Friday, May 3, 2013

Cracks in the Garden Walls: Barnes & Noble Opens Nook to Full Range of Android Apps

The Barnes & Noble +NOOK was an early entrant into the world of Android tablets, and it enjoyed early sales success as one of the first non-Apple devices to enable both ebooks and mobile apps in a convenient color touch-screen tablet. At one time the NOOK represented a significant share of all Android tablets on the market and powered a revolution at B&N's retail book stores as they began to take generous front-and-center display space with tech-aware staff on hand. The NOOK was also equipped with a relatively small range of hand-picked Android apps, most all of them available on a paid basis from an online NOOK storefront. All of this came in a unit that was aggressively priced at for least half of what an iPad would cost - it was the first wide-scale Android tablet to sell well near the magic $200 price point. Things looked pretty good for NOOK - for a short while.

But along came a host of other Android tablets, including Amazon's Kindle units, which offered a more complete line of Amazon's own electronic content from its online storefront and its own collection of Android apps. All of a sudden NOOKs became also-rans, statistical rounding errors in a market that now boasted hundreds of millions of Android tablets. It's really a shame, because the flaws of the NOOK strategy were evident from the beginning. Barnes & Noble's presumption is that people wanted a small number of apps that might complement the ebooks that they could buy from their own online storefront, that the typical ebook reader was more interested in flipping pages than playing "Cut the Rope" or watching YouTube videos. Like many publishers, Barnes & Noble viewed the Web as inferior to their ability to curate content and services.

Well, it appears that consumers have proven them wrong. Yes, people who want ebooks want a great ebook experience - but tablets are capable of so much more than that, acting as both "second screens" for Web videos from YouTube and high-definition libraries from Netflix and many other sources. And, of course, there's the Web - people want nothing less than the best Web experience possible, especially since the amount of programmable content now appearing on the Web is mushrooming as software developers take advantage of advanced programming tools like HTML 5, Dart and a host of other capabilities that make Web apps about as powerful as any app installed on a tablet, PC or phone. In short, nobody wants to waste a good machine on less than what it's capable of doing.

So finally Barnes & Noble has relented and come up with a better marketing strategy for NOOKs. As of now, NOOK HD and HD+ tablets will be able to access all of the native apps available on other Android tablets - including Google's own Play Store, Chrome browser for Android and YouTube videos. By adding the Play Store, NOOK owners will be able to access books, movies and music available for sale from Google as well as from other sources that have Android-installable apps available in the Google Play Store. All of this will be in parallel to the native NOOK storefront, which will now use the NOOK in essence as a street for commerce with other storefronts rather than a walled garden that it tries to control tightly.

Stephane Maes, vice president of product for Barnes & Noble, notes that "while we may lose some sales to Google, a rising tide carries all ships." In other words, if people like the NOOK as a tablet experience first and foremost, and NOOK content is particularly appealing on that storefront in a fair comparison, then the NOOK will help to market electronic content and services from Barnes & Noble more effectively - instead of getting lost in the shuffle as soon as a stock Android tablet is pulled out of a box. So although Barnes & Noble doesn't make a lot of money on these low-margin units, they do get better electronic marketing. 

You might say that their walled garden strategy has given way to a streetcorner bookstore strategy. Instead of assuming that a tablet is a device that a bookstore brand can own, Barnes & Noble recognized that their brand is but one experience that people want on a tablet, much as someone going to a downtown shopping area may have a visit to the local bookstore there in mind but also wants to visit many other independent merchants. With this in mind, instead of Barnes & Noble trying to be the Downtown Merchants Association and Zoning Board in addition to running its store, it's decided to sponsor free parking in the downtown area - its tablets - and hope that its good positioning along the "street" that's been prettied up by their design team will result in awareness and goodwill for their marketing efforts.

This is a good hybrid strategy that many other "walled garden" content services should think about carefully. Example: Cable television companies fight services like Google TV and Netflix head-on, trying to keep everyone in their walled gardens of subscription television services. But consumers are increasingly dissatisfied with the cable TV experience and branching out to choose services like Netflix from a wide variety of non-cable services. Instead of trying to pretend that walled gardens are sustainable for commodity TV content in a Web era, cable companies could instead sponsor units like Google TV and tweak their interfaces to promote their own subscription packages. Since Google's own cable company - Google Fiber - has headed in this direction anyway, why not cut to the chase and come up with a better promotional strategy for their services on the most competitive technology platforms available?

The bottom line is that publishers of all kinds can fight for distribution control over their content all they want, but at the end of the day consumers of content want the best content on the best technology platforms with the best choice available - period. No one vendor of intellectual property is ever going to own that entire equation. The smart ones, like Google, are willing to own just a part of the content sales picture whilst keeping customers happy with the best technology tools to enjoy it in an openly competitive environment. They are constantly inviting content competitors into their platforms, so that they can make their own teams work harder to make the best experiences possible. Google partners, such as mobile phone carriers and TV makers, are welcome to customize their Android software to create NOOK-like "sponsored downtowns" - or not. This flexibility forces both Google and the carriers to make sure that they're offering the best experiences for their customers.

So if you're using a walled garden content strategy right now on Web-connected platforms, consider whether you're trying to build walls around technology that's growing far too quickly for you to control it. If so, then consider how you can learn from Barnes & Noble and use technology sponsorship to become better promoters of your market position in an open market for content-oriented services. Your customers will appreciate your willingness to go with the most powerful technologies out there - and, experience seems to show, will reward your brand with better sales as long as you work hard to stick with the best technology services out there in an open market. Worth a shot.
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