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Four million books "in the cloud"?

For all of the ongoing disruptions of the traditional publishing business model wrought by the advent of e-publishing, one thing appears to be certain: aside from the sales of competing e-reader devices, no one is making much money in this new brave new world yet.
Even as persistent questions arise about what the actual e-book "sales figures" associated with Amazon's Kindle are -- it turns out that up until last week Amazon's reported top 10 "best-selling" titles weren't "sales" at all, they were all "free" downloads -- and financially troubled Borders Books'  Kobo eReader platform and mobile app was introduced to an already oversaturated e-books marketplace, this month most industry observers are focused on the June launch of two more major players into the e-books market.
Sometime next month, the Taiwanese company MSI is scheduled to roll out the first version of the Slatebook, a 10-inch tablet computer with e-reader capabilities designed to run on Microsoft's Windows 7 software and compete directly with Apple's iPad at a highly competitive price, likely under $500.  Whether this device with its rather unusual partnership -- Hewitt Packard is reported to have abandoned development of an earlier version of the Slatebook -- captures a significant portion of the market, or ends up being what Microsoft's Zune was to Apple's iPod in the digital music player field remains to be seen.
Later in June or early July, we will see the launch of Google Editions, the long-awaited retail culmination of the Google Books project and the seeming "holy grail" of electronic publishing -- access to a vast, searchable library of millions of books -- the current number reported scanned is over 4 million -- available for reading on a variety of platforms. In a way, all the controversy surrounding the Google Books Settlement has raised expectations for this debut to the point where it has come to represent the likely paradigm for electronic publishing for the foreseeable future.
But how exactly will Google Editions work, and when you purchase a Google Editions e-book, what exactly will you own? That has been the topic of much speculation fueled by this article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, and this piece in the current issue of PC World magazine. The big surprise to many observers -- including yours truly -- is that of the reputed 4 million books Google has scanned and will have available for "purchase," only about a half million or so "classics" will available for actual download on a mobile or portable e-reader device using the International Digital Publishing Forum's free, "open book" standard ePub software.
The 4 million books that have been promised as the initial Google Editions inventory will be available for reading not as downloads onto your computer or portable reading device, but rather accessible to purchasers "in the cloud" (that is to say, the shared format of "cloud computing" familiar to users of Google Docs office software and other "open source" software applications). That means you will have to be online in order to read your Google Edition purchase, and will require the use of a browser such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Mozilla's Firefox as your e-reader. 
This is truly a paradigm shift in the history of reading, more like visiting a public library than purchasing a book at your favorite independent bookseller. Some of the deep-thinking epistemologists among us may go so far as to argue that it is a shift in the history of knowledge. But for many us practical minded users, it is a disappointment. Of all the reading formats yet conceived by the human imagination, if I'm reading a 600 page novel, an internet browser would not be my preferred way of navigating through it.
Moreover, there are some real questions that follow on what the fair market value of Google Editions book purchase is or should be. Remember, what you are buying here is not a physical copy of a book made possible by Johannes Gutenberg's 15th century invention of the printing press and its subsequent apotheosis in the age of mechanical reproduction, or even a one-time limited use download of the proprietary digital files of such a book onto the hard drive of an e-reader device such as happens with the Amazon Kindle. 
What you will be purchasing at Google Editions is essentially a "license" to view the digitized files of a book housed on a centralized server remotely located somewhere "in the cloud," which is the spatial metaphor commonly employed for the non-spatial arrangement of packets of information on networked servers that constitute the World Wide Web. It is a limited contract between you and Google -- indeed I'm not sure that something so anachronistically "20th century" as a physical receipt or hard copy of the limited contract will ever be available for your records -- and you won't be passing your Google Editions e-book of the exciting new writer you've just discovered onto a friend, much less pass that treasured first edition on to your heirs. 
What Google Editions will be selling you is essentially a single use library card, and while you will be able to access the purchase from a variety of platforms, it won't be portable as such. What is the "fair price" of that vis-a-vis a hardbound physical copy of the same book? How about its price compared to that of an actual download? What price would you be willing to pay for what is a promise that Google will always have a copy your book available to you (if you fulfill the terms of its service agreement)?
I suspect this way of reading may take some getting used to, and appeal to only a niche of readers at the outset. Like Apple's claim that quality journalism may be saved by newspaper subscriptions available as apps on its iPad, it regards reading as fundamentally "an engineering problem" (as The New Yorker's Ken Auletta has written) rather than a tactile experience. I'm not one to forecast the public response to such a much-heralded launch, but unless Google underwrites a free subscription to its entire digital library to every school and underfunded public library in North America as part of the roll out, I'll be underwhelmed.
--R.D. Pohl


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