The Barnes & Noble Nook

The days of out-retailing your way into a technology market, ala Microsoft and Windows in the 1990s, may be over. Now, when new devices challenge established devices, they’d better have a distinct functional or aesthetic advantage. Microsoft found this out in the music device market with the Zune, which did many things the iPod did, but not as well and not as beautifully. And for all their retail efforts, the device failed to catch fire or put a dent in the iPod behemoth.

Is the Nook the Zune of e-readers?

Barnes & Noble is to be commended for entering the fray with an eye-catching, appealing device. However, the eye-candy aspects of the Nook aren’t sufficient to rescue it from some design mistakes and technical issues that were show-stoppers for me.

My problems started with just trying to open the damn thing. The tall, flimsy plastic box was hard enough to open, but the tall, sturdy box underneath was even more challenging. Then they finished it off with a plastic bracket you have to pry off to finally free the device. Consumer Reports should put this thing in its packaging Hall of Shame.

A colleague and I were comparing the packaging unfavorably to old-time CD packaging we used to find in retail stores, the kind that had to be opened by an employee with a special key. This comparison might explain some things, since Barnes & Noble plans to sell Nooks in their retail stores. The packaging is clearly meant to deter shoplifting.

After having survived opening the package – seriously, there were moments of forcing and popping plastic when I thought I might sever my carotid with too much follow-through – I finally held the device itself.

Feels good. Looks good. Very cool form factor, nice materials, seems promising.

My disappointment with the packaging put aside, the next thing I had to do was register the device.

That’s too bad.

I’ve owned two Kindles, and both arrived knowing who I was.

Receiving a device that greets me by name and is integrated with my account out of the box is such a nice touch, and lowers the barrier to adoption so significantly, that for Barnes & Noble to have missed this trick is, to me, a significant omission, one that speaks to their bricks-and-clicks limitations. Amazon just ships, so they can customize each device as it moves to your box (also, Amazon doesn’t need to anti-shoplift its packaging). Barnes & Noble is pulling the Nooks off the shelf and mailing them. No magic there.

That said, it was easy enough to register, except for typing in a long email address and password. But the experience pales in comparison, and that’s what’s going on here — the Nook is going to be compared to the Kindle.

The Nook consists of two screen areas, an upper e-ink area for reading, and a lower LCD touchscreen for invoking functions and typing search queries and browsing the store. This design innovation sounded good and interesting in the pre-sale marketing, but there are problems with this approach, the most glaring being precisely that – glare. The LCD screen is bright, very bright. Trying to read the e-ink area over this stymies the human pupil, and is pretty unpleasant. In addition, the navigation being split between two screen areas that don’t match up visually in intensity or color capabilities – so you have to hit icons in the bright, color area to get things in the dim, black-and-white area to respond – is pretty weird.

This seems like poor human-factors design.

I pressed on. Yes, I could find my novels on the Nook. Yes, I could see things and browse.

I was on a train, a perfect use-case for the wireless connectivity.

It worked for a while, then the signal dropped out. I got an error message with coderspeak in it. Then, the Nook stopped working.

I tried to power it off and back on. It flickered. The top icons appeared in the e-ink area, the LCD lit but nothing showed.

It conked out again.

I let it sit for a half-hour. (It was a long train ride.)

Still dead.

Long story short, I’m sending it back.

The problem for Barnes & Noble is that the Nook needed to provide me with an experience that’s better than the Kindle. From my hour with the Nook, I can say that it missed the mark in a variety of ways, from packaging to design touches to interface to stability and functionality.

It’s harder to read on it because of the glaring LCD screen. The software is apparently not completely baked. And other than it being a competitor in a space that needs competition, it offers no clear benefit.

The other challenge for the Nook is that there are increasingly plausible rumors that Apple’s tablet reading device is about to  make an appearance. This will create an upscale bit of competition, perhaps leaving the Nook in the lurch, betwixt and between, a strange hybrid of LCD and e-ink, an e-platypus.

Sorry, Barnes & Noble, the Nook didn’t work for me.

I hope you fare better with it than Microsoft did with the Zune.

UPDATE (12/16/09): Yesterday morning, before my meetings, I spent 30 minutes unsuccessfully attempting to contact Barnes & Noble to get a return shipping label for my Nook (they don’t let you print one out from your account management screen, and calling customer service for the Nook led to my being shunted here and there by representatives for about 30 minutes of lovely Christmas tunes). Today, I finally found the right department (after one more customer service transfer and another 15 minutes of a lovely seasonal mix), and was informed that I would be charged a 10% “restocking fee” for returning my Nook. That amounts to over $30 for them to snap some plastic back together and put it back on the shelf. I’ve returned things to Amazon, and the only fees I’ve ever been charged have been shipping fees when the problem wasn’t their fault. To me, this is another indication that it takes more than a device to compete for the modern consumer. Barnes & Noble, you just don’t quite get it. And for you people contemplating trying a Nook, remember if you don’t like it, the price for your curiosity may be $30.

