Google pushes e-books onto iPhone, Android devices

Get out your glasses and start reading Shakespeare or Poe on your Apple iPhone

Google Inc. today released a mobile version of its Google Book Search, which means iPhone or Android phone users will be able to read Mark Twain or Jane Austen on the train or in the park.

The question, according to analysts, is will they want to.

"Even with people with younger eyes than mine, I see few people really reading on their iPhone," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. "Google has a rather longtime horizon with this. On a mobile phone, this is almost a technical pilot because I don't see mainstream audiences reading Shakespeare on their iPhone."

Members of the Google Book Search Mobile Team announced in a blog on Thursday that Google's collection of 1.5 million mobile public domain books in the U.S. are now available on the iPhone and Android. The books were already available for desktop and laptops via Google Book Search, but the new mobile editions are optimized to be read on a small screen, they added.

The team also noted that the mobile application uses optical character recognition (OCR) techniques.

"The extraction of text from page images is a difficult engineering task," wrote the team members. "Smudges on the physical books' pages, fancy fonts, old fonts, torn pages, etc., can all lead to errors in the extracted text. Imperfect OCR is only the first challenge in the ultimate goal of moving from collections of page images to extracted text-based books. The technical challenges are daunting, but we'll continue to make enhancements to our OCR and book-structure extraction technologies. With this launch, we believe that we've taken an important step toward more universal access to books."

John Byrne, an analyst at Technology Business Research Inc., said that he found, after trying out the application today, that the new mobile Book Search application requires a lot of scrolling -- something he wasn't totally comfortable with.

"And right now, it's only offered for books that are in the public domain," he added. "In effect, they don't currently have a mechanism for you to buy the latest John Grisham novel. That's something that Kindle will be quicker out of the gate [with] when they introduce the mobile version of Kindle. But, longer term, you can expect to see that sort of mechanism in place."

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc., noted that he's seeing a lot of people using Amazon's Kindle, so there's a growing market for e-books and e-readers.

"It's a smart move for Google to continue to expand the range and flexibility of the mobile devices that run their software, no question about that," he added. "But the next step is getting something in place so users can access what they really want -- current books, magazines, newspapers, etc. This can be done either by Google or by third parties, but it is essential that it happens if they want to have a true competitive advantage and become a product that moves across markets."

And both Byrne and Olds noted that Google needs to figure out a way to make current book releases available.

"For this new feature to be compelling to users and drive sales, someone will need to address the issue of getting more and better content," said Olds. "Reading Silas Marner on a plane will just make the plane ride longer."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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