Barnes & Noble dropped a software update today for Nook Color, adding apps and support for Flash and a whole bunch of other features that give it more parity with tablets than e-readers. I got an early briefing and interview with some of the development team.
I took it even though I’m not a full-time gadget blogger any more because I thought I could sell the story, and I was interested. I thought at different points that four different sites would run the story, but eventually they all passed.
It turns out that selling a story that’s under embargo is very very hard, because you can’t tip very much of what you know without breaking the embargo. Also, the relative advantage of early publication just doesn’t mean that much when the exclusive information you have isn’t world-shaking. It was a huge headache, ate up the better part of a week that I really needed to use to do other things, and I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. That’s on me, though.
Anyways, at one point, I said, if all else fails, I’ll publish the damn story on Snarkmarket. This morning, before the embargo broke, I still had an outside shot (a stupid outside shot, but that’s on me, not anybody else) of getting another site to run it.
But now, finally 1) I want to be done with it and 2) I think it’s a good story! I think the update actually means a lot more than 100% of the other people writing about it thinks it does. But everyone in the tech press has always underestimated Barnes & Noble, E-Readers, and the demographic that the Nook Color appeals to. Partly because it’s not really their readership. But that’s another story.
Anyways, here it is.
Nook Update Adds Apps, Flash, Games, Built-In Email, Interactive Books and Magazines, A New Book-Sharing Social Network and More
We always knew that the Nook Color would eventually get full-fledged apps to go with its color e-books. But the e-reader’s customized build of Android 2.2 – available for download today — adds a lot more. Barnes & Noble is definitely aiming to pack more “tablet” into its “reader’s tablet.”
New Built-In Apps
Right now, the only way to get the software update is to download it from http://www.nookcolor.com/update onto a computer and install it on the e-reader using the USB cable. Next week, it will be available as an over-the-air update using Wi-Fi.
After updating the Nook Color’s software to 1.2, you get two new built-in applications: Nook EMail and Nook Friends.
Nook Email provides a local client app for popular webmail services: Gmail, Yahoo!, AOL, and Hotmail. It manages multiple accounts in a single inbox. It can’t manage corporate email from an Exchange server – for that, there are third-party Android apps available like NitroDesk’s Touchdown – but it fits with the Nook Color’s overall mobile, casual-reading approach.
Nook Friends is intriguing. One of the features that distinguished Nook from other e-readers and e-bookstores at launch was its incorporation of book-lending from account to account, device to device. Friends is a mini- or micro- social network primarily devoted to managing book-lending.
You can select which items from your library you wish to make available for browsing or lending to your friends, and request books from your friends based on what they’ve made available. You can also share comments about or highlighted passages from your books.
Currently, Nook Friends is completely sandboxed from Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, or any other social network. On the one hand, it’s good that B&N is taking a deliberate approach – making links with your contacts and decisions to share your books opt-in, rather than exposing your library to everyone in your contact list. In this form, it could work well for families, close friends, or book groups.
Longtime social networkers, on the other hand, with hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of relatively casual contacts online might flinch at having to reconstruct those networks from scratch or taking their social activity somewhere else. (Nook Color already offers pretty good integration with Facebook and Twitter). The network’s currently in beta; it’s worth watching to see how this develops.
Web Browsing: Adobe Flash Player, Adobe AIR, and better switching from Mobile to Desktop Browsing
The update also brings the Nook Color into the fairly rarified air of Android tablets with full support for Adobe Flash AND Adobe AIR. This is a modest surprise — word of Flash support had leaked after the Nook Color’s appearance on the Home Shopping Network in late March, but hadn’t been officially confirmed. Now it is.
We’ll have to wait to see how Flash-based sites and AIR-based applications perform on the Nook Color. This has been problematic for nearly every mobile implementation of Flash, with some sites crashing at launch and others turning into gigantic power hogs.
