With the Wall Street Journalreporting today that Google is poised to launch its long-anticipated e-book business, Google Editions, another industry appears on the verge of being shaken up by the Internet behemoth. Expected to debut in the U.S. by year's end, Google's e-book store would compete with those of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Sony and others.
The key to the company's approach would be a "read anywhere" model that allows users to buy books directly from Google or multiple online retailers, including independent bookstores, and add them to an online library linked to a Google account. And through their accounts, people would be able to access e-books on most Web-enabled devices including PCs, smartphones and tablets.
Obviously, that's a very different strategy than market leader Amazon, which sells its proprietary Kindle e-reader and requires users to shop from its own e-book store, though it also allows people to read books on the iPhone, iPad and other devices through the Kindle app.
No doubt Google would like Google Editions to become the e-book equivalent of Android, its mobile operating system that has rapidly become a top player in the smartphone market by offering an open platform that any device maker can adopt for use on any carrier network. With that approach, Android is on pace to rival Symbian as the world's leading smartphone OS in the next few years.
Apply the Android analogy to Google Editions, not tied to any one device, and isn't hard to envision Google quickly becoming a major force in the emerging e-book business.
"Google is going to turn every Internet space that talks about a book into a place where you can buy that book," Dominique Raccah, publisher and owner of independent publisher Sourcebooks Inc., told the Journal "The Google model is going to drive a lot of sales. We think they could get 20% of the e-book market very fast."
The big "but" is that so far Google hasn't proved very adept at online retailing. To take another mobile example, its effort to sell its own Nexus One smartphone directly online was scuttled this year within a matter of months. The project was hobbled early on by complaints about poor customer support and other issues. And Google Checkout, the company's answer to PayPal, has yet to catch on.
Whether, or how, a service like Checkout would be used for Google Editions isn't clear. There are also other unanswered questions, as the article points out, like what revenue split independent bookstores and retailers would get from Google, and how many booksellers it has lined up for the venture. And will Google offer customer service itself, or leave that up to partners?
So despite Google's inherent advantages in scale and existing users, it's too early to assure that the company will upend the e-book market merely by making its entrance into the arena. Its success in the segment is still unwritten.