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.)

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).

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?

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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