Today Microsoft released a beta of Live Search Books, its competitor to Google Book Search. The content inside Live Search Books isn't that modern - it basically only includes out-of-copyright books. As the Live Search team noted, this release "makes tens of thousands of out-of-copyright books available from our library scanning initiative, including books from the University of California, the University of Toronto, and the British Library."
What's of most interest is that it's yet another example of Microsoft matching blow for blow whatever online product Google comes out with. Books isn't something you'd normally expect Microsoft to bother with, except perhaps by making it easier to read eBooks on their Tablet PCs. But books is a very strategically important area for Google to enter into, because Google's main remit is to organize the world's information. As books are still probably the main form of in-depth information delivery, it makes perfect sense for Google to try and cover that. And indeed they've been going to great lengths in recent months to do that. But for Microsoft, a book search service seems almost irrelevant for them - except as a way to copy and cover whatever Google does.
For the reason why, read John Milan's provocative R/WW article about the changing climates for Google and Microsoft:
"For all the apps Google puts out, very few can be considered 'sticky', and even fewer can be monetized outside of advertising - it's too easy to go to Yahoo or MSN for the same free service.
Indeed, Microsoft is already encroaching at each potential feeding ground. Google offers Earth, Microsoft offers Virtual Earth. Google offers AdWords, Microsoft offers AdCenter. Google offers documents and spreadsheets, Microsoft offers Office Live. Google invests heavily in Firefox, Microsoft shakes the dust off Internet Explorer."
John's goes on to say that Microsoft is capable of playing much more than just defence with Google... they are in a position to raise the stakes and change the playing field. So in that sense, this news about Live Search Books is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
Verdict: Both Live Search Books and Google Book Search Suck
In any case I tested out Live Search Books and to be frank, didn't find it of much value. I'm interested more in what current books are saying - e.g. the latest Michael Lewis book, or Freakonomics. What's more, I'm really interested in what people are saying about those books - the conversations, what else they're reading that may interest me, what inspires people about the books, etc. For those things, I'm more likely to go to AllConsuming.net rather than Live Search Books or Google Book Search.
For example, a search for "the blind side" (Michael Lewis' latest book) brings me zilch searching on Google and Microsoft. On A9, Amazon's inside-the-book search, there is sadly no preview content (no doubt because they couldn't get the publisher's permission). On AllConsuming, although there isn't yet any commentary from people who've read the book (which kind of defeats the point I was going to make), you can at least see what other books people are 'consuming' as well as The Blind Side. Freakonomics is actually a better example to use, as there is a decent amount of user content around this book on AllConsuming.
So it's the social and sharing aspects which would really make a book search product compelling - and so far neither Google or Microsoft provides that. Even considering that copyright woes prevent Google and Microsoft from having modern books in their index, I'd still like to see more community and (you guessed it) read/write Web features in their book search products.