It's finally here—now what? On December 6, Google launched its long-awaited, cloud-based e-book program, Google eBooks. And while industry-watchers parse consumers' first impressions of the actual product (early reviews so far have been lukewarm), Google's program represents a milestone in e-book history, giving consumers more choice and adding another well-funded, innovative player—with a competing platform—to a surging e-book market. "[Google eBooks] will certainly grow the market," O'Reilly Media's Andrew Savikas, program co-chair of the popular Tools of Change conference, told PW. "I believe it will also expose more people to the idea of keeping their books in a central, cloud-based, place where they can get them from any device. Google isn't the first to do that, but they're certainly the biggest."

After years of development and months of anticipation, the program launched with few surprises beyond a name change from its original Google Editions. With three million e-books available from the Google eBookstore at launch, including two million free public domain titles, Google has the largest e-book catalogue in the world, and its browser-based, device agnostic "buy anywhere, read anywhere" platform offers an alternative to the device-driven, app-centric visions pushed by some of the game's major players thus far. All of which, analysts suggest, sets up 2011 as another dynamic year for the e-book business, with Amazon, Google, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Sony, and a host of other players, such as Kobo, competing for readers."The stage is now set for a high-powered battle," observed Allen Weiner, a market analyst for Connecticut-based research firm Gartner, "one that will separate the true contenders from pretenders."

Already Amazon has shown it is well-prepared to fight for its e-book turf. The e-tailer surfed Google's media wave by announcing the next phase of its Kindle for the Web platform a day after the Google launch, the details of which hew almost exactly to Google eBooks, right down to Amazon's "buy once, read everywhere" advertising pitch. For the last year, Google has used "buy anywhere, read anywhere" in presentations for its e-book program.

Like Google eBooks, Kindle for the Web will allow independent bookstores, authors, retailers, and others to sell Kindle e-books, said Russ Grandinetti, Amazon v-p for Kindle Content. And while Kindle started out as a closed, proprietary platform that gradually opened up with free apps for different devices, now, Grandinetti said, "anyone with access to a Web browser" can buy and access their Kindle books on almost any device.

The competing e-book programs set up a fascinating scenario. Amazon has a clear advantage in retailing—it knows how to sell e-books, and the Kindle is a popular, well-branded platform. People who want to buy e-books think of Amazon—and Amazon is set up to help them spend, offering reviews, user comments, and the ability to push related content.

Google, meanwhile, is the dominant force on the Internet, and its e-book program now promises to turn its massive share of the search market into an engine for book-buying. The true potential of Google eBooks, however, may lie in eyeballs rather than e-sales.

"The eBookstore launch and parallel efforts like Google TV must be viewed as companion efforts to establish a cloud-based media storefront," blogged Weiner. "A book purchased by a consumer on the wine regions of France could likely result in the delivery of a TV clip on a related topic, pushed to a user via Google TV, complete with targeted advertising."

Thornier questions, meanwhile, loom for other players in the e-book space. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats—but as the e-book tide rises, will some boats be swamped?

The shift to open, Web-based platforms from Google and Amazon allows independent bookstores to get into the e-book game, but that is clearly more about customer loyalty than competition, and some booksellers remain wary of Google's entry into e-bookselling. After all, e-books are bought and sold online, and will any local store be able to compete on price with Google—or Amazon?

As open, EPub-based devices, the Barnes & Noble Nook, the first color e-reader, and the Sony Reader could benefit from the emerging post-Google open e-book market. But will those dedicated reading devices be able to compete with a dominant Kindle, the proliferation of multifunction tablets—including rumors of a Google device in the works—or the growing popularity of reading on smartphones? B&N has a retail presence and an online storefront, at least—the lack of which looms as an issue for Sony and other devices.

And then, of course, there is Apple. Can anyone truly outdo Apple's devices, like the iPhone and iPad? As a tech leader, Apple's device business clearly benefits from a browser-based, open e-book market—but what about the closed e-books in its App Store or its iBookstore?

Publishers, meanwhile, remain cautious about the opening chapter of this new, more open e-book era. While they are sure to see a surge in e-book revenue, will those revenue gains be offset—or worse, outpaced—by declining sales of print books, or will book sales be boosted, as Google officials have predicted, by increased discoverability? And for the host of new, independent digital publishers that sell e-books directly, why should they have to agree to put their books into Google eBooks or Kindle editions to be sold on those e-bookstores?

While it remains to be seen how the major players will fare in the more open, more competitive e-book market spurred by Google, one winner has already emerged: the consumer. With more e-books available and readable on almost any device, the industry can shift its focus, from simply making e-books available to making them better. "There will be creative destruction, to be sure," Savikas says, "but it's hard to argue that we're not living in an age where books are more accessible and affordable to more people around the world than ever before."

Google eBook Basics

  • "Buy anywhere, read anywhere."
  • Readers store and access their e-books on cloud-based personal bookshelves accessible through their Google accounts.
  • DRM-protected EPub or PDF files available for download.
  • Books can be read with any modern, HTML5-enabled browser, including mobile devices and open-platform e-readers.
  • New Google Web Reader.
  • Apps for both Apple and Android devices.
  • Three million e-books available at launch, including two million free public domain and frontlist titles, with color and illustrations.
  • Redesigned Google Books page, featuring an eBookstore and a research option.
  • Independent booksellers that have ABA's IndieCommerce Web sites can sell Google eBooks.
  • Pricing set by seller. Google will accommodate agency model or traditional wholesaler option.