There are 1.5 million books available for complete reading on your mobile phone (iPhone or Android recommended), but less than half of them will be available outside the USA, for copyright reasons previously discussed on this blog. In an email forum a Google engineer estimated that 620,000 are readable ex-USA. 40% of a huge library is even so a very large library. There are some wonderful gems in the collection (Mark Twain, Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens and lots of wonderful Victorian stuff). But I think that they are all really old books — browsing these stacks is a bit like sniffing around a very dusty and arcane book depository from about 1898. Some of these tomes have not been touched for decades.
If you like reading on your iPhone you now have a wonderful library of treasures to explore. You will need a battery booster.
There are some surprising features of the implementation. First, the system works by piping an ASCII version of the text on to your screen, so that it can ‘reflow’ to fit the dimensions of your screen. For some of these old books the ASCII version that Google infers from OCR is poor, in cases unusable. Google will have to improve it (we can be sure that some engineers there are already relishing the challenge — improving the quality of the ASCII is a key requirement for the other things which can grow from GBS). Second, Google offers a ‘version’ of the printed page which you can tap through to, if you want to check up on the doubtful ASCII. This is not the full page of the book, but a section of the page or column of print synthesised for display. So the text appears in the original typeface and linebreaks but without the full page detail, without the original linespacing. Nor can the images be expanded in the usual iPhone style. This strikes me as an odd and complicated compromise. I wonder whether Google is paying too much attention to the temporary limitations of today’s screens. Will there be another, richer, enlargeable, photo-realistic layer for the A4 mobiles that will surely appear next year?
It will be interesting to see how enjoyable this platform becomes as a reading environment. It is certainly great for browsing and for searching. Will consumers expect this open and free library to become the foundation of their individual digital libraries? One guesses that this is the Google intention.