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.
Counterintuitive hypothesis: The most significant thing that Amazon and now Barnes & Noble have done for e-books hasn’t been the creation and updating of their dedicated reading machines. It’s the creation of a genuine marketplace for e-books, where consumers can pick up titles easily, publishers can offer them and make at least a little money, and [in Amazon’s case] even little guys can get their stuff out there. You might have needed the reading machines to push the marketplace, but the marketplace will continue to be relevant even if everyone decides tomorrow that they don’t actually want a Kindle anymore. You can already read e-books on computers, smartphones, and pretty soon video game consoles. Amazon sold the razors, sure, but they can sell you the blades even if you don’t buy a razor at all. That’s big.
But creating a marketplace isn’t just about syncing to a device and matching readers’ eyeballs to content. You also have to establish, respond to, and eventually stabilize readers’ and publishers’ expectations about sales, especially about price.
This is harder than it sounds. How much should an e-book cost? How much should publishers have to share with the retailer? Just what are you buying? For hardcovers and paperbacks, these expectations have built up over a long time. This tweaked a bit when online sellers and big-box retailers started offering moderate-to-steep discounts over cover. None of this makes establishing norms for digital sales any easier.
For music, Apple pulled this beautifully in the early days of iTunes. At the time, CDs sold between 10 and 18 dollars for a typical album. This was actually really frustrating, because percentage-wise, it’s a huge variation. It was also an uptick from cassettes, which had rarely cost over $10.
Apple just perched on the low end: every track is 99 cents, every album is $9.99. They were competing with the free (P2P or friend copies) and the physical (real discs with better sound quality that you could play in your car), and they found a way out. Round numbers (good retail numbers for any product), close to what we were used to paying (but still offering competitive advantage). And they held it there, even when big media companies huffed and puffed because they wanted to charge more for high-demand (or high-cost) products. Apple’s establishment of trust with the music-buying public won out. And held out. Singles still cost a single. Which makes the digital music marketplace oddly pure.
At Booksquare, Kassia Krozser argues that the same price-stabilization is beginning to happen with e-books:
At Digital Book World, I’m going to do a brief presentation called “The Case for the $75 eBook”, because there is a marketplace for high-priced ebooks. In fact, I think there’s a robust marketplace for higher priced digital books, and I believe I can make a strong case for these price points.
That being said (ha!), I don’t believe the publishing industry can make a valid, solid, logical case for pricing most narrative fiction (and some non-fiction) ebooks above $9.99. Not only is this price point being cemented in the minds of readers by retailers, but, let’s be blunt, publishers have done a lousy job of making the value argument. The near-cynical approach of publishers to producing and selling ebooks has backfired. The process, the pricing, the product has been weighed by consumers and they are not amused. They like the $9.99 and below price point. It makes sense to them.
So, yep, I’m predicting publishers will have no choice but to swallow this one and figure out how to make their business work with ebooks priced below $10. It’s better to initiate this change rather than scramble when the retailers start demanding better terms. You can do it, publishing industry, you can do it!
It’s true! Maybe it’s just because we’re already primed by iTunes albums, or because $10 is the low-end price of a good trade paperback, or that $9.99 is one of those psychologically great retail numbers (Just dollars and cents! Not tens of dollars!), but it’s got real power.
For instance, I priced Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain at both Barnes and Noble and Amazon. The book lists in hardcover at $27.95. At Amazon, it sells for $18.45 in hardcover and $14.76 for the Kindle. At Barnes and Noble, it’s $20.12 (huh?), or — yes — $9.99 for the e-book.
Now this was easier because I like the B&N app for the Mac and I preordered the Nook. But if B&N sells its e-book for $18, I either buy the hardcover from Amazon or pass altogether. At $9.99, I bought it right away. I did the same thing for China Mieville’s The City and the City: Kindle $13.73, B&N $9.99. On the other hand, I sprung for The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway for almost $18 and still feel like I got hosed.
