Google’s News: E-Books and Android and Chrome, Oh My

12/7/10Follow @wroush

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all previous versions. And Amazon showed off Chrome versions of both Windowshop, an image-heavy rendition of Amazon’s vast product catalogue that is already available for the Apple iPad, and its Kindle app for reading Kindle books (see below for more on e-books).

There’s much to say about the Chrome Web Store, but I’m out of time—I urge you to check it out for yourself at chrome.google.com/webstore.

Gingerbread and the Nexus S. After disappointing sales led Google to kill off its Nexus One Android phone in July, everyone thought Google was getting out of the phone business and leaving the hardware engineering on Android-powered phones to real handset makers. Well, it turns out that was only partly true. The new Nexus S, which will be available in unlocked, carrier-independent form at Best Buy stores in the U.S. starting December 16, was co-developed by Google and Samsung and is intended as the purest expression of Google’s ambitions in the mobile arena.

The strengths of the Android operating system are that it’s basically free, meaning any phone maker can use it to run their hardware, and it’s open, meaning any developer can write and distribute apps for the OS without having to go through rigorous screening like that imposed Apple’s iTunes App Store. The weakness of Android is that handset makers are free to adapt it however they like, meaning the Android user experience is different from phone to phone, and not every app works on every phone.

The Nexus S is “all about bringing the pure Google experience” to consumers, according to the company’s introductory video. That means Google and not the wireless carriers determined what software would be pre-installed on the Nexus (these include not just the Gingerbread version of Android but the Android Market and Google’s versions of calendar, mail, mapping, navigation, search, voice-interaction, and video apps). It also means Google was able to build in features that haven’t turned up in other phones, mostly because the carriers have balked at them—for example, easy voice-over-Internet calling and Wi-Fi hotspot functionality.

Google is billing Gingerbread itself as “the fastest version of Android yet,” with a redesigned virtual keyboard and other user-interface elements that simplify common tasks. Gingerbread includes support for near-field communications (useful for future instant-payment apps that, in effect, turn your phone into a wallet) and video calling using a front-facing camera (which the Nexus S has).

The Google eBookstore. No big surprises here, except perhaps how long it took for this new online bookstore to appear. As part of its Book Search project, which is run largely out of Google’s Cambridge, MA, offices, Google has spent six years scanning old library books—more than 15 million so far. It began making those books searchable—and in the case of many public-domain books, fully browsable—at Google Books. It’s also been working with publishers and authors to settle a contentious legal dispute over copyrights and how the creators of the scanned books should be compensated.

The company has also been negotiating with publishers to sell the e-book versions of current titles. And this week it finally unveiled the Google eBookstore, where U.S. readers can buy e-books, store them permanently in the cloud, and read them on a wide variety of platforms. Google says three million titles are available, including “hundreds of thousands” of commercial titles—some bestsellers among them—for sale.

Google eBooks can be viewed via a Web-based reader; on Android devices; Apple’s iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch; and even Barnes & Noble’s Nook device and Sony’s line of digital readers (via the Adobe eBook plaform).

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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