Monday, December 6, 2010

Google obsoletes Amazon with Google eBook store

A year ago, I wrote that Google was maneuvering for a scrap with Amazon.  Today, they dropped the hammer.

Google announced it's own book store, with the stated aim of "buy anywhere, read anywhere."  The books are delivered as proprietary-formatted DRM eBooks, or as PDF or ePUB files. Reader software is available for Web browsers, Apple's iPhones/iPads/iPods, Android devices, and the Sony e-reader and the Nook, Barnes & Noble's answer to Amazon's Kindle.

As an avid reader (and e-reader), this comes as both good news and bad news.  The good news is that more competition drives innovation, ubiquity, and value to consumers up, while driving marginal prices down. The bad news is that it means more Format Wars- multiple book titles for multiple reader clients on multiple devices, some probably incompatible with each other.  I think this latter is short-term pain, though; may the best technology win!

But even more interesting to me is the strategic chess game being played by Google, which has now pitted itself squarely against Microsoft, Apple, and now, Amazon, three of the biggest players in the tech industry.  Google competes against Steve Balmer's Microsoft in the areas of search (Google vs. Bing), office productivity software (MS-Office vs. Google Docs), email (Hotmail vs. Gmail), and various other, less important offerings.

Google competes against Apple in the areas of mobile operating systems and devices (Apple's iOS vs. Android), and personalized "cloud computing" (Apple's MobileMe vs. Gmail/G-Calendar/G-Contacts/G-Docs/Picassa).  Google also launched a warning shot over the Facebook bow with it's much-maligned Google Buzz, now rumored to be morphing into something called Google Me.

And now Amazon is in the crosshairs.  Of all the above offerings, this one makes the most sense. The reason is simple:  Google excels at disintermediation. Google's entire purpose is to bypass the gatekeepers (AOL and CompuServe, anyone?), and put consumers directly in touch with what they are searching for.  Why go to Amazon to search for books, when you can just type the title into Google, and get both organic search results and a place to buy it?

Well... not so fast.  Amazon's real value lies more in it's community than it's shopping cart.  Most of us go to Amazon because we expect to read reviews from other consumers, which can help us make a buy/pass decision.  While there are some abuses, such as authors writing shill reviews for their own titles, for the most part, the community reviews work extraordinarily well, both for books and other products that Amazon sells (usually as a middle man).  So the question is:  can Google co-opt the reviews aspect by building a solid community of it's own?

Maybe. Google tried this with the less-than-successful Google Buzz offering, which limps along, but barely. If they can, expect Amazon to shift it's strategic focus to building out it's cloud computing Web Services like S3 and Jungle Disk, but even there, it's rushing headlong into Google's fortified beachhead.

On the other hand, Amazon owns the online retail mindshare for most shoppers. E-Bay has made a dent for adventurous bargain-seekers, but that's a different market. As Facebook demonstrated to Google, it takes more than a free service to win over consumers.  So, if Google does steal Amazon's thunder, it won't happen overnight. It will take a few years to build the community reviews and product base to critical mass; but with Google's massive infrastructure and hardware channel sales partners, it could happen.

The prime innovators continue to be Google and Apple, which each have similar, but strongly differentiated strengths. Apple, with it's elegant hardware, slick user interfaces, and "walled gardens," is the premium price brand. Google, with it's mostly free-but-functional aesthetic and advertising-driven model, is the cheap and frugal choice.  Each have stakes in the other's camp, though.  Google offers premium services for small business and enterprise customers, and those wishing to buy extra storage, while Apple launched iAd, an interactive mobile ad service, similar to Google's AdMob.  For my money, Google and Apple are the ones to watch.

So, it took a year, but looks like we had it right here at Easy Tech Zealot.  Oh, and notice who we're not talking about?

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