Google (www.google.com) and Sony Electronics' consumer operations (www.sonystyle.com) have announced an arrangement by which 500,000 of the estimated 1.5 million public domain books now available for download directly at Google Book Search (books.google.com) will be formatted for delivery to two models of Sony's ebook Reader devices (www.sonystyle.com/reader). The arrangement would appear to offer immediate advantages to Sony, whose eBook Store (http://ebookstore.sony.com) jumps from an estimated 100,000 books to 600,000, in comparison with the estimated 250,000 ebooks available for Amazon's Kindle reader. As for Google's motivation, once again, virtue triumphs. The nonexclusive arrangement with Sony simply represents more ways to assist people in reaching the books-and still for free, according to a Google representative. Actually, Google initiated its own mobile access for the iPhone or its own Android phone earlier this year (http://books.google.com/m), one that opened up all 1.5 million public domain books to U.S. users and more than half a million for outside the U.S.
Discussions on the current and future success of ebooks often focus on the current and future success of ebook readers. However, Google and, to some extent, even ebook reader pioneer Sony have taken a more open, platform-independent strategy. Google has begun positioning itself with its Book Search publisher partners as a potential ebook production service. And if the court approves, it has promised to open access to millions of in-copyright/out-of-print books from its library partners, books that represent an unmatched and curated collection, to institutional subscriptions. (See the Nov. 3, 2008, NewsBreak, http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/NewsBreaks/The-Google-Book-Search-Settlement-The-Devils-in-the-Details-51429.asp.) And if that goes through as planned, a subscription could become a more universal, must-have library purchase than the World Almanac!
So far, Google has not attempted to seriously monetize Google Book Search. Aside from ads appearing in a search results page and unsponsored user-convenience links to key online book stores or publisher websites (or "Find in a Library" links through OCLC connections for the library partner contributions), readers scanning Google Book Search pages do not see ads. Neither Sony nor Google would discuss any financial arrangements stemming from this new alliance.
Sony began its ebook reader history in 1990, with the Sony Data Discman reader, releasing the larger, more-powerful Sony Bookman in 1991. In 2006, it released the Sony Reader. While Sony has a clear interest in selling and promoting use of its Readers, it is not rigid about it. Anyone can go to the Sony eBook store, download the free eBook Library Software, register to set up an account, browse the site, and download books-for a fee, unless it's from Google. The downloaded book goes to your computer from which you transfer it via a USB port to your Sony Reader. But as stated in the specifications for the software, "You do not need a device to use the service." You can read any downloaded book on your computer. The software will even adjust the text to create a two-page, full-screen view for a computer monitor. The Reader is also quite accommodating. Besides ebooks, it will take Adobe PDF files, Word documents, and other text formats.
Sony uses a proprietary format for downloading from its eBook Store-BBeB (Broad Band eBook) format using XML. However, it accommodates the open ePub format in wide use by publishers. Google uses ePub for preparing its ebook service to mobile devices to promote more-flexible text flowing to the smaller screens of ebook readers and handheld devices. Preparation is very challenging in some cases. What Google delivers to mobile devices differs from the Adobe PDF files users download from Google Book Search directly over a standard computer connection. Instead of a digital image version of a book for users to page through, Google creates a text version of the book based on its OCR (optical character recognition). As anyone who has dealt with OCR knows, this can lead to some pretty nasty errors, especially when the digital imaging is applied to old material in varying condition, different languages, single or multiple column page formats, etc. For the full 1.5 million public domain books made available for iPhones and Android phones, when pages get too unreadable, users can hit a button and flash to a digital image of the page. However, the 500,000 books fed to Sony were chosen based mainly on the superior condition of the text versions. Sony representatives indicated that they might get more in the future, while Google representatives made a point of the continuing effort in-house to improve the processing of their books for multiple devices.
Speaking of the future, I asked a Google representative whether the company had any plans to open up the promised collection of in-copyright/out-of-print books to ebook readers. She reminded me firmly that it was too early to speculate, but if access to these books occurred, no downloading was planned.
Access to the Google collection is open only to users who own the PRS-505 ($300) or PRS-700 ($350) Reader models. Sony representatives did not close the door on expanding access to other models. Registration and access to the Google contribution is currently limited to users in the U.S. and Canada.
Just this month, Barnes & Noble's recently acquired Fictionwise ebook service released a free electronic reader software designed to work with Research in Motion, Ltd.'s BlackBerry device. The Fictionwise service currently handles about 60,000 ebooks, but Barnes & Noble is expected to open an expanded ebook service soon.
According to Lolita Reyes, global marketing manager at Sony Electronics, the 100,000 ebooks already in the Sony eBook Store represent contributions from more than 100 publishers, including New York Times best-sellers, priced slightly above or below $11.99. In contrast, Amazon has more than 250,000 ebooks from its network of publishers, plus access to top U.S. and international newspapers, magazines, and blogs. And Amazon's best-sellers and new releases generally cost $9.99.
When the dust clears, though ebook readers may appeal to insatiable gadgeteers and nonsedentary heavy readers, the ultimate victory for ebook sales may reveal the eternal victor-Content, Content, Content. In typical Amazon fashion, the announcement of "Earth's Biggest Electronic Book Store"-still appearing even after Sony bumped its count up to 600,000-states, "This is just the beginning. Our vision is to have every book ever printed, in any language, all available in under 60 seconds on Kindle. We won't stop until we get there." Sounds like the next knock on Google Book Search's door could be Jeff Bezos calling.