Wandering through my local Barnes and Noble over the weekend I ran into something unusual. A Nook. For months I have been drawn to the banners and brochures near the help desk, only to learn that the helpers didn’t know when the store might have an actual Nook on display. This was a pleasant surprise.
I think that we have to view the Nook differently than we view all the other devices that are beginning to flood onto the market. First, and most importantly, the Nook is connected to an existing distribution franchise, much as the Kindle was when it hit the market in late 2007. As we learned then, connection to a bookseller with existing distribution makes all the difference to an ereader device. Otherwise, why wasn’t consumer electronics giant Sony more successful in the years before the Kindle, especially given the size of its head start in the market? First mover should have counted for something, right? Clearly now, with 20/20 hindsight, we recognize that the Kindle ushered the ebook market out of the backwaters where it had been languishing on Sony’s watch, precisely because it nestled its new reading device in the nest of one of the biggest book distribution systems on the planet. Now, Barnes and Noble, is following that lead, and stands to succeed in some measure because of it.
Second, the book distribution system in which the company is nestling its Nook is one that the public is very familiar with and comfortable with. Who else holds mind share, even awareness, for bricks-and-mortar book distribution? Borders, maybe. Books-a-Million, not so much. B. Dalton? These examples prove the point: Barnes has a head start in an arena that Amazon cannot touch, the world of real-world bookstores. You just can’t hang out in an overstuffed chair, sipping your latte, and browse through books, at Amazon.
It is an interesting side note, I think, that Barnes also recognized the importance of something that is in the DNA of any book retailer: color matters. The color touch screen at the bottom of the Nook reflects this awareness. It is more than just a way to one-up the Kindle’s feature set; the ability to display cover art, so important to the look and feel of a Barnes and Noble store–the impact of those piles of brightly-colored books on tables and racks that greet you when you walk in the store–that element of the book browsing and buying experience is incorporated into the Nook.
(During my few minutes with the Nook, that color screen was kept on a pretty tight leash by the power management software in the device and kept going dark at what seemed to be very short intervals. It wasn’t hard to wake up, but because that screen is used in lieu of physical controls, its disappearance takes all your navigation options with it, and that I found a bit unnerving.)
How will this hit the sensibilities of people in schools? Well, kids like and expect color, so that’s a plus. If Barnes is successful in getting sample devices into all its stores, I think that teachers and kids will appreciate being able to get one into their hands to see what it is like before purchasing. (Remember Amazon’s workaround for its inability to provide this kind of real world preview? It enlisted its customers to meet up with prospective customers with its “see a Kindle near you” program. Wonder how effective that was?)
Ultimately, it should (emphasis on “should”) be hard for Barnes to squander the leverage of its brand and its physical locations in competing with Amazon. It is off to a weak start by failing to learn from Amazon’s early supply problems with the Kindle. By rushing to take advantage of the recent holiday buying season, Barnes let everyone know that its Nook operation is still rough around the edges–for sure. But given the fact that they have produced a nice, tight little reading device, and that they still own a bunch of comfy chairs and latte machines to go with it, they will find a number of customers for the Nook that Amazon has yet to reach.