UPDATE (12/21/09): The customer service adventure continues. After being assured that I’d receive a pre-paid return shipping label by a customer service representative and in an email from some other branch of Barnes & Noble, I had received nothing by this morning. I’d also been told that since I’d opened the Nook, I had to mail it back — I couldn’t just return it to a store. Then, this morning, pressing a different agent further and getting a manager involved, I found out that I can return an opened Nook to a Barnes & Noble store to expedite a refund and eliminate shipping hassles. Now, let’s see if the store knows that . . .

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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Discussion

12 Thoughts on "A First Look at the Nook: An Also-Ran That Can Barely Get Out of the Box"

Maybe just a coincidence, but when I went to cancel my order that was scheduled to ship on Dec 15, I found that it has just shipped. Maybe there were massive cancellations based on Pogue’s column, or Kent’s….:)

The Technologizer weighs in here, a bit more positive than your review.

One question: what happens if you order a Kindle for someone else as a gift? Surely Amazon doesn’t invade that person’s privacy by accessing their account information without their permission, and there must be some registration procedure they go through, right?

Also, I’m not sure the iPod/Zune metaphor is apt here. The Kindle is in early days in a nascent market (one that may never take off the way the mp3 player market did). The iPod was released in 2001, the Zune first appeared in 2006, long after the iPod was established as the standard bearer for an accepted mainstream market. Had MS released the Zune a lot earlier (perhaps when the iPod was still Mac-only, just as the Kindle is locked down and Amazon-only), then things might have been different. That window is still very open in this market, and probably will continue to be open for at least a little while longer.

Comparing timescales doesn’t work for me. We’re a much more device-oriented information culture now than we were in 2001. The iPod was the first single-use device that was broadly embraced. The Kindle’s been out for a relatively long time — 1.0, 2.0, and DX (2.5) have all been released, and it dominates the admittedly smaller but still significant space. Jeff Bezos recently said that for books available in e-book and print formats, Amazon sells 48 e-books for every 100 print. That’s pretty impressive, and I keep hearing from authors who are selling snotloads of e-books, mostly to the Kindle. And based on what I’m hearing anecdotally as a known Kindle user, the Kindle is going to be much more widely adopted after the gift-giving season ends in a few weeks. It seems to be the gadget of choice this year for kids, parents, and grandparents.

Habits are harder to change than technology. The Kindle may be imperfect, but it’s benefiting from the habits people already have around using Amazon, while creating habits and preferences of its own. I’m not as convinced that the window is going to be open for very much longer — at least for affordable, single-purpose, wireless e-reading devices.

And for anything like the rumored Apple tablet, my bet is that there will be heat, weight, and price issues that will make the Apple tablet a very niche device comparatively.

We’ll have to see what happens.

I’m curious if there’s any indication that Border’s will jump into the fray with a reader?

I would think it’s doubtful, given the shaky state of Borders’ finances. Note that their inependent UK Borders spinoff recently filed for bankruptcy.

I agree with David. Borders’ days might be numbered, and I doubt they have the cash or the capabilities to enter this space.

Kent, moving to a new thread to avoid a really long skinny post (as this response turned out longer than I expected):

I don’t think time or iterations of devices is relevant here either. What’s important is market penetrance. Take a look at iPod sales data. For the first several years, the device was Mac-only, and the iTunes store did not yet exist (it opened in 2003). The iPod was certainly vulnerable for many of these early years, as it was only selling a few million devices a year, at least through 2004. 2005 saw a huge leap to over 20 million sold. By the time the Zune came out in 2006, Apple had already sold more than 30 million iPods and was going to sell 40 million more that year. The sales numbers give a better idea of how established it was, rather than thinking in terms of years or iterations.

The iPod is perhaps a bad comparison, given that the world had already adopted the mp3 format (via Napster) before the iPod was released, whereas the e-book market has no common file format in use, and no way to rip your previous purchases (print books) to a new device. Perhaps a better analogy is the nascent videogame market, where, like e-books, one was locked in to one provider.

But let’s contrast iPod sales data with Kindle sales data. Oops, there are no Kindle sales data. Amazon has clear and obvious reasons for keeping this data secret, as it allows rampant speculation that seems more based on anecdote and sales campaigns than on actual numbers. Forrester estimates (take all estimates with a grain of salt) 3 million total US ebook reader sales in 2009. That’s the total market, not just Amazon. Apple had sales greater than that after two years just on their own and were far from locked in as the dominant player.

