Google is making over a million books available for free download in ePub, an open format that devices such as iPods, iPhones and Sony Readers can use.
The company, which is in the middle of an ambitious plan to scan and digitize all of the world's books, announced the move on its blog on Wednesday.
"We began digitizing these books because we thought it was important for people to be able to find and read them, and we want them to be able to do so anywhere, not just when they happen to be at a computer," Google Books product manager Brandon Badger wrote.
"This feature takes us one step closer towards realizing that goal by helping support open standards that enable people to access these books in more places, on more devices and through more applications."
The books available for free download are those in the public domain, or mainly classics that have been out of copyright for years. Shakespeare's works, for example, are available for free.
Sony, which sells electronic books for its Readers on its own website, said earlier this month that it is moving away from a proprietary format and will adopt ePub by the end of the year.
Sony's devices are available in Canada, unlike their direct competition, Amazon.com's Kindle. The Kindle does not natively support ePub, and books bought from Amazon cannot be easily transferred onto another device.
Earlier this week, Sony announced its devices would have 3G wireless connections, much like a cellphone, which will allow users to download books without having to connect to a computer. A spokesman for Sony Canada declined to say whether or when that capability will become available here.
Sony is also teaming up with libraries in the United States and Canada on an e-book loan program. In Canada, users will be able to "borrow" electronic versions of books for download to their device. The books will be good for 21 days, whereupon they will erase themselves from the Reader.
The market for devices such as the Reader and the Kindle, known as "electronic paper displays," is growing quickly. According to a report this week from research firm DisplaySearch, the market will reach $431 million US on sales of 22 million units this year. Sales will explode by 2018, the company said, when they are forecast to hit $9.6 billion on 1.8 billion units.
Google, meanwhile, is facing increasing criticism over its plan to scan books. Last week, a group of large technology companies including Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo formed the Open Book Alliance to rally opposition to Google's book initiative. The companies say that a settlement Google has proposed with authors and publishers could give it too much control over the digital distribution of books.