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B&N’s Nook: Weirdly unrevolutionary

In addition to this posting, please visit this clarifications posting to get the whole picture.

It would be nice to say, as Matt Miller has, that the e-book and e-reader market was revolutionized today. It simply got more interesting. A careful reading of the $259 Nook’s features, and the comparison offered by B&N to the $259 Amazon Kindle 2, reveals that, while it packs a lot of new ideas, Nook is a combination of innovation and the extraordinarily conventional.

Highlights:

  • Two screens, one 3.5-inch LCD for navigation and purchasing and a six-inch E-Ink display for reading;
  • Virtual keyboard via the LCD display
  • ePub and PDF formats supported;
  • Free 3G connectivity when shopping via BN.com;
  • Sharing of books, across Nook, smartphones and PCs;
  • Wi-Fi built in, but with strange limitations at launch(see below);
  • Synchronization of location, notes and annotation across multiple devices;
  • Audio is supported, though only MP3; Audible books not supported.

There is much I like about this device, but I am not at the announcement today, where I would be asking a lot of questions I have not seen answered in any coverage, so far. Here, with the apparent downsides first and foremost, is what is known to me at this moment.

An e-reader designed to get you into the physical Barnes & Noble store. This, and the question of how to get non-BN content onto the Nook, represent the most backward features of the Nook. When you visit a B&N retail store, you’ll receive offers and, soon, the ability to read some e-books in their entirety while in the store. Everything deleted below, while part of this critique has been clarified and extended in this posting.

There, however, is the rub.

I’d pointed out before that wireless services for browsing the 500,000+ titles available for free through Google Books, a notable feature of the Nook, probably wouldn’t be supported over the built-in 3G wireless service. It isn’t. You’ll need to download and synch the Nook with your PC, via a USB connection, to move any content not sold by BN.com onto the device. From there, it gets bizarre.

According to The New York Times’s Motoko Rich, the built-in Wi-Fi networking works only inside Barnes & Noble retail stores:

With the market for electronic readers and digital books heating up by the day, Barnes & Noble sought to differentiate itself with the wireless feature that consumers can access in any of the chain’s 1,300 stores. Outside of the stores, customers can download books on AT&T’s 3G cellular phone network. (emphasis added)

A review of the BN.com tech specs for Nook adds the caveat that free wireless service is available “from Barnes & Noble via AT&T.” Note that they are saying you get free wireless service when buying or browsing Barnes & Noble, not when accessing other sites or services. Put this and the quote from the Times together and you get: Free 3G service anywhere, when buying from BN.com. Free Wi-Fi in Barnes & Noble stores, but no Wi-Fi connectivity outside, where you can shop wirelessly on BN.com.

Comments from riffraffy in TalkBack point to this section of the Nook FAQ, which I read but still find very vague, since they refer only to travel and Wi-Fi:

Q. Can I use my nook while traveling abroad?

A.Yes, when you travel abroad, you can read any files that are already on your nook. You can connect to Wi-Fi hotspots that do not use proxy security settings, such those commonly used in hotels, and download eBooks and subscriptions already in your online digital library. You cannot, however, purchase additional eBooks and subscriptions.

Q. Will new issues of eNewspapers and eMagazines be downloaded to my nook while I’m traveling?

A. Yes, if you are traveling in the United States, or if you are abroad but connected to a supported Wi-Fi hotspot, new issues are delivered to your online digital library in both cases. When travelling abroad without Wi-Fi access, new issues are not downloaded to your nook (automatically or manually).

Two things:

In the first answer, they specifically say that you cannot purchase eBooks or subscriptions over an international Wi-Fi connection. That suggests it is not a fully functioning Wi-Fi connection. Maybe because you are connecting from overseas, maybe not. If you had full Wi-Fi access and a valid BN.com account, what should stop you?

What is a “supported hotspot” in the second answer? If they mean an AT&T hotspot, my concern remains.

I wrote that I hoped I was wrong. I think the language here and in the announcement is strangely vague (having seen a lot of strangely vague FAQs turn out to bear bad news) and would have liked to be present at the announcement to ask.

UPDATE: Paul Biba, who attended the event, added this to his report, which seems to answer clearly the question whether the Nook provides ad hoc Wi-Fi access:

Wifi can only be used in store for events and in store content. Plan to open up later on.

B&N should enable ad hoc Wi-Fi access at launch, or disclose more clearly that it will not be available in order to avoid disappointing all the people who are expecting to be able to use Wi-Fi at home or elsewhere not served by an AT&T Hotspot. To do otherwise would be doing damage to the credibility of a very impressive piece of engineering.

The rest of the content you want to put on the Nook will have to be downloaded via a PC and synched to the Nook. That’s a step back from what the promise of built-in Wi-Fi would lead a buyer to expect—particularly because Nook is advertised as providing access to 500,000 Google Books titles that, in fact, aren’t accessible through the device, but must be synched.

I hope I am reading this wrong or, that if this is correct, B&N changes the Nook to support ad hoc Wi-Fi access to Google Books. It would be a blunder, forcing readers into retail stores when we want to get away from them, into virtual stores with much broader inventories.