Now, digital books also offer the possibility that books, like CDs, can be split and sold separately. Maybe I just want to buy a copy of “The Undefeated” and “In Another Country” — a taste of Hemingway, not the whole short-form corpus. Big publishers haven’t really done this yet. But among independents and self-publishers, the other price point that seems to be emerging — the symmetry with iTunes is astonishing — is the 99 cent short story. And again — this feels just about right, especially appealing to folks reading these things on their iPhones, who don’t want to leaf through a whole novel or anthology, right around the same price as a cheap iPhone app or a single song.
hypothetical $75 e-book suggests that there are still plenty of other price points and formats to be hammered out. Maybe $25-$40 is the perfect price for an e-textbook. Maybe a short, indie nonfiction pamphlet — 2011’s version of New Liberal Arts — could sell well for $3.99. Maybe digital copies of new books will be free for readers who buy the hardcover (factored into the sale price). It’s still wide open. But with competition between sellers and tug-of-war between customers and publishers, we’re bound to figure it out.
When it came out that NASA was going to shoot some rockets into the moon so they could see what would happen, I immediately thought of this classic sketch from Mr Show with Bob and David:
The obvious climax of the sketch is when Galileo the monkey wisely asks the scientists who plan to destroy the moon, “Why? Why do you want to blow up the moon?” Of course, NASA quickly replaces Galileo with a circus monkey who doesn’t know sign language, “who will do the job, no questions asked.”
Why am I reminded of the fat people in the movie Wall E when I read about this electronic book stuff??? Is there some thing wrong with an actual book? Other than that nasty paper wasting thing, and the toxic ink, oh yeah.…the list goes on. But isn’t a Kindle or a Nook going to end up in a landfill too when the newest, latest and greatest gadget hits the scene???? So I guess turning into a blob staring at a TV screen is our future.….nevermind!!!
“Is there something wrong with an actual book?” This is a serious question, and deserves a serious response.
For my part, obviously, the answer is no. As I wrote in my reply comment:
Hey, look: here at Snarkmarket, we love printed books so much, we made one our selves. We love them so much, we write love let ters to 16th-century Venetian print ers. I love books so much that when I broke my arm and couldn’t hold onto a heavy paperback with two hands, I cried.
I’ll expand: I’m a PhD in Comparative Literature and a postdoctoral fellow who teaches freshman how to write about literature, philosophy, and science. I teach a class called “From Scroll to Screen: The History and Theory of Writing.” I insist for this class that my students BUY THE BOOKS, and bristle at any suggestion that the books cost too much or pose too much of a physical burden. I study the history of the book (and of other material texts) and write papers and attend conferences on the same. I wrote my dissertation on something I call “Paper Modernism.”
But books just aren’t my professional life; they’re my life. As I say routinely, books are my drug of choice. I can’t imagine living without them.
But I don’t feel entirely like Galileo the monkey. I’m full-on into new media too; I teach cinema and media studies ALONG WITH books and newspapers — part of my thesis argues that we actually can’t entirely separate these media streams from one another, because they’re created and circulated and especially EXPERIENCED together, not identically, but as part of a total media system. And I have become, somewhat surprisingly, a computer person: a blogger and blogreader who totes around a laptop and smartphone. Just as I can’t imagine my life without books, I can’t imagine it without screens either.
Part of what we do at Snarkmarket — as screen people talking largely to other screen people — is to chart and celebrate and critique screen culture, and above all, to try to figure out where it’s going. I think we do this in a way that’s reflective and ethical, understanding that every technological change is in turn an anthropological change, one that both says something about and directly informs our fundamental values.
And yet — on something like electronic readers, where it’s so easy to ooh and aah at the new tech, or to snipe on janky designs or “old-media” people who “don’t get it” — I don’t want to be Koko the monkey either, mindlessly cheering the scientists on as they blow up the moon! Let me say that I don’t think we will ever totally lose books, or print — but even the loss of influence that the printed word that we’ve seen over the last century has been a genuine loss.
More precisely: there are people, and industries, and experiences, that HAVE LOST; that will CONTINUE TO LOSE; and this will be because digital media will gain in influence, partly at print’s expense. Anyone doubting this, or expecting otherwise, is like Mitt Romney telling voters in Michigan that if they keep working hard enough, the industrial jobs will come back. An era is passing. We have to treat it accordingly.
So. Why reading machines?
1. Because readers are already there. We are already reading more on electronic devices, on screens ranging from TV to computer to cellular phone. What’s more, while book-reading and newspaper and magazine subscriptions are down across the country (and across the world), electronic reading is GROWING. It’s growing in share, it’s growing in readers, and it’s growing in influence. If you are in a reading-intensive business, you want to get your content on a screen, because that’s where the readers are, and will be in the future.
