Google announced Google eBooks and Google eBookstore on Monday, launching a long anticipated cloud-based system to allow readers to buy ebooks online from a choice of booksellers and to read them with a variety of devices.
Google's launch is essentially a cannonball into the ebook waters, promising to splash out all the water where ebook sellers Amazon and Apple now swim.
Google eBooks (previously codenamed Google Editions) will be available through the new online Google eBookstore at books.google.com, where readers in the US can now purchase "hundreds of thousands" of titles and browse more than more than 3 million titles, said Abraham Murray, product manager of Google Books.
Until today, only searching and browsing were possible. The eBookstore will be activated for international users early next year.
Users will be able to use laptops, netbooks, tablets, smartphones and most e-readers (with the Kindle from Amazon a notable exception) to buy, store and read Google eBooks in the cloud, Murray said.
Readers will access their ebooks like messages in Gmail or photos in Picasa, using a free password-protected Google account that comes with unlimited ebook storage.
They will be able to purchase them from the Google eBookstore or from independent bookseller partners as well, Murray said.
As part of the Google eBooks announcement, Adobe Systems announced that its Content Server 4 software will provide digital rights management for the new system. Up to 85 devices across many platforms supporting Adobe eBook digital rights management (DRM) will be able to access Google eBooks, using PDF and ePub formats. The Adobe software is a part of the Google eBooks system being used by more than 200 book publishers and sellers.
Look out, Amazon?
Analysts said they believe Google's impact on ebook sales will be dramatic. "There's a lot Google can do with this business," said Forrester analyst James McQuivey in a classic understatement.
"This is really the first full cloud-based solution for publishers," added Gartner analyst Allen Weiner. "This is very huge, and it's something everybody has been waiting for, although nobody was exactly clear how it would be implemented."
Because the new ebookstore is cloud-based, Google basically owns a "scalable, end-to-end infrastructure so it can take content from a book publisher and bring it to the cloud," Weiner said. "Google elevates itself to the infrastructure provider for the publisher, which is very powerful."
Through its search engine, Google gets billions of online searches every day, of which millions of searches are for books, McQuivey said. That's something Google is bound to take advantage of, he added.
"All Google has to do is train people away from going to Amazon when they have a book-related search question," he said. "Even if they are interested in new books, Google can give you samples of copyrighted books and say, 'Is this what you are looking for?' "
That search could then result in an easy sale, perhaps through an independent bookseller that Google has partnered with.
Weiner said that Google TV and Google search can be combined with Google eBooks so that a person who has done searches on Italy might get referrals to Google TV travel shows on Italy or ebooks on Italy.
No Google e-reader?
Google has produced a full-featured Webkit browser, and also native free Android and Apple iOS applications for shopping for and reading for ebooks, explained James Crawford, director of engineering for the Google eBooks team.
He said the system and browser, and native Android and iOS apps, have been fully tested internally four times, starting in July.
Crawford said that one advantage of the Google cloud approach is that users will have a common bookshelf where they can keep their purchases, which can be accessed from any number of devices without the need for a user to recall which device has a certain book.
However, the Google system currently won't allow ebook sharing, which some other systems support, and Google ebooks cannot currently be integrated with books purchased from Amazon, Crawford said. Kindle is not supported because it uses a proprietary DRM system that means Google "cannot protect content if we put it on a Kindle."
Google didn't announce a special Google e-reader but has developed Android for a range of smartphones and tablets already that will serve that purpose, Crawford said. "The idea is that you can read these ebooks on devices you already own," he said.
Weiner said he expects that the Android operating system, and the Chrome OS, will eventually be used to develop special ebook reading apps that allow for the sharing of books and highlighting of passages, features that competitor Barnes & Noble already provides with the Nook reader.
A major focus of Google's ebookstore has been on independent booksellers and publishers of academic books, Google officials said.
Publishers, bookstores pile on
About 4,000 publishers are part of the US launch of Google eBooks, ranging from Random House and Penguin to the Oxford University Press, McGraw-Hill and Wiley, said Amanda Edmonds, director of strategic partnerships for the Google eBooks team.
Also, about 200 independent bookstores in the American Booksellers Association will be able to use the Google eBook platform to sell books, sharing profits with Google without the need to build an online platform, she said. Powells, an independent chain of bookstores in Oregon, and Alibris are aligned with the Google system also, Edmonds said.
In essence, users will be able to discover and buy new ebooks from the Google eBookstore or get them through the independent bookseller partners.
"The local bookstore can tap into that ebook infrastructure and can sell ebooks, something they've been shut out of today," Edmonds added.
Weiner said that, depending on the kind of ebook that's sold, Google will get 20% to 30% of the price.
Social network hooks for books
Google is also working with a social networking site for book lovers called Goodreads, Edmonds said. With Google's involvement, a user on Goodreads could pick up a recommendation of a book from a friend on the site, then click through to buy the book.
"Wherever you are on the web, if it's making searches on Google, or at a retail site that is featuring a novelist you are interested, or reading a person writing a blog, you should have that ability to click through and buy a book," Edmonds said.
Crawford said Google eBooks will be available for purchase in the US today and outside of the US sometime in the first quarter of 2011.
Google first began is Google Books initiative in 2004, based on the belief of its founders that information in the world's books should be made accessible online, Crawford said.
Since that time, Google has digitized 15 million books from 35,000 publishers and more than 40 libraries, and from more than 100 countries, Crawford said. Those digitized books will continue to be searchable through Google Books in the research section of the eBookstore.
Google first announced its Google eBook concept in late 2009. Crawford said forging thousands of contractual agreements with publishers and partners and orchestrating "many moving parts" contributed to the time to launch. The internal testing of browsers started in July 2010.