Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Color Nook: Barnes & Noble Carves a Niche Between iPad and Kindle using Android

I love my Barnes & Noble Nook ebook reader, in part for the joy of being able to carry dozens of books in one compact unit that has a battery that lasts for days, and in part because it has the Google Android operating system underpinning its functionality. Android didn't make much of a difference with my early Nook model - it enabled a small touch-screen at the bottom to control its functions and provided a better-than-Kindle Web browsing experience - but I knew that it would lead to more powerful features more quickly than other ebook readers.

That confidence has been borne out with the introduction of the Nook Color model this week, a $249 unit with an LCD touch screen that makes the most of its Android-enabled capabilities. While the monochrome eInk technology used for the original model is going to be replaced by color eInk displays soon enough, the tradeoff of shorter battery life (about eight hours) for more flexible color content viewing and access to additional Web-enabled content via a touch-screen make the Color Nook a very attractive unit.

The niche that the Color Nook now occupies in the mobile devices market is somewhat unique. It can do many of the things that a iPad could do with mainstream content such as books and magazines, but it can do it both at a lower price and with better Web integration. Barnes and Noble is touting the unit as being suited best for children's color book content, but that's not going to stop people from browsing magazines, Web content and playing games in color. But the children's angle is an important one.

One of the "you gotta love this" features in the iPad was flipping through the pre-loaded copy of "Winnie the Pooh" with its enchanting illustrations. What parent couldn't justify the premium cost of an iPad in their minds by conjuring up how great a parent they would be flipping through a book like this with their kid on their knees? Now Barnes and Noble can offer a similar experience with a more sophisticated book management experience at less than half the price. "Green Eggs and Ham," anyone?

The iPad is not the only point on the Color Nook's positioning compass, though. On the opposite side is the Amazon Kindle devices, which are promising to have color displays some time soon also. Barnes and Noble brings the Color Nook in at an aggressive price point and the more flexible use features offered by Android just in time for holiday pre-ordering. For the first time, Amazon is looking at a major player in ebooks getting a significant run at their position at similar price points with better technology. Kindle will catch up soon enough, but for 4Q2010 you have to give Barnes and Noble the market nod for momentum.

That momentum comes in part from the middling point on its positioning - Web content and functionality. In addition to color Web browsing via its WiFi connectivity, The Color Nook includes apps for listening to streaming music from the popular Pandora web service, a handful of additional games and integrated social media functions. Just as today people check in to Foursquare when they visit a location, you can pop out a Twitter status update when you're reading a book or share a quote from it on Facebook. Books as social venues have finally made their official debut on social media networks - something that I had hoped would have happened long ago via the publishers' own packaging, but better late than never.

This last point is particularly important to the book industry. The more that Barnes and Noble can make books more tied in to social media experiences, the easier it will be for book sales to grow virally. Viral marketing has always been a part of book marketing, but the ability to accelerate that capability across not only books but magazines and other finished content is extremely important to ensuring rapid sales growth. It's not that we don't need an Oprah to make a book popular any more, but with tight integration of book reading and social media the world is becoming a nation of Oprahs, to bend a phrase from "Content Nation." The LendMe feature that came with the original Nook is still useful for this type of marketing, but being able to browse pages from an online store based on a recommendation from someone reading the book is at least as powerful a sales incentive.

While the Color Nook's limited processing power will keep serious action gamers from making use of the unit for now, it's no secret that this unit is likely to be a great target for Web games and apps that will be available from both Android Market and the upcoming Chrome Web Store. With the advent of services like Google TV that blend in Web content with mainstream television sources, people increasingly look for similar range of choices when they are not using the big screen in their living room. So if the kids want to play Angry Birds on the big TV or I want to play it myself while my wife watches the news, I now have a new option to have fun - before flipping to a book. Alternatively, the Color Nook is ready for business also, supporting all of the latest Microsoft Office file types as well as a variety of XML formats.

So although the Color Nook is far from being the perfect tablet or the perfect ebook reader, it is perfectly positioned at a critical point in the development of mobile computing to take advantage of widening interest from people seeking affordable ways to get at ebooks and Web content. The price point is hard to beat, especially given the high price tag associated with Samsung's similarly sized Galaxy Tab unit based on Android. No, the Color Nook won't take photos or allow two-way videoconferencing, but for a vast audience these are secondary features at best today. The original Nook got off to a bit of a rough start last holiday season; perhaps this time around they'll be the retail buzz of the 2010 season.
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