On Monday morning, Google announced its long-expected eBookstore. You would not be alone in wondering why a Google eBookstore matters. After all, 2010 has already brought us Apple’s iBooks and its own store that runs on iPads and later model iPhones and iPod Touches. And Amazon’s Kindle has made eBook buying easy for more than three years. And there are plenty of other places where one can acquire eBooks that are formatted for a particular reader, like the nook, or for ANY reader, like Project Gutenberg. Indeed, as the lead image shows, I’ve got five dedicated reading apps on my iPad (plus a sixth that I forgot to add prior to taking the picture).
What, then, sets Google’s offering apart from all of the other eBookstores?
Google is aware that it needs to carve out its niche and its chosen to do that in terms of your books’ accessibility. I’m not talking about the kind of accessibility that George wrote about in yesterday’s post about UniversalSubtitles.org (or that he’s written about previously here, here, or here). Instead, Google is counting on making its mark through the user’s ability to access his eBooks on any particular platform that he would like to read them on at any moment. Your books are stored in the Google cloud (linked to your Google AKA Gmail account) and are accessible via the web, dedicated apps on portable devices, or even, in some cases, as PDFs. As Google frequently does, they have a beautiful (and short!) video that explains exactly how their eBookstore works.
Stored within your Google account, your progress through your various books are synced, so you can switch from reading on your laptop at breakfast to your smartphone during a commute and not lose your place. The ability to sync your last-read page across devices isn’t unique to Google’s eBooks; the Kindle and its suite of apps has done this for quite some time. But Google allows you to read these without the need to download a dedicated app for your computer (but you’ll need one for your iPad, iPhone, or Android device). And to be fair to Kindle, it appears that Kindle for the Web is on its way.
I’ve spent some time over the last few days experimenting with the Google Books app on my iPad and iPod Touch and the browser-based reader on Firefox and the Google Books app for Chrome (the new Chrome web store is something that we’ll cover in the near future). On the whole, I was pretty impressed with the claims that Google is making about accessibility. If I purchased a book on one device, it showed up within seconds as something that I could access on all of the others. The page synchronization worked quickly also, although I discovered that syncing appears to happen either on a periodic basis or when one closes a particular book. In other words, you can’t move directly from your iPod to your iPad until you’ve given the server time to catch up. That won’t often be a problem, but it is something to remember if you are reading a book when you don’t have wi-fi access.
What I most appreciated about the reading experience, however, was how unified the interface was across all the different devices I was using.
Moving from left to right are options to look through a Table of Contents, Settings, Search, and information about the book. Under the Settings one finds options to change the typeface and the size of the font; the height of the lines; and whether one wants to read from the actual scanned images of the books Google has used or “flowing text” (a very nicely OCR’d version of the text). There are a few extra options depending on the platform that you’re using: on mobile devices I have the choice whether I want “Day” or “Night” (i.e., white text on black background) settings for the lighting. On my iPad, I can enable “3-D Page Turns,” which simulate the feel of turning a book, just like in the iBooks app. And on a browser I can choose how I want the text justified. Differences do exist, then, but the icons and the feel of the app or application is amazingly consistent in a way that I personally haven’t found the Kindle application to be.
Where Google Books first falls short is in its inability to mark-up a text. In fact, there is no way to add comments, highlights, or even bookmarks to your books at the moment. Both Kindle and iBooks allow you to do this with relative ease, and my go-to file reader on my iPad (Good Reader, which Ethan highlighted as one of the 5 iPad applications he can’t live without) handles with aplomb. While this absence might inconvenience an ordinary reader, it is a deal breaker for me (and I’m guessing for many ProfHacker readers). And speaking of PDFs, the Google Books app doesn’t play nice with them. At the moment you can only read texts that you get from Google’s eBookstore or any of the independent booksellers that are partnering with Google. For an academic, not being able to work with PDFs is—again—a deal breaker. And rounding out my list of negatives, it’s worth noting that Google’s eBooks all come with digital rights management (DRM) that prevents you from sharing the books you’ve purchased with anyone else. This is par for the course in the eBooks field at the present, but it is still disappointing.
A final good that is worth mentioning again is that Google is indeed partnering with independent booksellers, which allows users to support their local stores while still getting digital copies of texts. Pricing is set by the stores, however, and Google appears to be matching Amazon’s Kindle pricing on almost every item, meaning that the independent’s are severely undercut. Sarah Werner, Director of the Undergraduate Program at the Folger Shakespeare Library, has a great post that explores Google’s eBook pricing that is worth your time.
Although it’s only been available for a few days, I’m guessing that many of our readers have been exploring Google’s eBookstore and its related applications. What do you like about the platform and what don’t you like? Please share your thoughts in the comments.