Technology

Barnes & Noble: Raising the E-Reader Bar


The "nook" addresses some of the Kindle's shortcomings and offers a "lend-me" feature, but it may not be the game-changer the e-book market needs

Gray letters on a gray screen. A keypad that some users found lacking. With the Kindle e-book reader, Amazon.com (AMZN) simply didn't set the bar that high. On Oct. 20, book retailer Barnes & Noble (BKS) raised the standard considerably by announcing its own e-book reader, the nook.

The nook still may not be the game-changer that e-book advocates hope will attract legions of new readers, but it has its attractions. Priced at $259 (the basic Kindle is also $259), the nook has two screens instead of one—a screen for the book itself and another iPhone-like touchscreen that lets users type on a virtual keyboard, skim and browse book covers, and add their own personal touches, including pictures, music, and personal documents.

Like the Kindle, the nook has wireless Internet capability for downloads. Both devices can hold a similar number of titles (1,500 for Kindle, 1,700 for nook), but B&N claims to offer more than 1 million e-books (that includes over 500,000 titles in the public domain and free for the asking). Amazon's Web site says 350,000 titles are available for the Kindle.

Shipping Starts in November

Another unique nook feature that drew much interest at the publishing-industry-and-press event held at New York City's Chelsea Piers: a "lend-me" function that allows one e-book owner to pass a favorite title along to a nook-owning friend for 14 days. After that, the e-book automatically reverts to the owner. (During the loan period, the original owner has no access to the book.)

Barnes & Noble.com President William Lynch noted that the retailer launched an e-bookstore in July. Since that time, he said, it has had more than 1 million book downloads. The launch of the nook, said Lynch, represents the second step in the store's e-book evolution. Along with marketing the nook on the Barnes & Noble Web site, the bookseller will also promote the device in its bricks-and-mortar stores. The nook is to begin shipping at the end of November.

Skeptics abound for all such developments. Many say that all of these devices will find their way to the back of the hall closet within a couple of years. With their large capacity, both nook and Kindle seem like naturals for world travelers and students who might like to have a dozen titles always at the ready . But for the average commuter requiring distraction for a journey of under an hour, the dog-eared paperback or rumpled newspaper (not to mention that spreadsheet on the laptop) seems just fine.

Apple Is Mum on Its Plans

Still missing here is the paradigm-changing gadget, the book equivalent of Apple's iPhone. In fact—although you can load a number of e-reader applications, including Kindle and Barnes & Noble apps, onto an iPhone or iPod, Apple is keeping mum on any plans to produce its own device. But with a touchscreen that utilizes the same technology as the iPhone and its Google Android platform, the nook may have Apple's technoids thinking twice about entering the e-reader fray.

There still is probably space for that paradigm-shifting thing that is so terrific—so mind-bendingly lovely to fiddle with and to use for a variety of functions—that it actually expands the number of book readers. But at the moment, and for several years' time, e-books have represented only around 1% of the shrinking book-reading public. Not only must that percentage rise, but also the overall number of book readers must increase—then we'll know that e-book nirvana has arrived.

Green is books editor for BusinessWeek .

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