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Here Cometh Google: Thoughts on Google eBookstore

Google made its long awaited entry into the world of ebooks today, with the launch of Google eBookstore. The program has a number of things that make it unique in the ebook world. Check out Publishers Weekly or Google’s own blog post for the nitty gritty.

Unlike the stores for iPad, Kindle, and Nook, Google eBookstore is not tied to any particular piece of hardware. They’ve made free apps available for Android and the iPhone/iPad. They also support the Adobe eBook platform, which means that their ebooks can be read on Nook and Sony readers. Google eBookstore also supports any Javascript enabled browser. The only real noticeable absence is the Kindle, no big surprise there. Though my hunch is Google also won’t make a Windows Phone 7 app available any time soon.

Other than the basics, here’s my initial impressions of the program:

  • The integration with independent bookstores is awesome. Independents can partner with Google eBookstore to sell ebooks on their own websites. I love this, no more guilt if I find a book in a great independent but then don’t want to go home with it right then. Powell’s has already signed up for the program, and my hunch is that there will soon be a stampede of independents to join them.
  • There is a whole lot of noise about how this program lives in the cloud. You buy the book once and then can sync it across multiple devices (Kindle offers a similar feature through Whispersync). I get why this is cool. It’s difficult. But was there a problem before all the fancy devices came along? Nope. It was simple to open my paper book right where I left off… and it was never much of a hassle to take it with me, especially since then I didn’t have to carry all this other crap (smart phone, tablet, laptop) with me.
  • You can’t get to Google eBookstore from the Google home page. You have to click on “More” in the top navigation, then “Books” and then a link that actually takes you into the eBookstore. Plus, the URL they chose for the program is: books.google.com/ebooks. Overall, kind of buried. It seems they don’t expect customers to treat this store as a destination, but it’s about having Google ebooks surface as people search, or as they shop on partner/independent sites.
  • The merchandising is worse than clunky, like the featured categories at the bottom of the store home page with amateur graphics and no cohesive design elements to pull it all together. Again though, none of it feels like this bookstore is being built as an eye candyish destination.
  • I found 1,537 reviews of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. One of the three editorial reviews at the top of the page is in Chinese, so not a whole lot of help to me. Also, even on the full reviews page, each review is given just two lines. I’m not sure why they don’t show the full text of about 10 reviews per page, and let me scroll through them. Again though, this approach seems to speak more about search, than a shopping destination.
  • The program also boasts “more than three million titles including hundreds of thousands for sale.” That line threw me at first. If there are hundreds of thousands of titles for sale, where does that leave the other 2.7 million titles in the store. Apparently, these are all free. They’re public domain. Of course, every store for ebooks has all the classics available. The question really will be how much of a differentiator will the millions of obscure, public domain titles be. This plays well into a search strategy, where these books will surface. Each one may not pop up often, but presumably when it does it’ll be massively qualified… and free.
  • One of the headlines on the main overview page is: Discover the world’s largest selection of ebooks. Ummmm… is that possibly a swipe at Amazon? Their original tagline was: Earth’s Biggest Bookstore. It also highlights how Amazon has drifted from its original selection, selection, selection mantra to focus on the exclusivity of its platform.

All around, a big new competitor just entered the ebook arena. For a product that just launched, it feels pretty complete. Though understandably the window dressing is still to come.

It’ll be fascinating to see if ultimately the ebook market sticks with the one-stop shop (Kindle or possibly iPad) or if it prefers this multi-faceted approach where the book itself is merchandised and sold by one company, the order for it is fulfilled by another, and the device on which it’s read is manufactured by a third.

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Amazon Introduces Kindle 3

Amazon announced the third-generation Kindle today. On their home page, they detail what’s new, summed up as amazingly small and light. This new Kindle also includes the revised e-ink originally introduced in the Kindle DX, and claims battery life of up to one month.

It’s available for pre-order now, but won’t release until August 27. All around, it looks like a sleek, dedicated ereader, one that’s miles ahead of the clunky, first-edition Kindle.