But I think Flash support adds something very different to Nook Color than it does to, say, RIM’s Playbook. Nook Color is a family tablet, with particular appeal to parents with small children. Popular kids’ sites on the web are overwhelmingly built in Flash. Greater ability to use online video, interactive games, and legacy content is a tangible upside for the market Barnes & Noble’s looking to retain & attract.
Support for AIR is less immediately exciting, but does make cross-platform application building immensely easier. AIR support was a big selling point for Blackberry’s Tablet OS, and Adobe’s leaning on it for its publishing tools for future development of interactive books and magazines. It only makes sense that Nook would jump into bed with AIR now.
Finally, there’s one little tweak to Nook Color’s new web browser that many people won’t notice, but which thoroughly delights me: a single toolbar button that allows you to switch back and forth between the mobile and desktop version of a site. Also, you can select whether you want the default browser setting to be mobile or desktop.
Opinions differ here. I firmly believe that the seven-inch screen is a mobile-sized screen, and that the mobile web is mature and rich enough to handle the vast majority of what a user wants and needs to do using that form factor. Just give me the one finger to scroll up and down. That’s all I need
But sometimes it really is useful to load up the full website, using pinch-and-zoom (that’s new here too), Flash video, the whole thing. And it’s VERY nice to be able to switch back and forth between the two without having to muck about with the URL address.
The Apps! Tell Us About the Apps!
There are 125 new applications at the B&N storefront ready to go today for Nook Color. The overwhelming focus is reading and reading-related applications – think cookbooks, education/reference apps, heavy-duty mail and calendar applications like Touchdown (mentioned above) and casual games.
Big names include Angry Birds – the casual birds-flinging-into-pigs game that is now just about everywhere, the Super Mario Brothers of this generation of mobile games. Also Goodreads, the top book-driven social network – which already is what Nook Friends may some day want to be, minus the book lending. The popular Pulse feed reader, which started out on iPad, then migrated to Android and Mac. There are Lonely Planet tourist guides, and Kids’ applications that straddle between games and enhanced e-books. All of these are natural fits for Nook.
B&N is also adding a handful of free utility applications, including a calendar and note-taking application. Basic stuff, but smart additions – and a useful enticement to get users to cross the threshold into the new App store.
Apps will have their own section of the Nook shop, and will in turn be grouped under categories like “Play,” “Organize,” “Learn,” “Explore,” “Lifestyle,” “News,” and “Kids.” The “Extras” section of the home screen, which was home to Chess and a few of the other first-generation in-house Nook apps, has been renamed “Apps.”
Barnes & Noble’s Claudia Romanini walked me through how she’s worked with developers to bring apps to Nook Color. In most cases, the apps have been ported from already-existing Android versions, then tested to make sure that they’ve been optimized for the Nook’s screen size and look and feel.
In a few cases, though, B&N has worked with developers new to Android who wanted to build something specifically for Nook Color. These include Drawing Pad, a drawing and coloring app, and Cheese Plate, an encyclopedia and food pairing app from Chronicle Books, both of which were first developed for iOS.
The Big Picture
It’s worth saying again: Barnes & Noble is doubling down on the mom and dad, middle-class suburban household demographic – the same readers who come to Barnes & Noble stores, drink Barnes & Noble coffee, and buy books and toys and games for their children. These are applications for the kitchen, the car, and the living room.
But I think this shows us the evolution of both the e-reader and mobile applications markets. In 2006, Apple would never have touted Uno for iPhone. But it makes perfect sense in 2011 that you can play Uno on the Nook Color. We’ve extended beyond the hard-core reader and high-volume mobile demographics into a zone that’s more casual, more utilitarian, more pluralistic. Frankly, it’s more middlebrow, and maybe a little more boring. But it’s a little tablet you can use to read books and magazines, then slip in your pocket and take it home, where you can play with your kids. It doesn’t need to be rockets and fireworks.
The Nook Color has managed to radically expand its feature set, yet continue to exude calm. That’s impressive.