Last week Google announced plans to wind down the reseller component of their eBook service. As Google put it, the program "has not gained the traction that we hoped it would", so they're pulling the plug next January. Like any well-focused company, Google is smart to reinvest in successful products and kill ones that aren't working. I don't question Google's decision to end the reseller program but I do question whether they invested enough to give it a chance.
Google seems to have a corporate philosphy of planting a product seed and assuming others will embrace it and help it bloom. That might have worked with a superior search engine but it's not always the best approach in other sectors. Android is a great example.
Carriers and smartphone manufacturers embraced Android as a free alternative to the iPhone. Those carriers and manufacturers have sold a lot of phones but the customer experience isn't always that great. Some of the common frustrations are that Android OS updates are unevenly distributed (if at all) and some apps only run on certain devices. I often complain about Apple's walled garden approach but at least if you have an iPhone you know you'll get the new iOS version on day one and every app in iTunes will run just fine. Tablets have only exacerbated this problem. For example, I recently discovered Next Issue, a new all-you-can-eat e-magazine subscription app, but it's incompatible with both my Android phone and tablet. Very irritating.
I realize the decision to push out a new Android OS is in the hands of the carriers and device manufacturers but I think Google should exert more pressure on them to distribute those updates when they're available. Of course, if you're AT&T or Samsung you'd rather force someone to sign up for a new 2-year contract or buy a new device than just give them the latest OS. Notice how Apple doesn't let that happen in the iPhone world though?
I also think Google should have used some of that mountain of cash they're sitting on to build a better Android app ecosystem. Unlike iOS, Android doesn't have any unique killer apps. All the decent Android apps are simply copies of the iOS ones and most of the better iOS apps aren't even available on Android (e.g., Flipboard, The Elements, etc.) Google may have renamed their Android Market to Google Play but there's still no compelling app to lure customers away from iOS. Most developers will tell you there's no money to be made from selling Android apps; if that trend doesn't change it will definitely affect the long term viability of the Android platform.
Getting back to the Google eBooks reseller program... How much did Google invest in it to ensure success? They basically opened the service to booksellers and assumed it could be a hit. I would argue that the only way the reseller piece could succeed is if the larger Google eBook platform succeeds.
Let me ask you a question: Have you ever bought an ebook from Google? I haven't and I don't know anyone who has. You'd think Google would have become a major ebook player by now since they offer all formats. Well, actually...they offer all formats except for the most popular one. As you can see at the bottom of Google's supported reading devices page, they still don't support the Kindle. Doh!
In Google's defense, the only way they could support the Kindle is by offering DRM-free mobi files. Impossible, right? Even though all of our ebooks at O'Reilly are distributed DRM-free there's no way Google could have gotten other publishers to agree to doing so.
Or could they? Remember that mountain of cash I mentioned before? Wouldn't it have been cool for Google to have approached just one of the big six publishers and said, "Hey, we want to level the playing field so that DRM is no longer a weapon used against you to build an ebook distribution monopoly. Let us distribute your ebooks without DRM for 6 months. We'll use our amazing computing power to measure how much piracy there is of your content before, during, and after the test. If we determine a significant piracy increase on the torrent sites, etc., we'll pay you 10 times what you've earned through our service for that period and we'll immediately shut down the DRM-free distribution." Let's say a 10x payment isn't enough to make the publisher's concerns go away. OK, make it 20x. Or 50x. Google's got the money and could have really proven a point that DRM provides nothing more than a false sense of security.
In reality, I'm not convinced Google even cares about the ebook market. Ebooks were just another item on a product checklist they felt compelled to include so they could compete with Apple. Google eBooks doesn't appear to have any momentum so the reseller program could just be the first sign of a more significant retreat from Google. That's too bad. Google had a chance to do something special with this but, like the Android platform, they've relied too much on others and haven't invested enough of their own resources to make it as successful as it could have been.