The latest device to join the explosively-growing e-book reader crowd is the $260 Barnes & Noble “Nook.” Nook debuted Tuesday and will be available at the end of November, Barnes & Noble says.
E-readers are one of the fastest-growing consumer electronics product categories, although the overall category is still small. About 3 million e-readers will be be sold in the United States this year, says research firm Forrester, with sales doubling in 2010.
To succeed, Nook will have to battle Amazon’s market-leading Kindle — now in its second generation — plus a host of e-readers from Sony and other companies. But Barnes & Noble is betting there are a few things about the newcomer that will set it apart.
Hear are five Nook features that we think could give the device a leg up over the competition.
1. Sharing capabilities: One of the best things about hardcovers or paperbacks is that you can give them to family and friends. E-readers, so far, haven’t offered that to consumers. Instead, devices such as Kindle have locked down books and made it impossible for users to lend books that they have bought. Nook tries to change that with its LendMe feature. Nook users can loan books to friends for two weeks and those e-books can be accessed through PCs or smartphones such as the BlackBerry and the iPhone. Lending the book through Nook makes it unavailable to the original owner, but at the end of the two weeks, the book reverts back to its owner. Though Barnes & Noble says some publishers might not allow this for the books they publish, its a big step toward finding an acceptable solution to the question of digital rights management around e-books. Bonus: It means no longer having to bug your friends to return books they borrowed from you years ago.
2. Android OS: The Nook is the first e-book reader to run Android, Google’s operating system written for mobile devices. Android has become a favorite of mobile phone manufacturers such as Motorola and HTC because it’s open source and can be easily customized. It also gives users access to applications through the Android market. Barnes & Noble hasn’t announced anything about putting out a software developers’ kit for the Nook. But it hasn’t ruled out the idea either. “We do think, just because of the excitement and all the development around Android, that, in the future, putting out an SDK would be exciting for us and for our users,” says Barnes & Noble president William Lynch.
3. Color touchscreen: In the world of e-readers, Nook’s dual display feature is unique. Nook has the usual black-and-white E Ink screen for reading books, but it also has a color capacitive touchscreen, similar to the iPhone’s, located in the lower portion of the device. The touchscreen lets readers browse through books by flicking through them. When not navigating books or magazines, the touchscreen goes dark to let readers focus on the content (and to save battery power). Though the idea strikes us a bit of a gimmick, it is still interesting, because it is a step out of the rut that current e-readers seem stuck in: a single black-and-white display in an 8-inch frame.
4. Access to 3G and Wi-Fi: When Amazon first introduced the Kindle, it offered free over-the-air wireless book downloads through Sprint’s network. Kindle 2 bundled a basic browser into the device and extended the idea. The wireless connectivity feature put Kindle ahead of its rival Sony, whose earlier e-reader required users to plug the device into their computer via the USB port to download books. Since then, wireless 3G connectivity has become a nearly mandatory component of all e-book readers. But Nook is the only one to offer both 3G and Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi feature is limited for now: On launch, it will work only in Barnes & Noble stores, all of which offer free Wi-Fi. But we are hoping that its Wi-Fi will be soon be opened up to access all hotspots.
5. In-store browsing: Most of us turn to Amazon when it comes to buying books, but there is something to be said for walking into a bookstore, sitting there with a cup of coffee and browsing. The Nook lets you do just that. In a neat trick that takes advantage of Barnes & Noble’s brick-and-mortar stores, the Nook lets users read entire e-books for free in-store. None of the Nook’s storeless rivals will be able to offer that for a very long time.