolish not to jump on the bandwagon given Google's generous profit-sharing models.

This is a big deal that will have extremely broad appeal. Don't be surprised if you see some Android devices available at launch that fully leverage the strengths of Editions and make a cloud-based reading experience seamless for users.