E-books may have been a niche technology so far, but Google Inc.'s entry into the market could burst the online business wide open.
The giant search engine company wants to give publishers a way to sell online digital books through a partner program by the end of the year.
What may be most important in today's news is that Google wants to allow partner publishers to to make their books available for purchase from any Web-enabled device. That means a user could use any smartphone to download e-books, although some users of Amazon Inc.'s Kindle and the Sony Reader say smartphone screens are too small for prolonged reading.
"We've consistently maintained that we're committed to helping our partners find more ways to make their books accessible and available for purchase," Google said in a statement of its intent e-mailed to Computerworld. "By the end of this year, we hope to give publisher partners an additional way to sell their books by allowing users to purchase access to Partner Program books online. We want to build and support a digital book ecosystem to allow our partner publishers to make their books available for purchase from any Web-enabled device."
Analyst Rob Enderle said Google's announcement is significant and a challenge to online retailer Amanzon.com. "Google's entry could cause this e-book technology to explode ... Google has much greater reach than Amazon. As big as Amazon is, it is still basically just a retailer, but Google is the Web."
Separately, Amazon said today that it will launch its large-screen Kindle DX e-reader on June 10, earlier than it had originally planned.
Google's approach of supporting any device for accessing e-books will ultimately prevail. Enderle said. "People want to buy something and read it on anything they have," he added. "Google seems to be less concerned with keeping publishers happy and moving to the end game of giving the consumers the ability to buy what they want more freely."
While the Kindle device can be manipulated to be used as a Web browser and would seem to have easy access to Google books, it is intentionally set up to go directly to Amazon.com wirelessly for book purchases, Enderle said. Users could eventually download Google books through their desktop computer and e-mail them to a Kindle to read them, much as Enderle said he does today with all kinds of documents.
But Enderle warned: "The Kindle is not designed to work with this new Google process and would have to be modified to do so efficiently." The Sony Reader doesn't work wirelessly and requires users to access content first onto a desktop and then connect the Reader to the PC via a cable.
Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker said any dedicated e-reader device could be able to access Google e-books, as well as any PC, smartphone or netbook. But Enderle stressed that the process on devices like the Kindle or the Sony Reader might be more awkward.
Meanwhile, the prospect of Google's taking on an e-book role can be viewed as exciting and unnerving because it could greatly expand the use of e-book technology, but it also could put too much power in the hands of Google.
"Google is aggregating a scary amount of power," Enderle added.
Google hasn't revealed all the details of its plan and didn't respond to several questions early today. However, at a BookExpo convention in New York City over the weekend, Tom Turvey, Google's director of strategic partnerships, raised the prospect that prices for e-books might be higher from Google's publishers than what Amazon charges.
Amazon charges US$9.99 for an e-book, while Turvey said Google would probably allow publishers to charnge the same price for digital editions as they do for new hardcovers, which are typically around $26.
Enderle said pricing and other issues, such as preventing an e-book purchaser from turning around and selling millions of unauthorized online versions of the books are major concerns to publishers. But for emerging countries, where educators want a faster way to publish content to students, the distribution of e-books to any device will be a major step forward, he added.
Part of the concern about e-readers has been their cost. Amazon was criticized for selling the Kindle 2 with a price tag of US$359 when it launched in February in the middle of a recession. Such pricing holds e-readers in a niche market and away from mass market users, Gartner Inc. analyst Van Baker said at the time.
Baker added that e-books would be more appealing if they could be read on all kinds of devices.