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I Did it All for the Nook

By Glenn Fleishman October 22, 2009

Can Barnes & Noble succeed where Amazon has...well, already partially succeeded? I refer, of course, to the Nook, an upcoming electronic book reader that competes head-to-head with the Amazon's Kindle product line, but which to my early taste, scores higher in nearly every measure. B&N also takes on Sony's less well-known but generally well-liked family of Reader devices.

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In this battle, Barnes & Noble comes across as the underdog. Despite its 700-plus bricks-and-mortar stores and online bookselling presence, it's become the scrappy underdog.

Amazon is now the ponderous, difficult, giant corporation that finds it hard to listen to its users. Its missteps about deleting George Orwell books from the Kindle (later rectified and codified to not happen again), its lack  of support for popular ebook formats, and its bizarre pricing for downloads made outside the United States for the new international Kindle all make it seem out of touch and behind the times.

I worked for Amazon for a scant six months way back in 1996 and 1997, during which time B&N launched its already way-too-late Web site. I remember the day it launched how much we laughed and laughed and laughed at 2nd and Pike in the Columbia Building while loading our competitor's pages. We thought B&N would bring all its long-time corporate information technology knowledge to bear on the Web site, and use its superior supplier relationship and customer database to produce something that might really throw us for a loop. It did not.

The original Barnes & Noble site was slow, irritating, and priced poorly. And the company trumpeted on its home page all the different partners' technology it was working with, including Microsoft. (Amazon, by contrast, was using a witches' brew of an Oracle database, open-source and free software, homegrown components, and Netscape's early commercial Web server, among many other pieces. And we didn't talk about that.)

Sure B&N eventually made its web site better, but for over a decade, it has often played the Microsoft to Amazon's Apple (the post-1999 Apple, at least), coming late to the party in a maladroit manner, and not quite understanding. The Nook seems to me where this changes.

B&N started its Nook push months in advance of releasing the hardware device, which itself shares many technical aspects in common with the standard Kindle, including the $259 price. B&N released ebook-reading software for Mac OS X, Windows, the iPhone and iPod touch, and several models of BlackBerry and Windows Mobile.

And here's the key part of this pre-Nook B&N Ebook software:  Any book you purchased could be read across any of these devices or platforms, and transferred freely among them. The inclusion of so-called "desktop OSes"—operating systems that run on fixed and mobile computers—meant you could read a book on your laptop, switch to your mobile phone, and then open it and continue reading on a home computer. Neat, right?

Amazon had previously released an iPhone and iPod touch application, but has so far left other popular platforms in the U.S. alone, even though it said early on that there were plans to expand to many mobile platforms. It doesn't have Mac and Windows software, either. (Amazon said on October 22 (today) that it will offer Windows software "soon.")

By introducing hardware first, Amazon competes against itself when it allows reading on other platforms than its own. With B&N, the delay in having a standalone reader meant that the company developed a strategy in which its own hardware is one component among many ways to expand a reading audience.

That's all about strategy and positioning. What about the damn device? I haven't seen one yet; it's due to ship in late November. But I've been reading coverage of those at the launch event and studying the B&N site. I'm quite impressed by the design and feature decisions.

The device has two separate displays, trying to take best advantage of two separate purposes. A 6-inch E-Ink display, the same size as the standard Kindle, has that format's low-power use and persistence (the image remains even without power), but it takes a while to redraw the screen. A 3.5-inch display beneath the book-reading portion is a color LCD that recognizes taps and some gestures. This screen is crisp and shows book covers or a virtual keyboard, and powers off when not needed to reduce power usage.

The Nook has both a cellular 3G network connection (provided by AT&T) and Wi-Fi. I have long been irritated with Amazon for not offering Wi-Fi in the Kindle, because Wi-Fi would allow access to download and purchase books when a cellular network wasn't available, or when you were traveling outside the U.S. (Amazon thinks it's solved this problem by adding an international Kindle that has substantially higher costs for purchasing items on networks outside the U.S., whether or not you buy the worldwide edition in another country, or are traveling from the United States elsewhere with the unit.)

Barnes & Noble will use the Wi-Fi to leverage its bricks-and-mortar stores, which have free Wi-Fi networks, by letting you read an entire ebook at no cost on each visit when you use the in-store network. Nice bonus, which costs B&N very little, and will likely lead to more sales and more store visits.

B&N also chose to make the hardware more open. In this case, Amazon is very much like Apple vis-a-vis the iPhone. The Nook has a removable battery, and a standard microSD card slot to expand the built-in 2 GB of storage to up to 16 GB per card. Kindle models have either 2 GB (standard) or 4 GB (larger DX model), and no slot, and the batteries are integral to the unit.

The Nook reads all the popular, widely used ebook formats, including Epub, a standard for delivering ebooks that has become an industry standard. Sony's Reader supports it, many stores deliver in the format, and many public domain book collections offer it. Nook also reads PDF files, Adobe's popular format, without conversion. And Nook reads the eReader format, using it for its own ebook sales, which is widely offered by stores as well.

The Kindle? No Epub. No PDF on the standard version, only the $489 large-size DX intended for the academic market. And its own proprietary format can't be created by anyone else.

Now both Amazon and B&N restrict transfer of one's own files, or titles purchased for stores other than their own, to a USB connection so far. That adds friction, but it's not unreasonable, as both firms pay AT&T  for 3G cell network downloads. Over Wi-Fi, Barnes & Noble should eventually let us sync. (Amazon killed its Sprint network Kindle on October 22, lowering the AT&T worldwide version to $259, the same price the Sprint version had.)

Barnes & Noble has also partnered with Google to make 500,000 books available at no charge that are a subset of Google's book-scanning effort. These titles are free and clear in the public domain. Sony has access to the same set, and you can browse and download these from Google's site without any dedicated hardware device, too. (See an 1890s Alice in Wonderland, for instance.)

Amazon, so far, has resisted such a partnership, and is in opposition to a proposed settlement between Google and groups that represent authors and publishers over in-copyright book scanning. That may have made a public-domain deal a rather challenging endeavor. The company does offer many thousands of free public-domain books.

Barnes & Noble has another twist on its books, too: you can lend them to friends. If you buy a book—"most" it says, but not all titles in its library--you can offer it to someone else by entering his or her email address for up to 14 days. That other person can read the book on any platform or device with B&N's software installed. During the loan period, it's unavailable to you. It's a very nice start to what should be a larger effort. If I can loan my ebooks, it's a step towards owning them, and that means more sales of such books as a result. (The next step is allowing free transfer of books to others on a permanent basis.)

Lest I gush too much, it's not that the Nook is ideal. Rather, it has been built to eliminate a number of elements that make the Kindle a closed system, that don't benefit readers or owners, and that I found irritating in testing various Kindle models. Barnes & Noble seems to get it in a way that reminds me of Apple. How ironic.

When the device ships in late November, I'll get a real look at it, and share whether it meets my expectations. I don't own a book reader because none has been free of the compromises that makes me think I might use it. On most devices, I can't even read my own ebooks, ones I've written, which doesn't endear them to me.

The only problem with B&N's reader? Its name. My wife thinks "nook" is a ridiculous name, sounding silly and perhaps trying to be a contraction of "new book." To my ear, Nook sounds like a comfy corner—a book nook—where one can put a blanket over your feet and settle down.
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