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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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Amazon has unveiled a feature that many are heralding as useful: full-text search of 120,000 books (thus far). It allows you to preview the text so that you can get a feel for where the terms are used in context.

Their explanation of how it works indicates that its utility is strictly of the preview before you buy and there are a limited number of pages you can view in each book.

As I said earlier, a lot of people are going to think that this is the cat’s meow. I disagree. I think it’s a nice enough feature, but I have to wonder about its utility. Searching through titles and other metadata is one thing and I think the fact that it’s served Amazon up to now is testament to its power. That Amazon, normally the astute and prescient e-commerce operator, would devote precious resources and effort towards storing the full-text of 120,000 books and then making it available through such a search mechanism suggests that more is at work here than meets the eye.

Suppose that Amazon eventually got through all the books in its catalog. What if it were to offer those books online for purchase or subscription? It is the Wal-Mart of the bookselling industry and there is ample reason to suppose that it could bend publishers to its will. The biggest hurdle to ebooks’ success was the limited offering available online. Textbooks are useful to read, but having every Danielle Steel or Tom Clancy novel online would get people hooked. The iTunes Music Store has established that people will pay a premium for convenience, paying 99¢ for a lesser-quality version of a song without any liner notes or lyrics.

We’ve already seen how O’Reilly’s Safari service makes such a venture viable. Imagine if all of the books on Amazon were so easily accessible and available! The publishing industry isn’t game for this right now, certainly, and Amazon is making all the right statements about the limitations of this new feature to placate them. But I bet it’s quietly amassing just such a gargantuan archive. And I bet that Jeff Bezos isn’t devoting so much effort to let you know that the words “human entelechy” are only found in Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

It’s a revolutionary idea that rises from the ashes of the flameout of the ebook. The ebook is the future and the time has come for a solid player to back it wholeheartedly. I’d buy that for a dollar.