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8/31/2006
04:42 PM
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Where Gutenberg Led, Google Follows

When you've been in the tech business for more than a few years, you develop loyalties to certain companies, sites, and products. This is why when I saw the recent coverage of Google's new venture to offer free book downloads, I bristled. Most news stories about the service tout the revolutionary aspects of the project, which "makes it possible for people to store books on their computers and make copies" rat

When you've been in the tech business for more than a few years, you develop loyalties to certain companies, sites, and products. This is why when I saw the recent coverage of Google's new venture to offer free book downloads, I bristled. Most news stories about the service tout the revolutionary aspects of the project, which "makes it possible for people to store books on their computers and make copies" rather than simply read the text online.

Neat. Except that Project Gutenberg has been doing the same thing since before Windows--or even DOS--was a glint in Bill Gates' eye.I've been downloading straight text copies of out-of-copyright books and stories for years now, from authors such as George Orwell, Charles Dickens, and a multitude of others. I would transfer the books to my PDA and read them on the subway, on the plane, or while waiting for a meeting--anywhere I needed something to read and didn't want to add too much weight to my already overloaded shoulder bag.

(TechWeb Associate Editor Laurie Sullivan is even more old-fashioned than I am--in her blog entry "Google This Book, Then Print," she says, "I want to open the hardcover book and fan the crisp pages for the first time. Check out the way words fall on the page: sometimes with flush columns of type, and other times, jagged right. It's art." You go, girl.)

Now Google has made headlines by doing much the same thing--except instead of volunteers scanning books, putting them through Optical Character Recognition (OCR, and creating text files that anyone can pick up, Google is simply creating PDF files. You'll have exact copies of the pages of the pages in hand. On the plus side, that means you get copies of those neat old illustrations and interesting typefaces. On the other hand, you get the yellowed pages, torn corners, and huge file sizes that result from stuffing, say, a copy of Bleak House into PDF format. I'm not kidding here--Gutenberg's plain-text version of Dickens' classic novel is 1.91 Mbytes. A PDF version offered by Google Book Search is 5.9 Mbytes.

Of course, if you have the latest, greatest $600 phone-plus-PDA at your fingertips with a 2 Gbyte memory card, that may not mean a whole lot to you. But think of this: Even with snazzy bleeding-edge technology, which will be easier to read? A PDF of a book, or straight text that lets you change the size, font, or even color of the lettering? To me, the answer is obvious.

There are advantages to Google's new service that an organization like Project Gutenberg can't hope to match. Because of the scope and resources dedicated to the service, Google will be able to make available obscure books that simply aren't available to Gutenberg's volunteers.

But let's get real. I'm a huge fan of Google and its online applications. In our recent article "Is Google Still The Ajax King?," fellow reviewer Preston Gralla and I found that in most categories, Google's online apps tower over its competitors. But making old novels and obscure tomes available to the masses isn't really what Google Book Search is all about--despite its hype about how unlike in the Bad Old Days when "access to large collections of books was the privilege of a wealthy minority," Google is opening up the wonderful world of reading to us underprivileged peons. It's about introducing the idea of reading books online and via electronic media so that Google can eventually become the funnel through which books and other printed materials are accessed for sale. Or not--either way, Google's advertisers will be there.

(I'm not even going to start getting into the copyright issues that are being brought up by current lawsuits with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. That's a whole editorial in itself.)

Of course, Google isn't really introducing the idea of reading online. It's just that nobody seems to remember that.

What do you think? Am I overdramatizing what's actually a fairly minor situation? Is Google actually doing us a favor that I'm too dense to recognize? Or is this yet another profit-making company repackaging something that's already available, but not as well-known? Let me know.

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