It’s important to remember that the e-book market is only a tiny percentage of the book buying market as a whole. Depending on whose numbers you believe, at least 95% of book sales aren’t e-books. That, to me, says that 95% of the market has not chosen a device or a provider, which means the field is wide open for competition. I would argue that stand-alone devices are at best going to be niche devices, and perhaps Kindle has a strong hold on this very small niche, but the fate of the e-book itself is far from determined.

To counter some of your anecdotal evidence, we (CSHL Press) have 6 books available through the Kindle store. We’ve sold only a few Kindle copies of each this year, while the print copies of those same books continue to sell very well. The ratio is closer to one to hundreds than Bezos’ alleged 1 to 2 sales rate. And I’m glad you brought that number up because it’s a good example of Amazon’s cherrypicking and misleading use of statistics. What does that mean, “for books available in e-book and print formats, Amazon sells 48 e-books for every 100 print”? Take a look at Kindle’s current bestsellers. 9 of the top 10 are available for free, and 8 of those books are available in print as well. How does that skew Bezos’ numbers? Amazon has 350,000 plus books in its Kindle store. An impressive number until you realize that nearly 300,000 books were published in the US alone last year, with worldwide estimates being closer to 2.55 million (pdf link). The entire Kindle library represents only a tiny fraction of the total number of books available, so can we really generalize much about the vague sales figures offered? Another classic bit of spin was the claim that the Kindle outsells every other product on Amazon, which was dissected here. Bezos’ and Amazon’s statements must be taken purely as marketing copy, at least until they want to establish some actual credibility by releasing numbers.

I’ve had my nook for three days and I think I can conclude that the reviewers who are very negative are seeing something different than I am seeing.

In fact, a friend who tried a nook in a B&N store, and tried my nook said “yours is much faster”. Well, mine is running 1.0.0 software. I don’t find the page turning delay much different from the Kindle. (My guess: as the noon gets used without a restart, it might progressively slow down. So restart it if it gets slow might be a short term prescription.)

I can say that the nook has five advantages that I like:

– it has real page numbers (but see disadvantages, below). I tried to use my Kindle in a book group, and people kept loaning me their hardcopy so I could keep up.

– it supports personalized screen savers. I installed the hack in my kindle to do this, and it kept me from getting updates.

– it has wi-fi. I didn’t realize how useful that is. too bad it doesn’t have an internet browser!

– the screen and fonts are just a tad better than what the Kindle has. The background of the screen is just a little whiter and better contrasting than my Kindles. Just a touch.

– Google books. rough looking, but they are there!

Downsides:

– the ‘open’ness of the nook is its Achilles heel: the store experience on B&N (or fictionwise, etc.) is poor relative to the Amazon store.

– page numbers. you can’t go to them, you can’t search on them. they might as well not be there.

– the number of newspapers and magazines available is pathetic. sure, it is a new device, but B&N had a long time to work on this.

I didn’t find the packaging a challenge (perhaps because I was warned by Kent’s post). I didn’t find registration a challenge (but I did have to register). I also find that working on two screens for input takes some getting used to, but then with my PC I work with a keyboard and a mouse and I think I have figured that out.

John

Thanks for your blog entry! I had to fight to get my Nook out of the box. I thought for sure I was going to break it when I tried to remove it from the plastic casing. From an environmental point of view, the packaging sure is a waste.

Once I freed it from its cage and it was charged (another unfriendly step), I still can’t use it. It wants an account name and password, but I had no clue of what to enter as I was away from the Internet at the time.

Now I’m on the phone with Barnes and Noble… the very friendly person who answered the phone likes reading regular books and does not feel like spending the money to buy a Nook. She needs to transfer me to “digital support” because she can’t figure out the login problem either. Unfortunately, the extension she’s trying to transfer me to is not working.

Now that I’m near the Internet I was able to log into my B&N account without any trouble, but I still can’t get the Nook to go past the login screen.

Oh well!

I think these bad reviews for the Nook, combined with the legal circus surrounding the CrunchPad (now the “Joo-Joo”) point out how incredibly difficult hardware design and manufacturing can be, particularly for companies that don’t have deep experience doing so. Barnes & Noble’s product doesn’t live up to expectations, TechCrunch’s product, if it ever sees the light of day, is going to cost more than 2 and a half times what they originally aimed for. We’re often warned, as content providers, that companies like Apple, Google and Amazon are going to jump into our markets and dominate. The problem is that in order to compete with them, it requires moving into areas where a publishing house has no expertise, things like designing and building a device. These mediocre efforts point out why a company like Apple has been so successful leveraging the thing they do best into another market and how hard it is to make headway against their efforts.

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