Google vs. Amazon: Clash of the booksellers

Google introduces new eBooks and eBookstore applications, while Amazon touts a new desktop e-reader.

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Google's new Android app

I also downloaded the Android version of Google's e-reader and tried it out on my Motorola Droid. As soon as the app was installed, it gave me immediate access to the four e-books in my collection. When I clicked on a book I hadn't opened yet, it took a moment to download (so that I could read it while I was offline), and then took me into the text.

Google eBooks
The Android interface for reading Google eBooks.

The app is a solid, typical e-reader -- when you press the Menu key on an Android device, you get pretty much the same menu you see in Google's browser e-reader. Settings not only include the text size, typeface, justification and line space tweaks; you also can use either a day or a night theme (the latter shows white type on a black background) and change the display brightness. An About link takes you to a browser-based info page about the book.

(Incidentally, I would strongly recommend that anyone reading an older novel on a smartphone switch immediately to the "flowing text" mode -- the images of the original text are too small to read, and while you can magnify them, the margins won't adjust to fit the device.)

It was a bit more difficult to get the book onto a Kobo e-reader. I had to download and install Adobe Digital Editions, which is a Flash-based e-book manager. Using that, I was able to then connect the Kobo and have it download the e-book.

Buying from Google

The point of this whole new venture is, one assumes, to persuade users to purchase e-books through Google's new eBookstore.

The eBookstore, which is also accessed at the Books.Google.com page, is a fairly straightforward affair, pretty much resembling most other online bookstores. Links to your currently owned e-books (free or purchased), along with your purchase history and a link to customer support are plainly visible on the upper left part of the screen; the rest of the home screen is dedicated to books you might want to purchase.

Search, as you can imagine, is readily done and very thorough (this is Google, after all). A list of the results is immediately available; click on one of the books and you can read a text sample -- although, while the phrase in which your search term was found is shown on the right-hand side of the sample, it might not be included on the sample pages that are available to read.

The prices of the books are pretty much competitive with those of other bookstores. For example, I looked for the just-published Autobiography of Mark Twain, and the e-book edition cost $9.79 at Google eBookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I checked out several more book prices, and except for a single 50-cent difference, the prices charged by the various services were identical.

Bottom line

Google's e-reading applications are great for those of us who tend to read whenever and wherever we can -- all the various versions sync nicely.

However, Google's service isn't all that unique -- Amazon offers its Kindle-formatted books through its various Windows, Mac and smartphone apps, as well as on its Kindle e-book readers (and the just-announced browser-based reader). And Google's prices are approximately the same as those of most of the other book retailers.

So whether Google succeeds in its mission to be an online bookseller will probably depend on whether it can refine its software enough to capture the loyalty of millions of book buyers -- many of whom are already happily buying books elsewhere. Right now, the applications aren't so superior -- or so much easier to use -- that they can accomplish Google's mission. However, it's early yet -- the battle has just begun.

Barbara Krasnoff is reviews editor at Computerworld. When she isn't either editing or reviewing, she blogs at The Interesting Bits ... and Bytes; you can also follow her on Twitter (@BarbaraKrasnoff).

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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