B&N's Nook e-reader: Weirdly unrevolutionary

B&N's Nook e-reader: Weirdly unrevolutionary

Summary: 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.

SHARE:
46

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.

    Cross-posted at BooksAhead.com.

    Topics: Tablets, Amazon, Google, AT&T, PCs, Wi-Fi

    Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

    Talkback

    46 comments
    Log in or register to join the discussion
    • An ebook reader is a pretty good idea for limited use

      I honestly don't see myself buying an e-reader for books, simply because the cost. $25 for a good hardback is something you want to keep. Even paperbacks are worth keeping if the story is there. You cannot keep digital stuff long term. You'd have to buy it again. How many has re-read LOTR in their lifetimes? I've re-read it 7 times, from the 1970 copy I started with. Do you think I could do that with a digital copy?

      However, what if you had a very low cost e-reader, for reading magazine and newspapers? Say $50 for the basic reader, then pay $.50 - .75 a day for an e-copy of a newspaper. Then you can take it anywhere, reading it anywhere you wish? Now that's an idea that may save newspapers. You can't read a newspaper or magazine easily on a netbook. Desktops are even worse. In this case, they may think of re-designing the layout of newspapers.

      However if they think DRM is the way to go, then they may as well kiss their business goodbye.

      If I was designing this, I'd made sure it's using open-standards. I'd also bring the price down, and then set it with standard wi-fi, AND a USB connection, so you can download files via computer, or wireless. Using AT&T as your only carrier or even worse using B&N ONLY wi-fi just helps limit your customer base. A cellular pcmcia card could be an optional feature.

      If you want to sell things, you think of the customers first, not your business partners.

      - Kc
      kcredden2
      • You raise a lot of points that...

        I think will limit the growth of the e-book market for a long time.
        Excellent thoughts!

        -Mitch
        Mitch Ratcliffe
      • Then you have not totally thought it out...

        Honestly, how often are you away from home or the office, cooling your heels at some government office waiting behind 20 other people, or on a train, taxi, bus or airplane, and didn't think to pack a novel or newspaper to wile away the time.

        With ANY ebook reader, you have potentially hundreds, if not thousands of books, magazines and newspapers at your fingertips.

        Many the time I've sat at my doctors office or at the hospital waiting for my specialist, whip out my Palm smart-phone and carry on reading my latest novel (from Baen.com!), or checking up on the New York Post, CNN or my local paper, all of whom I download automatically first thing in the morning.

        Like you, I cannot justify the price of the dedicated ebook readers, especially here in Canada, where Amazon will NOT be selling the Kindle, and no word on B&N yet. But that does not stop me from using Mobipocket and FW's eReader. In my mind, ebooks are the wave of the future and simply have to come down in price eventually. Publishers only lately have realized that they can make scads of money without almost 0% overhead, selling ebooks.

        In some instances, Publishers are using a new tactic - ARC's - Advanced Reader Copies. These are Author's rough drafts, not totally edited prior to publishing, put on sale anyways for a premium price, but then, you have access to your favourite Author's latest tome up to 1 year in advance of it's scheduled publishing date. So what if there are typo's, and other grammatical/factual errors? You get to read that book well ahead of Opra's book club!. Then when the polished final version comes out on it's release date, buyers then purchase the book again! A Two-fer and double sale for the publisher/Author! (I've been caught several times in that trap - and love it!)

        DRM - Its here, and I have no problem. With Secure Mobipocket, for example, I can read my ebooks on 4 separate devices, but no more. Why would I need to read any book on more than 4 devices? This stops me from re-selling or giving my book away to someone else, basically satisfying Copyright laws and protecting the Author. I have no problem with that - I paid for the book, it's mine. If someone else wants to read it, they can just go out and buy it. Or borrow one of my devices to read the book (I have lots of older PDA's sitting in my drawer, 2 or which are also registered with Mobipocket as among my 4 ebook readers).

        We have to remember that these are the first wave of devices to come out, they are fiercely competitive, and yes, they will eventually start coming down in price, include more features, connectivity, and perhaps at some far-away date, gel down to some generic format, size, price and connectivity that is the same for everyone because simply not doing so will result in loss of customers. But not just yet - this is still the wild-west of "electronic literary access", and only time will tell which direction Publishers will head next. Perhaps folding OLED readers that you roll or fold up and stick into your wallet/purse will be the final result. Who knows?
        Edouin
    • you are wrong about limited WiFi

      Quote: "Q. Can I use my nook while traveling abroad?

      X 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. "

      this is in the FAQ section, you might want to read it.
      reverseswing
      • Again, it's not clear

        Repeating partially my reply about the FAQ answers:

        In the answer above, they specifically say that you cannot purchase
        eBooks or subscriptions. That suggests it is not a fully functioning Wi-
        Fi connection. Maybe because you are connecting from overseas,
        maybe not.

        What is a "supported hotspot" in the second answer about wireless,
        which you did not quote? If they mean an AT&T hotspot, my concern
        is remains.

        What I wrote was that I hoped I was wrong. Hopefully, this is an
        answer, but I think the language here and in the announcement is
        strangely vague.
        Mitch Ratcliffe
        • Too pessimistic

          I think you're being overly pessimistic. The FAQ clearly states it's possible to use wifi hotspots. The sole reason why it's not possible to purchase new books ("while travelling") is probably legal concerns. Just like it's not possible to use pandora radio in Europe or most other places outside the US.

