Well, today Barnes & Noble(NYSE:BKS) has unveiled the newcomer to their nook product line, the NOOKcolor. What has been generally anticipated as the latest round of one-upsmanship in the Kindle vs nook competition has taken an interesting turn, to say the least. People following the news have heard rumors about it for the past week and even seen a prematurely posted accessory sales page that only lasted a short while, but now we have some answers to the questions these rumors raised!
How will they pull off the color?
For the past week or so this has been the big one. Everybody was curious how, if the rumors that there would be a color touchscreen nook were true, B&N would manage things. There was speculation regarding those amazing Mirasol displays that act like eInk in a lot of ways but won’t be out until 2011. Sadly, nothing of the sort was in the works. I don’t think anybody really thought it would be, since it would mean missing the 2010 holiday season and the resultant revenue, but there was some hope at least. Instead, we’re getting an LCD on an eReader. I can only think of two possible reasons that they might have gone this route, ruling out a desire to cash in on the novelty as much as possible before pulling out of the eReader game.
One, their LCD is so altered by the addition of a lamination layer to reduce glare from both the back-light and outside light sources that it will revolutionize portable LCD technology in the short term while better technology becomes available. I honestly wouldn’t mind this much, however unlikely it is. I don’t like the fact that LCD displays eat up battery life so amazingly fast by comparison with eInk, but my main objection has always been eye strain. Reading for hours on a normal LCD hurts, especially when you have reason to do it regularly. That said, this one seems somewhat far-fetched. Until somebody has had some time with a NOOKcolor of their own though, not much can be said for sure.
Two, and far more likely in my opinion, this is intended to cater far more to the tablet fad that’s taking over the market at the moment than to have much to do with reading. I’m not going to deny the potential usefulness in grabbing kids books and cookbooks and the like, but does that really justify the extra expense and inferior reading display? Not really, but an app store just might. This leads into the next line of speculation answered.
What will it be able to do?
This point is in B&N’s favor, I’m sure, in spite of the loss of 3G access. Many nook owners have been somewhat disappointed in the lack of app development for the nook so far, given its Android platform and interesting potential. Short of rooting your eReader, however, the closest we’ve gotten to apps is sudoku and a web browser. Nice, but not really anything to write home about. the new NOOKcolor, though, will ship with Facebook and Twitter integration, a request feature for the popular LendMe setup to let your friends know you want their books, a Pandora Radio app, some degree of Microsoft Office compatibility, and even a new crossword puzzle game! Ok, so the crosswords aren’t a big selling point, the rest is cool. On top of that, there is to be a nook app store that they are now taking developers on for in order to maximize the potential for users. This is very cool, and means a lot in terms of long-term viability of the product.
How will it compare?
This is quite possibly the hardest question to answer. Mostly because B&N has set themselves up in an odd sort of in-between space. Yeah, they still want to be an eReader and are clearly highlighting features that match or exceed the Kindle as a selling point. At the same time, however, they also clearly want the option for some iPad-like functionality and diversity of purpose. So where do we make the (nook vs. iPad) comparison? I’d say we’ll have to wait for a chance at some head-to-head functionality tests after the first units ship before a real evaluation can be made. Right now it feels like a shot in the dark to try to beat Amazon to the punch on color eReaders and address the crowd who still see the iPad as a part of the eReader competition. The features are all there for books, of course, and the potential seems plentiful for app development, but the compromises in terms of price and technology make me wonder.
In short, it’s an odd situation. the NOOKcolor looks cool. It really does. Is it really an eReader anymore though? I’ll admit that color touchscreens seem to be the way of the future, but there seems to be a chance that Barnes & Noble jumped the gun here and put out their entry into the market before the available screen technology was ready for it. eReaders have been characterized by their amazing battery life and easy to read screen. It’s that combination that has set them apart. To throw that off is to take a gamble, in my opinion. I hope it does well as a tablet device, but the Kindle might have lost its biggest competition. I will, as always, caution people to avoid making too much of early speculation before the product even becomes available, but the indications are there and we can only do our best with the information we have available at the moment. Give it some thought. This might fill exactly the niche you’ve been looking forward to, personally, even if it isn’t what we might have expected.