Google's "Open" Books
Don't believe the rhetoric behind the search company's new Kindle rival.
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.)
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.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.