          Same with the "supported" hotspots. Most likely that is just legalese butt covering...

          nyrgall
      • Unfortunately, not wrong

        <strong>UPDATE:</strong> Paul Biba, who attended the event, added
        this to <a href="http://www.teleread.org/2009/10/20/barnes-noble-
        press-conference-live/#more-30822">his report</a>, which seems to
        answer clearly the question whether the Nook provides ad hoc Wi-Fi
        access:

        <blockquote>Wifi can only be used in store for events and in store
        content. Plan to open up later on.</blockquote>
        Mitch Ratcliffe
        • That doesn't make sense.

          I still think there's a misunderstanding going on here, either with you or with Paul Biba. If the FAQ specifically says that you [i]can[/i] use the wifi connection outside of Barnes & Nobel, why would you think otherwise?

          I suspect that the Wifi cannot be used outside of the store for [i]purchases[/i]. That's a slightly different situation (assuming that the Nook is going to include a Web browser in some incarnation).

          The only other possibility I see is that you can use the wifi to transfer books from your computer to the Nook. I don't see any other explanation for them saying that the Nook can access other wifi hotspots.
          bhartman36
          • I am waiting for a clear answer

            which I haven't got from B&N or the PR people they've inserted in the
            dialogue. They have said, via an external agency, that Wi-Fi is fully
            functional but no one from the company will go on the record about that
            or provide an explanation why three reporters, from TeleRead, The Wall
            Street Journal and The New York Times have on-the-record statements
            from the event saying Wi-Fi is not enabled outside stores at launch.
            Mitch Ratcliffe
    • RE: B&N's Nook e-reader: Weirdly unrevolutionary

      Um, you can access WiFi other than B&N:

      From Nook FAQ:

      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).
      riffraffy
      • Not as clear as you think

        Two things:

        In the first answer, they specifically say that you cannot purchase
        eBooks or subscriptions. That suggests it is not a fully functioning Wi-
        Fi connection. Maybe because you are connecting from overseas,
        maybe not.

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

        What I wrote was that I hoped I was wrong. Hopefully, this is an
        answer, but I think the language here and in the announcement is
        strangely vague.
        Mitch Ratcliffe
      • Sorry, I was right, unfortunately.

        <strong>UPDATE:</strong> Paul Biba, who attended the event, added
        this to <a href="http://www.teleread.org/2009/10/20/barnes-noble-
        press-conference-live/#more-30822">his report</a>, which seems to
        answer clearly the question whether the Nook provides ad hoc Wi-Fi
        access:

        <blockquote>Wifi can only be used in store for events and in store
        content. Plan to open up later on.</blockquote>
        Mitch Ratcliffe
        • Paul Biba got it wrong

          http://blogs.zdnet.com/mobile-gadgeteer/?p=2101
          Ed Burnette
          • Or...

            Paul Biba was ambiguous:
            "Wifi can only be used in store for events and in store content. Plan to open up later on."

            Is he saying that "Wifi can only be used in stores" OR "Wifi, when used in B&N stores, can only be used for the following". That is the B&N hotspot will not give full internet access. I think he may have meant the latter, hence the confusion.
            DevStar
            • The Times and Journal reported the same thing

              I am still trying to get clarification from B&N. Matt Miller got a statement
              from Fleishman PR, not B&N, and so far, I cannot get anyone from B&N to
              go on the record that Wi-Fi will be enabled.
              Mitch Ratcliffe
    • RE: B&N's Nook e-reader: Weirdly unrevolutionary

      Surprised they didn't offer a larger screen given that
      the next generation all seem to be larger: the upcoming
      iRex DR800 (8"), Sony 900BC (7") and the PlasticLogic Que
      (10"). Otherwise, it sounds like a decent new reader.
      daedalus2
      • They can do that next....

        Kindle DX hasn't been a screaming success, compared to the smaller
        Kindles. B&N has time to introduce a bigger Nook E-Ink display later, but
        has clearly targeted Kindle 2 with this product.
        Mitch Ratcliffe
    • RE: B&N's Nook e-reader: Weirdly unrevolutionary

      No, you are still wrong.

      As your blogger (as well as the WSJ live-blogger) both state, in-store "only" WiFi is a temporary condition--not a permanent feature. Geez, they are just rolling the thing out. I imagine the WiFi hang up has to do with trying to figure out how to allow in-store "only" users free--complete--book access, using the B&N store's WiFi, and not allow the free book reading when not in a B&N store.

      That the B&N's Nook FAQ say the Nook's WiFi is available "abroad" should put the matter to rest.

      http://www.barnesandnoble.com/nook/support/

      http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2009/10/20/live-blogging-the-barnes-noble-nook-e-reader-launch/?mod=rss_WSJBlog?mod=
      riffraffy
      • Then, I am right

        Actually, you make my point. Ad hoc Wi-Fi access is turned off. I didn't
        say it was a permanent condition.

        Sorry, but I am actually right. It promises Wi-Fi without providing buyers
        information about that limitation anywhere on the site, except in vaguely
        worded statements in the FAQ.
        Mitch Ratcliffe
      • I'd also add

        that the fact B&N took the time to write their FAQ and marketing in such
        a vague way, rather than making the crippled Wi-Fi plainly evident on
        the site, suggests they don't currently have a timeline for enabling full
        Wi-Fi connectivity.

        They may be just launching it, but that cleverly vague language and the
        resulting disappoint of buyers will do a lot of damage to an otherwise
        really great alternative to Kindle. Wouldn't it be better if, having had this
        pointed out, B&N enables full Wi-Fi, which is what they promised, or gave
        a concrete date on which they will deliver it?
        Mitch Ratcliffe