Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Nook needs that long overdue app store

Brett Arends wrote a glowing review Wednesday in the WSJ of his nookColor and why it’s a better bargain than the iPad 1 or iPad 2. The main difference between his experience and mine is that he hacked his to be a fully functioning Android tablet:

I downloaded a very simple, perfectly legal software fix from the Internet that turned it into a fully functioning tablet running on Google's Android platform. The fix, known as a "rooting," unlocks Barnes & Noble's proprietary overlay. The instructions came via Ars Technica, a reputable site devoted to technology, and were pretty easy to follow.

I wasn't really expecting it to work. I tried it as an experiment. But the results were remarkable.

The Nook Color, which was designed mainly for reading books and magazines, is about half the size of an iPad or a Xoom. It weighs about 30% less. It runs on WiFi, but not 3G. It has an absolutely superb screen. And, once you've unlocked the software, it runs many Android applications, from email to news readers TweetDeck to, yes, Angry Birds.
He argues that it should stop stalling on its plans to make available its own app store:
A company spokeswoman would only say yesterday that it is still "in the works."

Huh? Time is not this company's friend. It should be seizing the moment while it can. Barnes & Noble stock, which was north of $40 five years ago, closed Tuesday at $11.67, a 14-year low. Not even the travails of arch-rival Borders Group, which has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and is closing many of its stores, is helping.
I also have long thought B&N could grab the low-end tablet market if it wanted to. In particular, the Kindle is a locked platform while (in principle) the Android-based nook and nookColor are an open one, available for third party development.

The problem is that B&N, like Amazon, wants to make its money from content. Having people pay $250 or $200 for the tablet and never buying a book or magazine is exactly like hackers buying an Xbox or Xbox 360 and converting it to a Linux box without ever buying a game.

But B&N has a pretty clear choice: either get people to carry around its tablet, or proliferate its reader app and forget about selling tablets. I am much less enthusiastic about the nookColor than when I bought it, because without the basic apps that you would find in a 1995 Palm Pilot — like a synchronized address book, a calendar and a simple note-taking app — I still have to carry a laptop or smartphone to every place that I take my nook. (Or I can just carry the laptop and leave the nook at home).

My guess is that by 2015 both B&N and Amazon will be out of the tablet business, or at best will be private labeling someone else’s high volume tablet (like HTC or Samsung) the way Sears does for washers or refrigerators. So the next 2-3 years could be used to build loyalty to e-downloads (assuming it fixes its store) and perhaps further leverage the brick & mortar stores for supporting electronic content platforms.

Update Thursday 8:30am:
Arends was interviewed on the WSJ “Digits” video blog, reiterating the points of his column. Two points I’d argue with.

First, while he praised the screen as being better than other low-end tablets, he (or his host) concluded it wasn’t suitable for watching “Digits” on. In fact, that’s how I watched the interview: the nookColor does a great job of showing the video, even without Flash. However, the nookColor (or the WSJ web page) take over the screen and there’s no way to navigate back to the original page or to the next video. (I’m surprised he would say anything about this without trying it first.)

Second, while I long agreed with his general point about commodity tablets, he clearly underestimated the B&N achievement: 
Barnes and Noble is hardly a cutting edge technology firm. They have managed to come out with a pretty good Android tablet — from a standing start, I think within a year they set up the whole nook thing. If they can do it, anybody can.
This is like saying that because Google has created a mobile phone OS that competes with Apple, anyone can. That’s certainly not true: so far Nokia, RIM and the Koreans have failed, and it remains to be seen whether Microsoft will either.

B&N put together a crack team of Silicon Valley veterans in Palo Alto to make an easy-to-use mobile device. I don’t see the Asian commodity producers doing this, which means that (as with many other products over the last 40 years) most will have solid inexpensive hardware and incomprehensibly bad software. I think people will be much more tolerant of incoherent software in their TV or DVD player than in a handheld computer.

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