The e-book wars are heating up with Google's announcement this week that it's backing the EPUB e-book publishing standard. The move puts Google on Sony's side, against Amazon.
On the Inside Google Books blog, Project Manager Brandon Badger wrote that the company will offer free downloads of more than a million public-domain books in the EPUB format, as well as in other formats.
Not 'Locked' to a Device
"By adding support for EPUB downloads," Badger wrote, "we're hoping to make these books more accessible by helping people around the world to find and read them in more places."
EPUB, a lightweight, open standard for text-based digital books, automatically conforms text to various screen sizes. Because it's a free, open standard supported by a growing population of devices, he added, books downloaded in the EPUB format from Google Books "won't be tied or locked into a particular device."
Badger said Google will still offer the books in PDF format so users can see how the pages would appear in printed form. But PDF, being an image-based format, doesn't readily reformat itself for smaller devices.
Earlier this month, Sony announced it will use the EPUB format for its Reader e-book readers. At the time, Steve Haber, head of Sony's digital reading unit, told news media that people looking for e-books will "want to shop at all the stores, and not just be required to shop at one store."
Sony's chief competitor in this market is Amazon, whose Kindle is currently the leading e-book reader in a still-small but growing market. However, e-books sold on Amazon can only be read on the Kindle or on Kindle software for iPhones.
New e-Reading Devices
"No one should be surprised that Google is doing this," said Laura DiDio, an analyst with Information Technology Intelligence Corp. She noted Google's long-time backing for open standards, many of which it has influenced; its forward-thinking business history; and the inclination of vendors in this economy to be "flocking to 'green field' opportunities."
Over the next five years, she predicted, "the e-book market is absolutely going to heat up" for consumers, education and businesses.
The move by Sony and now Google to an open format resembles the evolution of the online music market. When Apple's iTunes Store pioneered the revolution in online music sales, downloaded songs could only be played on Apple's iPod. Now those files are also playable on other devices.
While still small, the e-book market's growth curve is sharply up. The Association of American Publishers has reported that e-book sales in the U.S. increased 136 percent in June compared to one year ago. But the actual dollar amount of $14 million is still tiny in comparison with other content sales.
Amazon is also beginning to feel pressure from e-reader devices. Sony has released three Readers -- the Reader Touch Edition, the Reader Pocket Edition, and, this week, the Daily Edition.
Several other product entries could also shake things up. Mountain View, Calif.-based Plastic Logic is readying an e-reader for release. A Crunch Pad tablet device is expected to be out soon from a company founded by technology blogger Richard Arrington. And there have been persistent rumors that Apple is working on a tablet device of its own for release later this year or early in 2010.