Can the wide-open vistas of the imagination that were unlocked by famed authors Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rudyard Kipling and Charles Dickens really be enjoyed on a 3.5-inch smartphone screen? Will the wit of Mark Twain’s Roughing It or the subtle comedy of manners found in Jane Austen’s Emma come across well when the device you’re reading those books on interrupts you for a phone call?
Bookworms who are also Googlehounds are about to find out. The search company announced Thursday that it would begin offering a mobile version of Google Book Search; 1.5 million of the public domain books Google has already scanned for PC users are now available free to those with Apple iPhones and T-Mobile G1s using the Android operating system.
Tell Me a Story
Like a good adventure yarn, Google’s backstory for the new service takes some interesting twists and turns.
“When we started this project over a year ago, we didn’t know where it was going to go,” Frances Haugen, Google Book Search project manager, told TechNewsWorld. “We kind of had an idea that it would be a good channel to give people access to books on phones. But we had a couple of moments as to why it might be a killer app for some of us.”
One of those moments: The Google coworker who likes to read in bed but his wife needs a dark bedroom for sleep. Problem solved with smartphone reading. “Similarly, he has a baby. He can sit next to the baby and read a book and it doesn’t disturb the infant.”
Those are likely to be minor uses of the service, with those on the go targeted as the primary consumers of Google Book Search, Haugen admits. “If I have five or 10 minutes where I wasn’t planning on having five or 10 minutes, I can catch up on my reading.”
Amazon is also considering plans to roll out some of the titles now available for its popular Kindle e-reader for mobile phones, a company spokesperson told The New York Times. Indeed, it seems as if electronic text trends, sparked by new technologies, are getting users accustomed to reading on smaller and smaller screens.
“It’s the convenience factor,” Frost and Sullivan digital media analyst Mukul Krishna told TechNewsWorld. “You don’t have to lug a book around, and you already have audio and video in one device, why not text?”
Technological considerations like backlighting and battery will play a role in keeping the numbers of smartphone book readers down, along with the tactile pleasures of having a book in one’s hands. But Krishna says the service speaks to a generation “who live and breathe by all sorts of different electronic devices, be they computers or cell phones or smaller and smaller notebooks.”
The public domain book titles include many considered to be classics, and Haugen thinks the idea of making 1.5 million examples of what may be forgotten treasures is significant. “I spent a lot of time exploring books we were going to present, and one of the things I really appreciate about the experience, is how many amazing public domain books we have. Suddenly all these incredible books are now in your pocket, and if you want to explore them, they’re available.”
A Revenue Stream Runs Through It?
“Form factors are improving with bigger screens and users are increasingly getting accustomed to reading on smaller screens, but keep in mind that most people do so for just a few moment,” Ramon Llamas, IDC senior analyst, told TechNewsWorld. “Staring at a screen can seem acceptable for watching a video, but for scrolling through a book, I am a bit skeptical as to how more accepting users would be.
The big challenge for Google regarding monetization would be for getting publishers to go along with licensing their current content for smartphone reading, Llamas said.
Google will be looking at providing more up-to-date titles in the future and finding ways to make money off of that access, Haugen said. “There are a lot of interesting things to explore in terms of monetizing content, such as ads, but we haven’t fleshed that out yet,” she said. “Our main goal right now is to provide access.”
Companies like will have to find the right business model to make money off of books on smartphones, Krishna says, but for now “it’s definitely going to be something that enhances their thought leadership in the market. It’s not going to be a killer app but some of these apps people will want to add value to their smartphones.
“A lot of people are going to smartphones because they love the applications, and people have a very diverse base of what they like to read, what they like to watch. It will be very interesting to see what Google and Amazon do and how they’re looking to monetize that goodwill.”