Google vs. Amazon: Clash of the booksellers

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

Are you a fan of those 1960s Japanese monster movies like Mothra vs. Godzilla, where two enormous animals battle insanely while the tiny human onlookers scream in horror?

Well, if your favorite film isn't available on Netflix or Hulu, you can still enjoy a clash of the Titans this week, as Google pits its new e-reading application, Google eBooks -- and its new retail venture, the Google eBookstore -- against's huge inventory.

For a while, there has been some speculation that Google was going to come out with its own e-reader device, like Amazon's Kindle or Borders' Kobo. Instead, Google made headlines on Monday with a strictly software-based strategy: a bevy of applications for Android devices, the iPhone, the iPad, the iPod Touch, desktop/laptop Web browsers, and two specific e-book readers, the Nook and the Sony Reader. (Other e-book readers can also access books from Google's eBook collection if they can read either the ePub or PDF formats.)

Amazon, for its part, today announced its own desktop Web e-reader, which has been in beta since September and which, according to Amazon, should be available sometime during the next few months.

Like Microsoft with its Windows Live offerings, Google is using similar (and somewhat confusing) names for its related services. The general Google listing of free and non-free books that are available to browse, sample and review is called Google Books. The library of books that an individual reader collects, whether free or paid, and can then read on any device is called My Google eBooks.

The place where that reader can purchase new books using Google Checkout? That's the Google eBookstore. (None of these have anything to do, by the way, with Google Reader, which is Google's RSS service.) Google account holders can access all of those services by going to

Desktop reading via Google

I first checked out Google's browser-based e-reader, which works on any browser (unlike Amazon's current desktop e-reader, which is a separate application and must be installed on a Windows PC or a Mac).

You access it from the main Google Books page by clicking on the "My library" link. This brings you to the main page of My Google eBooks, where you can choose which book you want to read.

The e-reader has a plain look that offers very few distractions from the text -- I was quite favorably impressed. Clickable arrows on the left and right let you page forward and back. Discreet gray icons on the upper left side of the page allow you return to the home page and see a table of contents.

You can change settings such as typeface, type size, line height and justification. You can also switch from "flowing text" (in other words, straight computer text) to scanned pages (images of the pages exactly as they appear in the printed book). There are also icons for search, information about the book (such as where to find a hard copy and user reviews) and help.

However, users of Google's Web e-reader may also need to exercise some patience in trying to navigate the huge and varied Google interface. For example, if you search for a book on the main Google Books page and click on the "Add to My Library" link, you will not find the book in "My Google eBooks" when you go back to your main "My library" page. Instead, you will need to scroll down a page that contains several other "bookshelves" with names like "Purchased," "Reviewed," "Recently Viewed" and so on. I finally found the "Reading now" category (which is how I'd classified a new book I'd chosen) just under "Favorites."

If you want the book to be part of your Google eBook collection -- and therefore accessible on all of your devices -- you have to click on the book and then click on the "Get it now" link on the right side of the book's screen.

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.

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 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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