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.

Google eBooks.

To you and me, the e-book store that Google launched this week might not look very different from Amazon's Kindle Store. For one thing, Google's prices aren't better: The Kindle edition of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom sells for $12.99, and it's the same price over on Google. Or look at James Patterson's Cross Fire: $9.99 in both places. Indeed, for most popular books, the Amazon and Google prices are identical; when one of them has an item on sale, you can be pretty sure that the other one will, too.

If not price, maybe the stores differ in selection? Not really. Both Amazon and Google have signed deals with every major publisher, so you'll see no big differences in their catalogs. If a new book is available electronically, there's a good chance both of them have it; if it's not, neither of them will. (Google's store does offer millions of old books that are no longer under copyright, which it acquired by scanning books on library shelves. But for most people, tomes like the Department of Agriculture's Manual of the Grasses of the United States will be of little interest.)

Advertisement

OK, but maybe the Google store offers better-looking books or better functionality? Nope. Google's e-book software doesn't let you add a bookmark or highlight words, nor does it let you look up definitions—all standard features of Kindle books.

Wait a minute, though! Even if Google's e-book store offers no better prices, selection, or functionality than Amazon's Kindle Store, isn't it true Google's e-books are more "open" than Amazon's? The store's tag line promises that Google's books will "set your reading free." In a blog post, the company touts that its books are as portable as photos or e-mail—you can access them on "just about any device" using nothing more than your Google username and password. Openness, it seems, is central to Google's push to become the Web's pre-eminent e-book seller.

I've long supported a more open e-book marketplace. Two years ago, when it looked as if the Kindle was going to become an unstoppable force in electronic publishing, I lamented the way Amazon had locked down its users. Amazon won't let you share or resell your Kindle books, and it will only let you read them on devices that it has approved. (Update, Dec. 9: The company did recently announce a plan to let you share your books with others for a two-week period—but you won't be able to access the book during this period, and the publisher can decide to turn it off for any title.) Amazon's restrictions were sure to pad its bottom line, I argued, but "everyone else with a stake in a vibrant book industry—authors, publishers, libraries, chain bookstores, indie bookstores, and, not least, readers—stands to lose out." So, shouldn't I be happy about Google's entrance into the book market? Won't this deep-pocketed, "open" rival take down Amazon's e-book juggernaut?

Not at all. That's because Google's e-books are "open" in the same way that politicians are "bipartisan" and oil companies are "green"—the claim makes for good marketing, even if it lacks substance. Buying from Google rather than Amazon will give you no greater control over your books. You're not likely to get any practical benefit from going with Google, either. In fact, Amazon's "closed" books will soon work on more devices than Google's "open" books.

While it's not a part of Google's marketing push, the company's e-books (like Kindle books) are protected by a digital rights management copy-protection scheme. As a result, the copyrighted books in Google's bookstore can't be shared, resold, or read on any device that doesn't play nice with Google's DRM. The copy-protection system that Google has chosen, Adobe's Content Server 4, works across lots of different e-book readers. You can read a Google e-book on the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Sony Reader, Apple's iOS devices (the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch), any Android device, and any Javascript-enabled Web browser (which means Macs, Windows and Linux PCs, BlackBerrys, Windows Phone, and many more).

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?