One of the interesting trends this summer has been the ramp-up of interest in Google’s new tablet, the Nexus 7. Its launch portends far greater fireworks to come. Google has already sold out of its initial stock of the 16 GB version, and is shipping its remaining 8 GB tablets at a fast clip. The tablet, released with the newest version of the Android operating system called Jelly Bean, has received almost unanimously positive reviews for its functionality and responsiveness. Its 7″ screen size seems to hit a hand-holdable sweet spot between Apple’s 10″ iPad and large “phablets” like the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy Note 2, which sport 5″ or 5.5″ screens.
The Nexus tablet was released as a portal device to Google Play, Google’s media catalog roughly comparable to Apple’s iTunes and Amazon’s more chaotic we-sell-everything online store. Early write-ups of the Nexus 7 almost inevitably describe the Google tablet as everything the first generation Kindle Fire tablet should have been – it has better construction, a more fluid user experience, a more open store, and more impressive technical specifications. The comparisons are fitting; Google is not releasing this tablet simply as a Jelly Bean showcase. This is an arms race of dreadnoughts among emerging technology superpowers.
The leaders of today’s tech hegemony are unleashing a “network industrialization” that is creating a new internet-based infrastructure for the global economy. Its core companies have rapidly converged into a homophily which would have been difficult to predict even a year ago: Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft all present comprehensive, consumer-facing content distribution platforms. They have developed more or less self-contained content catalogs, e.g., iTunes and Google Play, that span films, games, music, and books; all have developed or adopted a competitive mobile OS (Apple’s iOS; Google’s Android, also adopted by Amazon; Microsoft’s Windows 8); all have released tablets converging on the 7″ and 10″ form factors; and all have released or are rumored to be releasing mobile phones. All of them benefit by driving as much network traffic back to their own services as they can – thus, e.g., Apple’s developing its own mobile mapping services, dropping Google’s.
Placed in the context of publishing, this makes Google a critically interesting entrant in the tablet wars. Google has not heretofore made a big splash in digital book sales, although it has long been deeply engaged in publishing for years through its Google Book Search program, which has seen several iterations and re-brandings, not to mention a few “minor” legal skirmishes. Indeed, Google rather ingloriously pulled out of its partnership with independent book stores recently, leaving a market opening that others, like Zola Books, are racing to fill. Yet every indication suggests that books are integral to the Google Play release; as The Verge’s Tim Carmody notes, all of the Nexus 7′s most prominent competitors are reading tablets.
Chief among them is Amazon, whose Kindle store has garnered a significant lead in the market for ebooks and e-ink based reading devices. Despite their congruence on comparable economic strategies, Google and Amazon have strikingly different imperatives. In fact, at the Internet Archive where I work, when we think about which of the giant technology companies is most often on “our side” on critical policy issues, we almost inevitably come back to Google, despite our contention in the GBS settlement litigation. Built into Google’s DNA is an abiding commitment to open standards that is not apparent at Amazon; Apple’s support of open standards is strong but conditional on its own corporate advantage. For Google, open standards are a self-definitional element of corporate culture, and often crucial in its legal and policy positioning. Although it does not always choose open standards over narrower corporate goals, it is biased to do so.
And this is why it is really interesting to watch Google maneuver with the Nexus 7 tablet in digital books and other media content. Apple has dominance in general purpose mobile devices, but Amazon is pre-eminent in non-music content sales. For Google to challenge Amazon is a clash of more than just two big technology companies: it is a clash of corporate priorities. Google is far more likely to endorse open metadata and content standards like EPUB3 than Amazon; it has also made strong contributions to discovery standards within BISG and other industry bodies.
The dominance of technology in book retailing has deep ramifications for publishers; for example, direct to consumer sales efforts are not likely to generate significant return in general trade, although building strong reader-oriented communities may pay dividends in market intelligence. Most critically, if publishers are invested in an open competitive marketplace for books, they would do well to think about their relations with the dominant companies driving media sales. If I were in their shoes, I would seek strong contractual ties with Google and other companies more likely to parallel my strategic interests, and carefully evaluate more parochial complaints over issues such as price maintenance agreements.
If you are a peripheral country, there’s little to gain in encouraging conflict over extraction rights; the main battle is taking place on the high seas. Rather, be a shipyard for the most liberal colonial power.