Sony has done a deal with Google to make 500,000 public domain books available to users of the Reader device. This suddenly jumps Sony ahead of Amazon in terms of the race to get the bighest number of titles accessible from the Kindle or the Sony Reader. The Kindle owner has about 250,000 to choose from.The books on their way to Sony will be the 500,000 titles with cleaned up ASCII from the recently announced Google Books Search mobile operation. 500K titles are public domain worldwide, (about another million are available to US users of Google Book Search but they would not figure in the deal because the Sony reader has an international reach). The Google Books implementation will still be superior, because it will offer both the ASCII text and the backup page images, which are presumably not in the Sony versions.
Believe me, a lot of the books are very, very boring. Hardly of interest to anyone, in amongst the cobwebs there is a lot of wonderful 19th century literature, and we will see how Sony can tidy up a way of selecting relevant titles (Austen, Dickens, Twain) from this vast stockpile and then present them to readers who can only carry around 1.000 or so downloaded titles on the Reader device.
This is clearly an alliance between Google and Sony. That much is apparent. But who is competing with whom? Is it a matter of Google against Amazon (Google trying to slow up the advance of the Kindle, so that the concept of books as dataservices can get time to gell)? Or of Sony against Amazon (capture the mind-share for the worldwide eBook reader market, since Kindle seems to have won that match already in the USA). Or of Google against Apple (by showing that the iPhone is not the only mobile device which can carry a lot of good books)? Or is it really a matter of Google competing with Sony and the publishers (by showing that there are so many good books out there for free, that the market for paid for downloadable books is going to be a tough proposition to sell to consumers). On the face of it, giving away free access to half a million books when your device can only hold a very few of them is a trifle strange. Google ends up being the winner in that comparison.
Perhaps the way in which Sony delivers on this announcement will make it clearer who is competing with who. Come to think of it, since the Kindle can only be sold in the US and Google has another million books which can only be treated as public domain within the USA, should we be expecting the Kindle to emerge with access to these 1 million restricted titles? According to the NYT article Google is willing to make its catalog of digitised books available to “any other e-book distributor that shares its goals of making books more accessible.” I will be surprised if that happens, but we live in strange times, and certainly Amazon shares with Google the goal of making books more accessible.