Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Getting eBooks Right - Finally. Meet Barnes & Noble's Nook

As exciting as Amazon's Kindle has been for many early adopters of content technologies, its screaming limitations and awkward business model have been threats all along to its long-term success. But as long as really viable alternatives were not available, few people seemed to focus on the potential for Amazon to be painted into an uncomfortable box. With the nearing launch of the Nook device from book retailer Barnes & Noble, that time of unchallenged supremacy for the Kindle seems to be drawing to a close.

As much as Kindle has been hailed as a breakthrough for eBooks, I do think that Nook will be a far greater breakthrough for the average book reader and for book publishers and retailers. The Kindle was a nifty piece of breakthrough technology, but it did little to improve the lot of publishers looking at dwindling margins and nothing to help book retailers who are able to shoot cannons through their stores oftentimes without hitting a customer. Nook is well thought-out through and through from a technology standpoint, a customer standpoint and a retailing standpoint.

First, the gizmo itself, which will be available for sale in a few weeks. It uses eInk display technology for the book content, as does Kindle, and it can download books via wireless connections like its Amazon brethren. It has access to millions of books, a convenient online store, and tons of storage and battery life. But this is where the stories of these two devices begin to diverge. Where the Kindle is a completely proprietary platform, the Nook is based on Google's up-and-coming Android operating system for mobile devices, which ties it in immediately with dozens of other Android-enabled devices hitting the marketplace this fall and next year. Barnes and Noble sees clearly that proprietary devices are not going to be a viable barrier to entry when devices based on open source software and Web standards are setting the pace for electronic content access. Using Android enables the Nook to have a slick touch-sensitive color display in addition to the eInk text display that allows for book covers and other attractive graphics to be displayed. Instead of waiting for eInk to solve the color display problem, this is a simple and useful solution that opens up the Nook to other Web functionality and slicker feature navigation more effectively.

Behind the hardware and software is wireless connectivity both for wifi hot spots and for broadband wireless Web networks, a two-fer combination that bests Amazon broadband-only access but also opens up interesting possibilities for retailers. Nook owners who are visiting Barnes & Noble stores will be able to read books via Nook in their stores for free. What a great way to attract people to their retail outlets - and, eventually, what a great way to transition to site-licensing free content access on a subscription basis via affiliates such as high-end coffee shops, university and community libraries and so on once print-on-demand services can be packaged by Barnes and Noble more effectively. Having the right physical context for content remains a winning strategy for content packaging, and Nook's marketing strategy promises to get the 'where" of content right.

Nook also gets many of the "hows" of book content right. Purchasers of eBooks can use Nook to share a book with other people for up to fourteen days and will be able to mark them up with personal notes. Lending can be enabled across both the Nook itself and other portable devices enabled for ePub-formatted eBooks. This also opens up Nooks for library books using the ePub format, in addition to PDF-formatted eBooks that are popular on the Web - and not supported at this time by Kindles. The combination of these features finally offers readers the kind of usability for eBooks that they have been used to having as print readers in an electronic format. Instead of making the hardware and software artificial barriers to a full experience, Barnes and Noble has embraced the experience - and, in the process, has enabled the Nook to be a much more "must-have" place to consume and share content.

Finally, the Nook comes in at a comfy $259 price, twenty dollars less than the current price for the original-size Kindle while offering a display as large as the Kindle2 model. For a fully wireless-enabled device, this will give the Nook a strong advantage going into the holiday season in a lean year - and strong traffic in both their online outlets and retail stores. And while I can't vouch for the hands-on experience, the look of the unit promises to be at least as rewarding as the Kindle. Lacking a physical keyboard, one assumes that the Nook will make use of the Android software-managed touch keyboard capabilities, which, while not an ideal interface, cannot be worse than the amazingly awkward keyboard on Kindles.

So let's see. Great interface, great physical package, great rights management, standardized electronic format, use and share content the way book readers like to, good reasons to visit their retail outlets, go-anywhere networking, Android compatibility - yep, I'd say that Barnes and Noble has just leaped into the center of the new-hotness race for electronic content consumption. I think that it's safe to say that Barnes and Noble is poised to become a major player in electronic book retailing with a device and a marketing strategy that is likely to heat up the book services race to a raging boil. But don't count out Amazon yet - especially with their recent efforts to re-invent the business of local retail delivery. Local contexts is where the money is in content delivery, and both Amazon and Barnes and Noble will have a shot at new approaches to local markets in the years ahead. As for me, well, if a Nook showed up in my holiday stocking, I won't be thinking that it resembles a lump of coal.
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