The Third Player

When we think of the Big Three West Coast tech firms poised to change publishing, we think Amazon, Apple and Google. Between them they embody a shift in discovery, distribution and hardware in reading and typify a move away from the traditional centres of the book world, in favour of more new media-native presences. Kindle currently dominates the US ebook market, and is likely to have a similar impact wherever it goes (Amazon recorded strong profit growth this year driven by the Kindle). The iPhone has a real but still emergent ebook market that will be exploded with the expected arrival of an Apple tablet device next year. And Google has Book Search and the forthcoming Editions, which could rival Amazon and Apple in terms of book downloads. The playing field is set - in her recent presentation Sara has a magnificent analysis of how this field breaks down.

However regarding Google most of the strategic thinking and recent commentary, of which there is acres, has focused on either the legal controversies surrounding the settlement or the plans regarding Editions. Google is seen in terms of discovery and retail. Perhaps, though, there is another story going on here.

Mobile has been the buzzword of ereading in 2009; you practically can't turn around without being hit over the head with another statistic about how many people have smart phones and how mind boggling the potential for expansion is, and how seductively convenient it is to have convergence on one handy device. Moreover we've seen the maturing of the space - Stanza, Scroll Motion's Iceberg and Eucalyptus are all excellent readers, there is a healthy Books chart on the App Store and fine developers like Missing Ink Studios and Enhanced Editions are beginning to truly prise open the potential for books on a phone.

So it all looks great. Only, in case you hadn't noticed, it's all on the iPhone. And all of sudden people are making noises about the iPhone, and not especially pleasant ones. Inevitably when something is successful and universally adored, people will find reason to dislike it. This is just how the world works.

Which brings us back to Google. In the whole discussion of ereading somehow we largely forget about other phones, in particular the Google owned Android OS. My case is that Android has been hitherto underestimated and may end up equaling Apple and Amazon in it's own right.

Let's not pretend: if there was an iPhone vs. Android fight right now then the iPhone would win, in terms of users, user experience and reading. To a certain extent this is not Google's fault as such, seeing as they don't produce the hardware, marketing or apps for the phones, but still, no one can deny the iPhone remains far ahead. As for other competitors like Windows Mobile, the revamped Nokia with it's oddly named Ovi Store etc etc in the end they will probably converge with Android due to the sheer madness of proliferating mobile dev standards.  So the iPhone wins, and whats more, with the handsets being unchained from their sole carriers and Apple amassing an eye watering, earth shattering $34bn the growth prospects are very good indeed.

However there are also signs to suggest that Android may start picking up. Firstly it has an inherent ability to grow more widely as it can be used on any number of different manufacturers handsets. Secondly the quality of those handsets is improving all the time - the HTC Hero is gaining traction (Full disclosure: I have one, it's good but I'll admit that the 3GS is a bit better) and the Motorola Droid, to name just one other, promises to be massive. Thirdly the App Marketplace remains weak in comparison to the App Store, but is also growing fast, as Google developers and UX people plus a ton of backing make it better, has a growing audience and has none of the problems sometimes associated with the submitting to the App Store. Fourthly, in publishing terms, there has been a dearth of books or reading software on the Android which is only now being rectified. Look at the burgeoning Comics section of the Marketplace and Aldiko, who want to do for Android what Lexcycle did for reading on the iPhone.

Widespread reading on Android may therefore not be that far away.

There is a further strand to the story. Over the past couple of months it has sometimes felt the trickle of new reading devices has morphed into a full on flood. It's impossible to keep up - everyday Engadget runs a new story on some boutique new ereader. Amidst this torrent however a few things have become clear. Phones were touted as good reading devices because they came with multi-functionality and it was assumed people only wanted a single device for all their communication and media needs (to speak in press release jargon). From here the idea of the tablet or the multi use e-ink mixed display gained traction.

In order to make the devices better people needed a robust, web friendly operating system and quietly waiting in the wings was Android. Witness just two of the recent crop of readers, the Nook from Barnes & Noble and the Alex from Spring Design (currently locked in a legal battle). Both use Android as their OS, and this is just the beginning (there are other examples). Needless to say that Android has the potential to become the default operating system for many readers, and is a strong candidate for being the OS that eventually becomes dominant for reading. Google could end up with a hefty share of the mobile reading and tablet device reading markets, initially in terms of software but who knows, maybe one day even in hardware.

Ultimately Google could be in a position where everything in the book chain, from finding the book on GBS to producing the object you hold in your hands, is part of its empire.

Balanced against this though are the other two big beasts, both unquestionably expert and successful in their fields who no doubt will fight their corners with tenacity and elan. We shouldn't forget Android though, nor it's possible role in digital publishing.