Google and Sony are expected to announce a non-exclusive digital books partnership today, a move that goes directly at Amazon and its new Kindle reader. The deal, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, is the first in what's bound to a number of digital book partnerships that will likely resemble what we've seen with the rise of other digital media formats: confusion.
Already, consumers contemplating the purchase of an e-Book reader are being forced to compare apples to oranges so they can determine the best route to take. With the Kindle comes access to a catalog of 245,000 titles, including the most recently released and most popular. But those e-books aren't free. New releases are priced at $9.99, though many other titles cost less. And don't forget that there's a Kindle app on the iPhone/iPod Touch.
With the Sony reader, there are still titles available for purchase online. But the Google catalog boosts Sony's offerings by adding the more than 500,000 public domain books scanned by Google as part of its controversial book digitization project. Those titles will be made available for free.
For consumers, it comes down to a confusing - and expensive - choice. Neither of the readers is cheap - roughly $350 or so for each. And, clearly, you can't read just anything on these devices. So, if you pick the wrong reader (for your literary tastes), you could find yourself locked into something that either becomes the iPod of the digital book world or the Rio. No one wants to be stuck with a loser. (Any HD-DVD owners out there wishing they'd picked Blu-Ray instead?) I guess this is the risk you take and the price you pay for being an early adopter.
There is, of course, one big winner here. And that's Google. The deal with Sony is non-exclusive, which means that Google could cut a deal with Amazon to get its titles on the Kindle, too. The WSJ report notes that Google and Amazon are not currently in talks - though that doesn't mean they won't be talking in the future. For now, Google said the titles on the Sony Reader will not include advertising - but I'd be willing to bet that that changes down the road. Eventually, they'll want to slap some ads on that screen.
The Journal also notes that Google has book publishers starting to shake in their boots as they watch the search giant - which fought hard and dug deep into its pockets for the right to digitize the public-domain books - get into their business. Google, however, says it's not interested in creating content; its interests are in distribution. It seems like the smarter way to go.