Stone, scissors, paper: and the Digital Book Race

It sometimes seems that Google, Apple and Amazon are engaged in a three-way fight over the digital books space. They each have a very important area of strength: Google dominates search (and search-based advertising), Apple leads and designs the very best consumer devices, Amazon has amazing strength in consumer transactions (logistics). And the three fighters are subtly trying to manoeuvre the struggle into the terrain where their particular strengths dominate. So Google is building a massive library that will interact and benefit from Google’s supremacy in search, and a lot of stuff should be free and any hardware device can access its service. Amazon is trying to build individual consumer accounts fed by their logistic strength and transactional breadth, obviously not limited to books, physical and digital, and Amazon care more about managing transactions in the consumer’s account than they do about owning the device. Amazon only cares about consumers, so — unlike Google — they do not offer anything much to libraries. So Kindle books are readable on the iPad. Apple is trying to establish a superior hardware platform in which their range of interoperating devices cannot be matched: desktop, phone and tablet format working together. If Apple owns the superior hardware platform they will control vital pinch-points through their app store (so far limited to Apple hardware for apps and books). They are all fighting on several fronts at once. So Apple, is erecting a system of apps and phone-based demographics which will be immune to Google search. Google will be blocked in Apple’s mobile domain, and Apple has built an e-commerce system that certainly rivals Amazon’s, though it does not have anything like the breadth of the Amazon offering (yet). Amazon attempted to get into Apple’s patch with a hardware device, the Kindle, which now appears to be completely outclassed by the iPad. Google does not want to be boxed-out by the Apple iOS, so it has launched its Android system which it hopes will attract the collective ingenuity of all the consumer electronics companies who are concerned that Apple might eat their lunch. With retaliatory ingenuity Apple is building an advertising system iAds which may seriously limit the Google advertising dominance. So the battle is three way and in deadly earnest.

Is it a game of stone, scissors and paper? Perhaps one being played in several dimensions. If so, Apple is the ‘paper’, they were always going to be on top of the rather dull ‘Kindle’ from Amazon: stone-coloured if not yet quite sunk. But Apple appears to be threatened by Google’s incredible scissor-like sharpness in search. Perhaps the analogy breaks down with Amazon contra Google. Is there a way a battleground on which Amazon is beating Google? Amazon does appear to have the beating of Google in one area: third party, cloud-based, web services — Amazon S3 etc. Perhaps this is the area in which Amazon might ultimately have the beating of Google’s over-centralised approach to building a universal library. Amazon needs to build a digital book service which is more collaborative and de-centralised and which attracts libraries, authors and publishers as effectively as they have attracted book buyers.

Is there something that could change the dynamics of this three-way tussle? Lots of things. One development that would certainly change matters would be if Facebook entered the fray. Suppose that Facebook, live up to its name and did a deal with Amazon? We might then see an Amazon that really could outsmart Google in the relationships game. Cloud-based book networks.

Do you think that the Google Book Search judgement will come tomorrow? One of these days….

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