Dedicated e-book readers have emerged because booksellers couldn’t get into that market, onto those screens. First and foremost, there was no real marketplace. And, there are several things about both computers (in any form factor) and smartphones that make them less than ideal for long-form reading. Readers needed a device, and they needed a store; Amazon wasn’t the first to offer both, but like the iPod before it, the Kindle was the first such device and store to be taken seriously, even as its total numbers haven’t exactly set the world on fire. Barnes and Noble saw a different way to approach the same market, and created a device and a software and store model to take advantage of it. But essentially, even as they’re inticing old readers in, booksellers and publishers are playing catch-up to the rest of the reading market.
2. Because otherwise publishers may not survive. It’s ironic that booksellers, especially online booksellers, have done so much to push e-reading, because they’ve already solved the problems of storage and circulation of material, discovering the long tail of content, etc. Electronic books are just one more step in Amazon’s reconstruction of retail — but they would have been okay anyways.
Really, it’s publishers who are screwed. Paper and printing costs, plus the expense of storage and transfer and delivery, are killing publishers — in books, magazines, journals, and newspapers. They can either raise prices or cut standards or go completely exclusive, high-end, luxury — and watch their market shrink even further — or turn to electronic delivery as the last best way to cut that knot. If we want to continue to have inexpensive books, news, commentary, and entertainment, we as readers and producers of media have to embrace digital delivery. The status quo is unsustainable.
3. This one is a little more metaphysical, but: Something has to be next. Our current forms of media, and our current interfaces for them, are exhausting themselves. Much of this is purely economic. But it’s also ideological and cultural. If books and newspapers and magazines and movies and television and radio and even blogs and web pages have slowly but inexorably calcified — and I think the signs are good to suggest that they have — then something has to happen next. Or, we resign ourselves to it, playing out the string, until elderly people die off, and the kids forget that there was such a thing as vitality in culture.
That’s when you wind up in the Wall-E universe, Ami Marie; when we forget that we can change things, when we stop exploring.
Let me return to something I wrote a few months ago, about the surprising rekindling (no pun intended) of literacy in the digital age:
As recently as 2000, it seemed inevitable that any minute now, we were going to be able to turn in our quaint keyboards and start controlling computers with our voice. Our computers were going to become just like our telephones, or even better, like our secretaries. But while voice and speech recognition and commands have gotten a lot better, generally the trend has been in the other direction — instead of talking to our computers, we’re typing on our phones…
The return to speech, in all of its immediacy, after centuries of the technological dominance of writing, seemed inevitable. Film, radio, television, and the phonograph all seemed to point towards a future dominated by communication technologies where writing and reading played an increasingly diminished role. I think the most important development, though, was probably the telephone. Ordinary speech, conversation, in real-time, where space itself appeared to vanish. It created a paradigm not just for media theorists and imaginative futurists but for ordinary people to imagine tomorrow…
This is where most of the futurists got it wrong — the impact of radio, television, and the telephone weren’t going to be solely or even primarily on more and more speech, but, for technical or cultural or who-knows-exactly-what reasons, on writing! We didn’t give up writing — we put it in our pockets, took it out side, blended it with sound, pictures, and video, and sent it over radio waves so we could “talk” to our friends in real-time. And we used those same radio waves to download books and newspapers and everything else to our screens so we would have something to talk about.
This is the thing about literacy today, that needs above all not to be misunderstood. Both the people who say that reading/writing have declined and that reading/writing are stronger than ever are right, and wrong. It’s not a return to the word, unchanged. It’s a literacy transformed by the existence of the electronic media that it initially has nothing in common with. It’s also transformed by all the textual forms — mail, the newspaper, the book, the bulletin board, etc. It’s not purely one thing or another.
The word is transforming, and being transformed. If you wanted to stick your hand in the dike, to stop what is happening to the book, you need to go back a century or more.
For my part, I find myself continually grateful for and delighted by what is happening, because while reading in some individual media is falling off, reading as such is actually flourishing. As I tweeted a week ago:
The revelation of the present isn’t that the printed word is in decline; it’s that reading and writing haven’t been destroyed along with it.
It is to keep reading and writing alive, and to keep them innovative, reflective, and exploratory, that I do everything — let me say it again, EVERYTHING — that I do.
To every reader of Snarkmarket, let me say: thank you for letting me do it here; and above all, for doing it with me.
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?