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Amazon and Google Take Ebook Rivalry Up a Few Notches
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Posted On July 18, 2011
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On Monday, July 11, Google announced the first ereader integrated with the open Google eBooks platform, making it easier for users to load and read Google ebooks in a Wi-Fi environment. However, by Wednesday, Amazon appeared to confirm long-held rumors of its plans to release a tablet this fall. These efforts seem intended to prepare for the upcoming holidays—the season when more consumer electronics products are sold than any other time of year.

Google’s Push Into the Ereader Arena

With the initial launch of Google's eBookstore last December, users could read their Google-purchased ebooks on iOS and Android devices as well as over the web or using Google Books mobile app on cellphones or PDAs. Google built its ebook platform on an open access model, giving users the ability to use their ebooks on any of 80 compatible ereaders—which includes the Barnes & Noble Nook as well as the Sony line of ereaders. However, the process of downloading titles has been a bit clunky. Users had to download titles to their computers and then transfer them to their readers by tethering their ereader device to the computer.

The Wi-Fi environment provides Google with a more user-friendly, easy way to load titles onto a reader. The first announced Google-eBooks-integrated ereader is the iriver Story HD. This ereader uses an XGA (768*1024) “highest resolution 6-inch e-ink screen,” however, the tiny QWERTY keyboard for input seems inadequate to today’s buyer expectations. Review units were unavailable at the time of this article; however, the units appear to offer little innovation or compelling features. The Story HD ereader will be sold for $139.99, starting July 17, at Target stores nationwide.

Google’s latest move doesn’t change the ability of buyers to use the devices of their choice, but provides a new parallel access point as the company works to build its brand as a bookseller in a market currently dominated by chief rival Amazon. Currently Google’s ebook network includes alliances with more than 250 independent bookstores and the company boasts it has “extended our affiliate network and updated our family of Google Books APIs.” As Google Books’ product manager Pratip Banerji remarked in announcing the release, “stay tuned for more Google eBooks-integrated devices to come.”

Amazon Solidifying Its Holiday Strategy?

A Wall Street Journal blog report supposedly leaked details of Amazon’s planned tablet computer to be released this fall. Although the WSJ bloggers saw this as a move into enterprise markets, Bezos himself has hinted at this as an extension of the company’s ereader product line in statements over the past few months. In an interview with Consumer Reports in May, reporters asked Amazon’s CEO if the company had any plans for launching a multipurpose tablet device, and his only response was “stay tuned.”

He stressed that any additional hardware would need to be complementary and not competitive with Amazon's Kindle products. At the June annual shareholder meeting, Bezos responded to a shareholder question on tablets with this: “Most of our customers shop with us from desktop or laptop computers, but people have a different posture with tablets,” he said. They “lean back on their sofa. People leaning back on their sofa, buying things from Amazon, is another tailwind for our business, so I’m very excited about that.”

Ebook Readership Continues to Soar

Last month, the Pew Internet & American Life project published a study, which found that in the last year—from the 2010 holiday period through May 2011—ebook reader sales doubled. Though the numbers are still small, the study found that the “share of adults in the United States who own an ebook reader doubled to 12% in May 2011, from 6% in November 2010.” Pew’s associate director for research, Kristen Purcell, noted that “this is the first time since the Pew Internet Project began measuring ereader use in April 2009 that ownership of this device has reached double digits among U.S. adults.”

Ereaders are still a tiny percentage of the full range of ereading options—from tablets to cellphones to desktops—but part of the larger trend “toward adoption of mobile devices,” the report notes. “This survey marks the first time that laptop computers are as popular as desktop computers among U.S. adults.”

Today, Google claims to offer readers “nearly 3 million free ebooks and hundreds of thousands of titles that are ready for purchase; with Google eBooks, you have access to the world’s largest selection of ebooks and unlimited storage in the digital cloud.” Having so many options in such an increasingly competitive arena assures ebooks have a strong future—and the buying public have some good product options along with a growing catalog of title options at competitive prices.


Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther
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