Other things that struck me, not all of which are noted by Amazon:

  • The second-generation Kindle is no longer available, it’s still there but just sold by third-party sellers (many of whom have priced it far beyond what it’s now worth).
  • Similar to the Barnes & Noble Nook, there is now a Wi-Fi only Kindle available for $139.
  • The third-generation 3G Kindle remains priced at $189 (same as Kindle 2). They’re obviously underpricing the Nook, which has similar models available for $10 more.
  • They’ve incorporated a more prominent D-pad, that’s similar to, but much smaller than that on the Kobo reader.
  • The Kindle DX is barely mentioned and difficult to find on the Amazon site. It seems the DX has waved the white flag and surrendered to the onslaught of the iPad.
  • Includes native support of the PDF file format.
  • The page featured on the faceout shot of the new Kindle is from a book called “The Art of Choosing,” complete with a quote from Joseph Campbell. Chapter title: Past Is Prologue. Is this a not-too-subtle reflection on Gutenberg, his fancy device, and how customers can handle a world where every book written gets published.

All around, this looks like the no-brainer choice right now for a dedicated ereader, though Borders/Kobo and Barnes & Noble will react soon. It’s more certain than ever that the $99 ereader will be here by the holiday season.

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eReader Price Wars, First Round

The long anticipated ereader price wars began this week. Apple has cornered the market for the multi-purpose device and can demand a premium for the iPad, but how the dedicated-ereader market plays out will come down in no small part to price.

Barnes & Noble started things off by dropping the price of the Nook to $199, and introducing a Wi-Fi only version (the regular version also has 3G) for $149. It’s a big plus that the Nook supports the non-proprietary ePub and Adobe DRM (plus the old standby PDF) formats. It’s also the only of these three ereaders with a color screen. Barnes & Noble needed to get cheaper than Amazon to remain in this game. Selling a device for $110 less than their previous cheapest offering is a steep move in the right direction.

Amazon responded the next day by dropping the price of the Kindle to $189. I’m surprised it took them this long following the iPad release, and even at the new price I’m still not a fan because of the proprietary Amazon ebook format. Any books bought from the Kindle Store can only ever be read on an Amazon device. Of course, there are ways you can get around this restriction, but they’re of questionable legality, and more importantly far too much of a hassle just to take your books with you when you move.

Borders also entered the fray by offering a $20 Borders gift card with the purchase of the Kobo ereader which is still priced at $149. This device also supports ePub, Adobe DRM, and PDF formats, though it can’t connect via Wi Fi or 3G. You need to plug it into a computer or sync it with a smartphone to load more books on it. I like that this device isn’t so married to a particular store, and in theory it should work seamlessly with both the Kobo and Borders ebook stores. Kobo also does the best job of offering a side-by-side comparison, though they haven’t yet updated the prices on this page or added the new Wi-Fi only Nook.

The mountain of unread paper books by my bed means that I have no fear in delaying this decision, yet again. My hunch is that by this year’s holiday one of these devices will come with enough gift cards to essentially make it free. All three will undoubtedly soon follow the Kobo and Borders model of not dropping the price, but piling on the perks. Why buy one when I can wait and hope someone else gets one for me?

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Kobo eReader: Is It the Real Kindle Killer?

What a difference an eReader launch can make? The Kobo eReader is available today in Canada, and the lack of attention on this side of the border is almost deafening. It seems that gadgets need bells and whistles to attract much hoopla, and the Kobo eReader is almost old school in the world of ebooks.

Michael Tamblyn, vice president of sales and merchandising at Kobo, recently presented at BookNet Canada’s Technology Forum 2010. There, he called it a device “for people who love books more than they love technology.” He goes on to highlight the company’s philosophy of letting the reader choose the right device for them “not just from month to month or year to year, but even within the course of a day.”

And at $149, the Kobo eReader is cheap enough to back such claims.

Kobo also hosts an ebook downloads store that currently features 2 million titles. Perhaps the best feature about this startup is its approach to ebook format. The Kobo eReader supports standard ePub, PDF, and Adobe DRM formats. If down the road you want to move your ebooks to another device, even one not made by Kobo, you can do this relatively easily. The iPad and Kindle are designed for lock in. Anything bought in the iBooks and Kindle Stores can only be accessed on future devices made by Apple or Amazon. The Nook supports more open formats, but like the Kindle it costs $110 more. Unlike all these other devices, the Kobo eReader can’t directly download new books. You need to either connect it to a computer or use Bluetooth to sync it wirelessly with a phone. Though the Kobo eReader does comes preloaded with 100 books.