UPDATE: Google Books, per the updated posting here, can be downloaded free of charge over 3G and Wi-Fi connections.

Synching is cumbersome and, frankly, what keeps most people, the non-early adopting masses, from using dedicated e-readers. The popularity of smartphone e-reader apps, which outnumber dedicated e-reader unit sales by a factor of at least three, is a clear testimony to the perceived convenience of downloading content to a multi-purpose device. If you’re going to synch, the device has to be extremely useful—and most smartphone apps piggyback on customers’ wireless data plans to make direct downloads easy. Dedicated e-readers that require PC synching will strike most readers as cumbersome, yet Nook still requires synching.

Cover-flow is all the LCD supports at launch. Apple does cool stuff and lots of people like the Cover Flow interface in iTunes gets a lot of applause. Barnes & Noble has added a 3.5-inch LCD touch screen to the “traditional” e-reader E-Ink display to facilitate iTunes-like shopping. Google’s Android operating system drives this capability, which I think points to some interesting design opportunities. TeleRead reports that during the Q&A at the press conference, B&N execs said there will be an announcement on Android programming access sometime in the future. Nook, however, doesn’t take advantage of any of the other features of Android, such as the potential to browse the Web while reading, and retaining one’s place in, an e-book. There is also no Android e-reader application, closing the door on Google Editions—after all, BN.com will make more selling an e-book directly than the share of revenue allotted by Google Editions to a retailer.

There are no social features, either, besides lending of books, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Given the wireless limitations, this makes sense. B&N doesn’t want to subsidize a lot of Web browsing costs due to Nook owners use of the AT&T network. Nor, apparently, does B&N want people using their own Wi-Fi networks to do so.

The cover-flow interface is also the library management interface, based on comments in all the coverage. That could be problematic with any library of significant size, especially if the Nook does not take advantage of the larger E-Ink screen to list the titles on the device. Scrolling through screens of book covers to reach something not read recently or alphabetically deep in the library is not efficient. That is why iTunes also lets users view their libraries as a list, with small icons and so forth.

Lending! I speculated yesterday that lending a book will prevent the user from accessing the book, and that is the case. However, the ease of lending is fantastic, based on the claim that all one needs is the lendee’s email address in order to share. In addition to Nook users, PC, Mac, and many smartphone users can borrow a book. All loans expire after 14 days, when the owner of the book regains access.

Some writers I know have said in various venues online today that sharing is bad for their potential revenues. Bosh! It is the best form of marketing a writer or publisher could ask for, since it allows hand-selling by enthusiastic readers to their friends. The limited access by the owner during the 14 days of the loan is a catalyst for purchases, since friends will want to keep the book beyond the time of the loan and, potentially, want to buy the book in order to return it early, because the owner wants to loan it to someone else. This is a Very Good Thing to the degree that people are willing to embrace DRM-protected content in the first place. We’ll not open that barrel of DRM monkeys at this time other than to point out DRM has not prevented iTunes nor Kindle users from active purchasing.

Head-to-head with Kindle. Barnes & Noble begs for this comment, because it pits Nook against Kindle in a side-by-side features comparison. The top-line assessment, based on reading with a Kindle and reading about Nook is that they are roughly equal as devices. Both are still too expensive for most normal readers, who buy one to three books a year. They each have strengths, most notably Kindle’s wider use of the Net, such as providing simple browsing, which BN.com will certainly be able to offer in an updated or upgraded version of Nook. Color navigation of books is not a big win for Nook. If Nook is opened up to Android developers, however, it has far more untapped potential because of the combination of the color and E-Ink displays.

Even with its massive physical retail presence, I think Barnes & Noble will have a hard time catching Amazon, since Amazon is exactly what made virtual retailing work for so many consumers in the first place. That said, having 1,300 retail locations doesn’t hurt. I believe, though, that this will be B&N’s challenge: To listen to the customers at retail who don’t buy, and to redesign rapidly in response. I hope B&N has organized itself to capture this feedback so that it doesn’t go to waste.

B&N’s plan to bundle hardcover and e-books, reported by TeleRead, makes a lot of sense. That will win customers at retail.

I am glad to see Nook includes a Mirco SD memory slot, which will allow the device to hold up to 17,500 books, according to Barnes & Noble. I think the value of a device like this is its ability to search a massive library at one’s fingertips. I keep all the old copies of the newspapers and magazines I read on Kindle to search later, eliminating a lot of piles of paper and filing I used to do—search makes large archives useful. Amazon should put the expansion slot back in Kindle or I will eventually be ready to sacrifice one year’s newspaper and magazine archives for Nook or an alternative that caters to my data pack rat tendencies. All magazine and newspaper publishers should be thinking about selling archives and cloud-based archive access to e-reader (hardware and software) users.

On Day One of the Nook, it’s in a dead heat in competition for customers new to e-readers. Existing Kindle users are not likely to convert based on this one device, which is likely temporary, as BN.com is aligned with several other e-reader hardware developers, including Plastic Logic and iRex, all of which will support ePub files, making the books sold by BN.com portable across all such devices (though only through manual synching in some cases). It’s only a matter of time before Amazon adds ePub support. Maybe just days.

There is a very good discussion of this posting going on over on my ZD Net blog.

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