Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Google eBooks, an initial response

Used with permission, CC 2.0: Stewart Butterfield

Google eBooks opened up with some fanfare several days ago. In an effort to corner a piece of yet another huge, emerging market, the Google eBooks store fired off a first round in competition with Amazon's Kindle store, B&N's Nook, and Apple's iBooks.

In our opinion, this first round is a dud.

Did you forget the user?

The news caused a stir. Within minutes, I'd downloaded Google's free book reader app onto all the devices I could find at arm's reach [read: my iPad, a few Macs, and my iPhone 3G].

Now, I'll admit that I'm all about free books. I want established wisdom from the public domain delivered to me on-demand. Project Gutenberg is my friend. And Google's bookstore (which is accessed through their website, just like you would with a computer-based or mobile-based Kindle or Nook application) doesn't disappoint. Within a few minutes I had five or six interesting free titles waiting for me in my Google reader, on whatever device I wanted.

Then came the problem. Google's been spending the past few years scanning in page after page after page of existing text. No OCR. Just pictures of the pages. They own the content of hundreds of thousands of volumes, a rich and diverse collection of knowledge. Unfortunately, what you can't do is reformat (at least easily), share, highlight, zoom, stretch, pinch, or rotate. In short, the content is all there on the screen, somewhere, but the pixels are pretty much undreadable.

I expected a superior user experience over the Kindle, Nook, and iBooks. Why enter the fight now if you don't have something brilliant to offer?

Quantity over quality

I'll grant Google the early winner in the content category. They boast 3 million volumes available today, some of which are actually interesting to read. The Barnes & Noble Nook store claims 2 million, Amazon's Kindle store not even half that. If you're looking for a book, it might make sense to try Google first. Maybe. Sort of. (They may have scanned in a gajillion books, but are they good ones?)

Until the reader is viable (read: richly-featured), I'll stick with iBooks (and, on occasion, Nook and Kindle) when I need it. Google can call me when they're ready to try again.

Question: What are your thoughts on the emerging eBook market? Is the printed page dead yet?