Friday, November 19, 2010

Meet Google Editions: "20 Things" Google Ebook Previews Features and Their Strategy

On a busy day I didn't pay too much attention at first to the release of Google's online ebook "20 Things I Learned About Browsers and the Web," a storybook-like presentation of the basics of what drives today's cloud computing content services complete with cute children's book-style illustrations. When I finally got around to visiting the site, I realized immediately that this was not just a random cutesy piece of educational material but in fact a preview of the ebook reader for the upcoming Google Editions service. While not exactly like the reader screen shots that we had seen previewed at the recent Really Strategies RSuite users conference, the similarities are obvious and the sophistication of the features in the "20 Things" book too good and too new to be anything other than an early look at the Google Editions reader.

The overall experience of the reader is not too different than other ebook readers available today, but with some sophistication in its tools that make it ideal for cross-platform content browsing. As you'd expect it provides the ability to turn pages in a paper-like way with a click (or touch, presumably, once it's available on touch-screen devices), There's a "Table of Things" table of content with visual cues for easy navigation a la some of the e-magazines that have been produced for tablets, and the "singles"-length book will prompt you for returning to your last visited page when you re-open it at a later time. The feel of the reader is vastly cleaner than Adobe's stab at ebook reading devices and comparable in many ways to those available from Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook, albeit with fewer hooks for bookmarking, so far.

The apparent Google Editions preview also has some nifty hooks for social media. Next to each page of the story book on the blank side is a little bookmark-like flag that will slide down when hovered over with your mouse to expose sharing options for Facebook, Twitter and Google Buzz social media networks. It's a simplified example of how this can work - it doesn't paste in highlighted text from the book into your social media message when you choose one of these options - but it works well in a simple-enough-for-Facebook sort of way that is likely to increase the visibility of book content in Google Editions nicely. The bookmark drop-down menu also includes an option for displaying content in a printable format, which does a nice job of reformatting the content in a larger print-friendly format. No rough edges here, though obviously some publishers may balk at using this option without the proper ecommerce hooks (which exist and would be easy to implement). Other nice bells and whistles include a control to make the background behind the book either a light gray or black to manage contrast for reading in different lighting conditions, the ability to share a Web address link to the book easily and quick navigation to the book cover at any time. Oh, and of course it's a color edition, as promised for Google Editions.

As with Google's little experiment with inserting an HTML-based  Pac-Man game in their search page logo a few months ago, this is likely just a taste of what the Google Editions experience can be like. You might say that it's a little akin to Apple's inclusion of the children's classic "Winnie the Pooh" as a free ebook for its iPad when it launched. This charming little book gave people a feel as to what it would be like to use a touch screen device as an ebook that people connected with immediately. Notably, though, although the "20 Things" is laid out and illustrated like a children's book, the content is a tutorial on what it means to use content the Google (Web) way. For example, in the chapter on apps, the book says:
...the web is an open platform. Anyone can reach it from a browser on any web-connected device, regardless of whether it’s a desktop computer, laptop, or mobile phone. That means I can use my favorite web apps even if I’m using my friend’s laptop or a computer at an Internet cafe.
This is obviously a direct plug for Google's view of open Web apps working via browsers as the future of functionally oriented functional content services. Indirectly it implies that Google's anticipated Chrome Web Store's agnostic approach to aggregating browser-launchable apps is preferable to a closed-system approach like Apple uses for its apps, which work only on Apple equipment and are sold only via Apple online stores. Since Google's anticipated Chrome OS-supported tablet devices are going to be optimized for browser-supported apps, it's also a plug for that device also, though it's doubtful that the launch of Google Editions will be held up for the launch of those devices.

Instead, it's more likely that the "soon" timing of the Google Editions launch that we've been hearing about for weeks is going to center on a release of Google's Android operating system used for mobile phones and a new generation of tablet devices. The "20 Things" book does not work in the current versions of Android's browser, so you will have to wait for the Gingerbread (version 3.0) release of Android, already available to developers, and expected to be the Android release that powers a new wave of tablets appearing this December at electronics stores and probably appearing in retail stores in January. It's possible that Gingerbread will hit mobile phone users before then, but I wouldn't hold my breath for that.

Instead, my bet would be for the Google Editions launch to hit in December as a table-setter for people to have content already purchased that they can display on their Android tablets and mobile phones once Gingerbread hits in January. I doubt (hope) that Editions doesn't wait any longer than that (what better a stocking stuffer than the latest in ebooks bought online during the holidays?), but you never know. In the meantime, mobile browsers more ready for the underpinnings of the Google Editions features may be able to handle this preview already.

So some time in January people will be flipping through "20 Things" in stores the way that they were "Winnie the Pooh" several months ago on iPads, except that it will be a new story for a new world of cross-platform, browser-based ebook content being told and not just a cute little fable (though I imagine that there will be plenty of kids' books on it, also). As Research in Motion CEO Jim Basille noted in his recent speech at the Web2.0 conference, "You don't need an [Apple] app for the Web." True, Jim, but you do need the right content and functionality. It looks like Google Editions is queued up to be one of a series of powerful Web-based apps launched in the next year by Google and others that will make people rethink the "walled garden" approach to content distribution via apps yet again.