Barnes and Noble’s Nook e-reader* has a lot of nice things going for it. But I’m really intrigued by a particular design/software/sales choice that’s gotten less attention than native PDF support or the color touchscreen or even the ability to “lend” e-books to friends.
Barnes & Noble has figured out a way to tie the experience of using the e-reader to the experience of shopping in one of their brick-and-mortar stores. In principle, this could allow B&N to use an electronic marketplace not to substitute for retail shopping, but to augment it (and vice versa). And I think this shows us an alternate way to think about electronic reading than the delivery model that most of us have taken for granted.
Here’s how this is supposed to work:
In any of the chain’s 1,300 stores, consumers can download books on the Wi-Fi network. Outside the stores, consumers will access AT&T’s 3G network to download books…
In an interview, William Lynch, president of Barnes&Noble.com, said the company would aggressively market the Nook within its bricks and mortar stores. The Nook also has software that will detect when a consumer walks into a store so that it can push out coupons and other promotions like excerpts from forthcoming books or suggestions for new reading. While in stores, Nook owners will be able to read any e-book through streaming software.
The promise of the Kindle is that you can buy and read books anywhere at all – that is, nowhere in particular. The Amazon store has no location. You read the books on your screen, and they are technically stored on your device, but effectively, the books are likewise nowhere.
Barnes & Noble, on the other hand, is still committed to the idea that books have PLACES, that they are most properly browsed and bought and read in specific locations. They say: yes, you can use your Nook anywhere – but the very best place to use it is in one of our stores. What’s more: as long as you’re in the store, you can read as much of as many books as you want. Just like if you were flipping the pages. That’s huge!
This choice may have been inevitable: B&N had to find some way to leverage its retail chain, the only real advantage it has over players like Amazon or even Sony. They also have customers who are accustomed to coming to their stores, flashing their discount cards, drinking coffee and eating scones in their cafés. For Barnes and Noble, THIS is the natural constituency for their e-readers — not the wandering digital nomads who might buy a Kindle, might buy an iPhone, might buy a PS3, or might blow it all at Newegg, depending on how long they stay online. And B&N can also partner with other businesses — offering its library to readers at Starbucks (or some other coffee chain) or the CTA. Wherever books are read!
If this works — by which I mean, not only that the Nook sells well, but that customers actually take their Nooks into stores to take advantage of these added features, and the wi-fi actually works, and the coupons and ads aren’t out-and-out bothersome, then we’ll have a new way of thinking about the use of electronic readers in all sorts of contexts: libraries, museums, elementary schools, civic centers, college campuses. The content and its delivery become not just user-aware, but location-aware.
Above and beyond Nook’s competition with the Kindle as such, the fact that it actually offers a competing model for use opens things up quite a bit. Let’s see where this goes.
* I don’t like the term e-reader. The phrase I always WANT to use, which is justified nowhere, is reading machine. Is anyone with me?