Other features include the same size (6-inch) screen as Kindle 2 and similar e-ink technology. This is one of the deal breakers for me with the iPad. I don’t want screen glare for those few, though hugely enjoyable, all-day reading stints. The iPad does look like a snazzy games gadget, but I don’t need any more incentive to waste time playing stupid games.

Kobo is definitely a company to watch in this space. They’re small now, less than a year and a half old and very much in startup mode. Their approach is firmly grounded in giving customers what they want first, empire building second. The titans with whom they compete seem to be far more concerned with empire building. The Kobo eReader won’t be available in the US until summer. They’ve partnered with Borders, so US consumers will be able to check the device out before buying it. And at $149, it just may get me to take the plunge. At the very least it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Kindle and Nook pricing as the competition heats up.

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Barnes & Noble Nook, Rest in Peace

You can’t help but feel sorry for the Nook. It launched to so much fanfare back in October, was heralded as a Kindle Killer with its color screen, and almost instantly sold out for the holidays. Then in January along came iPad, and all talk of Nook ceased. Chatter about iPad competition is all  Kindle. No mention of the poor Nook, though admittedly Kindle Killer is way more catchy than Nook Negater.

The iPad continues to gain speed. It just went on presale and apparently sold a gazillion units, and the number of ebook apps in the iTunes Store now outnumbers the game apps. Is there no stopping this iPad monster?

I was a little surprised when I went into my local Barnes & Noble to see a poster announcing that the Nook was “now available.” (It ships in three days for free from their website too.) I always thought one of the advantages of the Nook was that you could play with it before you bought it, but after this store visit that seems unlikely. There was a sad display with a television that looked like it was made in 1970 playing a video about how wonderful the Nook was, set at whisper quiet volume. No one was at the booth, and it all had an abandoned feel. Why would we want one of them Nook things when you can look at all them real books?! It’s no wonder that Barnes & Noble is already waving the white flag. They’ll soon launch an ereader app for the iPad.

So, it seems the days of the Nook are indeed numbered. And what is it with ebook readers and adult-themed names: Nook, iPad, Kindle. Come on guys, you can do better.

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So Many eReaders, So Little Time

While 3D televisions got most of the coverage at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the explosion of ebook readers came in a close second. The Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Sony Reader will be joined by devices from Fujitsu, Samsung, and even the magazine publisher Hearst. Mighty Apple is also rumored to soon be entering the fray with a tablet computer. Far better coverage than I could ever give here can be found on Engadget and Gizmodo. The Huffington Post also offers a rundown, complete with a picture and blurb for each device. And if you really want to get detailed, check out Macworld. For the UK perspective, there’s The Guardian which covers the Que ereader by British company Plastic Logic, and gives an intro to the what they call the ebook revolution.

Part of my reaction to this explosion is distinctively Luddite, a strong desire to sit back and wait for the gadget freaks to work it all out, then let the rest of us know what to buy while also doing a magnificent job of driving down prices. It’s also disconcerting to see so much attention focused on bells and whistles: display colors, video, animations, ink technology. While some of these perks could be handy for textbooks and the like, the novel works just fine with black text on white. Admittedly, many of the smaller device makers are trying to corner a niche market: business readers, periodical readers, magazine readers, commuters. In the not too distant future, Hearst could well be giving away their Skiff reader for free if you sign a two-year contract for their content.

Then there is the most shocking gadget of them all: the watertight case for Kindle. Apparently this negates the need for 1-gallon plastic bags that Jeff Bezos has employed to date while reading his Kindle in the tub. Now, that is handy! Also worth noting is this Slate interview with Bezos from shortly before the holidays. He makes two bold predictions: dedicated ereaders (not just multipurpose devices) shall survive, while printed books will eventually disappear. My hunch is he’s right on the first (that whole black text on white thing) but dead wrong on the second. Luddite readers like myself will still want some good, old fashioned paper books. Come to think of it, I don’t need a 3D television either, way too difficult to get any writing done with one of those around.

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