Don't believe the rhetoric behind Google's new, "open" e-book store.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Dec. 8 2010 6:13 PM

Google's "Open" Books

Don't believe the rhetoric behind the search company's new Kindle rival.

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Isn't that better than the Kindle? Not really. Over the last couple of years, Amazon has been aggressive about making Kindle books compatible with other devices. You can now read your Kindle books on the Mac, PCs, iOS devices, Android, and the BlackBerry; Amazon says it will soon support Windows Phone 7, too. More importantly, on Wednesday Amazon announced a Kindle reader for the Web. (The announcement came, ironically, at a press preview for Google's upcoming Chrome OS, for which Amazon is building a Kindle app.)

When the Kindle Web reader makes its debut sometime early next year, Kindle books will be more "open" than Google books. Yes, Kindle titles won't work on competing e-readers—Amazon has refused to support Adobe's DRM system and instead uses its own proprietary format—but Google's books won't work on the Kindle, which is by far the most popular e-reading device in the world. (The Kindle commands about 50 percent of the e-reader market.)In other words, if you buy a book from Google, it will work just about everywhere except the Kindle. If you buy a book from Amazon, it will work just about everywhere, including the Kindle. What seems more open to you?

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Google makes one more claim in its "open" argument—that Google e-books are available from stores other than Google's own. The search giant has signed deals with several independent bookstores; you can, for instance, buy Google e-books from Powell's Books. But if you buy the Google version of Franzen's Freedom from Powell's, you'll pay the same $12.99 you'd pay at Amazon or Google, and you still won't be able to share or resell it. Powell's does get a cut from this purchase, but Amazon's new Web store will allow bookstores to do the same thing. Besides, it's hard to see how this setup will help indie stores; signing up to be an outpost of either Google's or Amazon's e-book empires isn't going to do much to keep them "independent," after all.

Now, I don't blame Google for the restrictions it has imposed on its e-books. It's the publishing industry that demands copy-protection, and if Google were allowed to sell you e-books that were truly open—books that you could share or sell, just as you can with hardcovers—then I'm sure it would. What's more, it's Amazon's fault that Google books won't work on the Kindle. It would be better for everyone—for customers, for rivals, and even likely for Amazon—if rivals' books worked on the Kindle, and Kindle books worked on rival devices. (Opening up the Kindle would be better for Amazon because its long-term success depends on innovation, not exclusivity. Amazon is a great online retailer because it's always finding new and better ways to compete against every other store in the world; by reducing competition, the Kindle lock-down reduces its own incentives to pursue this sort of innovation.)

I do blame Google, though, for the way it has conscripted the word "open" for marketing purposes, rendering it meaningless in the process. Nearly every Google product release is accompanied by marketing copy about how Google's product is more "open" than everybody else's, and that this "openness" is its key virtue.

Sometimes, as in e-books, this openness pitch is transparently false. In other cases, Google does offer a legitimately more "open" product, but the fruits of that openness are dubious. Take the fight between Android and the iPhone. You should buy an Android phone, Google says, because it's more open than the iPhone—Google allows anyone to tinker with Android's source code, it allows any manufacturer to use the OS, and it places no restrictions on the kinds of apps that people run. But as Apple CEO Steve Jobs has pointed out, openness hasn't made Android a better product—by letting manufacturers gum up phones with ugly interface "skins" and apps, Google has arguably made Android phones less appealing. And despite Apple's restrictions on developers, its App Store has attracted more and better apps, and generates far more sales, than the Android Market.

I'm not arguing that "openness" is a bad thing in the tech business. What I'm saying is that it is not an unmitigated virtue, and it's not necessarily the first thing people should care about when they're shopping for a product. I'm glad that Google has introduced its new bookstore, because the e-book industry would obviously benefit from more competition. But I'd be even happier if Google wasn't touting half-closed openness as its store's main selling point. In the absence of real openness, Google ought to have something that Amazon doesn't: more books, cheaper books, prettier books, books with more functions, more reviews of books, better recommendations, some kind of social-networking integration—something, anything, that would distinguish it from the bookselling herd. Calling something "open" isn't enough, especially when it's actually closed.

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