If you have a Sony Reader, you have a lot of reading to catch up on. Sony Electronics has struck a deal with Google to distribute half a million titles through the Sony eBook Store -- for free.
The books, all published before 1923 and now in the public domain, were digitized by Google as part of its Google Book Search program. Sony will offer them alongside the 100,000 or so books still under copyright that it sells through its eBook store.
It's already possible to download public domain books from Google Book Search as PDF files and copy them onto a flash memory card for use in e-readers such as Sony's, but this partnership will simplify the process for users by integrating it into the eBook Library Software for PCs that ships with the Sony Reader.
The service won't give Reader owners free access to the much greater number of books still in copyright, many of which Google Book Search has already digitized, however.
To access the public domain books, owners of Sony's PRS-505 or PRS-700 readers will need to install the PC software and create an account on the eBook Store if they don't already have one. Owners of the older PRS-500 are out of luck, though: the service won't work with that device.
The expanded library won't address one key difference between the Sony Reader and Amazon's Kindle e-readers: the Amazon devices don't need to be tethered to a PC to download and install new books. Instead, the Kindles download books over the air via Sprint Nextel's 3G (third generation) mobile network. However, the wireless technology Amazon has chosen for the Kindle -- and the Kindle 2, released Feb. 9 -- is little used outside the U.S., and is incompatible with mobile networks in Europe and most of Asia.
That leaves an opening for other e-reader manufacturers to provide devices that work with European mobile networks, perhaps linking to other online bookstores. Dutch company Endless Ideas is planning just that with the next version of its BeBook e-reader. It showed a prototype of the device at Cebit, but the new model was absent from its small stand at the Paris Book Fair last week, where Sony had a major presence.
Google's partnership with Sony is not the first time it has simplified access to Google Book Search for mobile devices. On Feb. 6 it opened up the service to the Apple iPhone and to phones based on the Android software platform it backs. The phone interface offers access to more public domain books than Sony's eBook Store: up to 1.5 million in the U.S. and 500,000 elsewhere, according to Google. Amazon followed suit, after a fashion, on March 4, with the launch of an iPhone reader for e-books sold through its Kindle service.