Google's Book Search has been a controversial background project for most of its four-year life, but its most recent move may see the scheme brought right into the limelight: Google Book Search is now available on the iPhone and Android-based smartphones. And that pitches its 1.5 million-book archive kinda directly against the Amazon Kindle e-reader.
Started in 2004 as Google Print, the main aim of Google Books is to collect in one place as many out-of-print and rare publications as possible—essentially acting as a massive searchable repository of historic writings. The books are scanned (using an automated scanner like the Kirtas device pictured, right) and an optical character recognition system digitizes the text. While the collection "doesn't include a lot of recent popular titles," Google notes it's "a great selection of classic stories that stand the test of time."
The print database has got massive potential as a research resource for academics and curious readers, and as Google founder Sergei Brin himself put it: "We just feel this is part of our core mission. There is fantastic information in books. Often when I do a search, what is in a book is miles ahead of what I find on a website." But the project has attracted much controversy over its potential for copyright violation—indeed, when a book has a questionable "out of print" status oversees, foreign visitors only get to read snippets of the scanned information.
Now Google is bringing online mobile access to its Book Search database, meaning iPhone and G1 users can access those 1.5 million titles for free, at any time, turning the smartphones into e-readers.
But there's already an e-reader that's established its own market: Amazon's Kindle. Does Google Books mean trouble for Amazon?
The two systems have very different agendas: Google's appears to be philanthropic (despite the copyright issues), while Amazon sells access to digital copies of books through its paysite portal. The search engine company will instead make money by selling advertising space on the Book Search pages, although it apparently doesn't expect to draw much of a profit form the scheme.
Google's text library contains out-of-print material, Amazon's contains up-to-date publications. And Amazon's texts are served up on a dedicated e-reader, or e-book: the Kindle. By all accounts the Kindle has been a great success, though Amazon won't quantify that exactly: It's remained in the top ten electronic gadgets on sale on the site since its launch. It's a large device, with a large screen in e-paper technology that consumes less battery power and looks a little closer to real print than conventional LCD screens. The Kindle 2 is due out very soon, and is expected to have an updated design and refreshed screen-driving technology that improves the display.
In contrast, e-books read from Google Books are either accessed on regular laptop screens, or on the small screens of the iPhone and G1—around 4-inch LCDs. The two different reading experiences couldn't be more different: The Kindle styles itself as an electronic book, and Google Books on a smartphone is just another app among the multitude of others that run on the devices. Nevertheless, Amazon has indicated that it will bring Kindle-like content to smartphones itself—"We are excited to make Kindle books available on a range of mobile phones...We are working on that now," according to Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman speaking to The New York Times. Though there's no data on when that move will happen, or whether it refers to the entire 230,000 range of e-titles available on Amazon, it seems that the book-seller does want a piece of the cellphone e-reader market all of its own.
Currently, Amazon has nothing to fear from Google: The two companies have two different business models, with two different delivery methods that aim at two different markets—a paid Kindle books service, and the free cellphone Google texts. But this doesn't meant that it will remain like this: With its involvement in the G1 handset, Google has demonstrated it can address the hardware market, and do so successfully. And given the financial might of the giant company, an expansion of Google Books into a hardware-based e-reader competitor for the Kindle would be a relatively simple operation.