The Nook e-book reader announced by Barnes & Noble offers several novelties, including an Android OS, two screens and the ability for users to lend e-books, but its biggest impact could be on the widely rumored tablet computers expected from Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp.
Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch told reporters in a conference call today that the bookseller is open to giving the Nook a full-functioning Web browser for its lower 3.5-inch color touch display. It would also be willing to open up the platform to third-party Android developers.
Lynch did not directly compare the Nook to the rumored tablets coming from Apple and Microsoft, preferring instead to compare it to Amazon.com's Kindle 2 , which is priced the same as the Nook at $259. The Nook goes on sale in November.
However, Gartner Inc. analyst Allen Weiner compared the Nook to the Kindle and coming devices, saying the Nook "should not only throw a scare into Amazon but also put somewhat of a damper on the e-reading capabilities of planned tablets/devices from Apple and Microsoft ."
To that point, Lynch made it clear that his company's Nook is capable of being much more than a typical e-reader with future browsing and open application support.
"There's no browser on the Nook today, but could we have one in the future? Sure," Lynch said, indicating the touch-screen area which he likened to an iPhone's touch capability and virtual keyboard. "We're looking at all kinds of features sets for the [Nook] roadmap ... What people want to do today is read trade books and bestsellers ... In the future, consumers may want and demand additional features."
Lynch also said using Android version 1.5 on Nook "opens up exciting opportunities" for third-party Android applications built by the open source community. While that application capability was not the driving reason for picking Android, Lynch said that Barnes & Noble is planning to put out an SDK for Android developers. He said the Android OS was primarily selected for its navigation and user interface capabilities.
Customers will primarily use the Nook's lower screen to shop for e-books on the Barnes & Noble e-bookstore and perform other navigation functions, using the touchscreen and wireless access from AT&T or Wi-Fi, Lynch noted. There will be daily content accessible over wireless that Barnes & Noble provides, with some special offers to customers who are using the Nook while visiting one of the more than 700 Barnes & Noble stores, which are already Wi-Fi enabled.
The lower color screen will also provide a virtual touch keyboard for searches, annotations to e-books and notes, and for sending books to lend to others using Barnes & Noble e-reader software on a variety of devices, including some BlackBerries, Motorola smartphones and iPhone and iPod touch devices, Lynch said.
Weiner added in a blog that besides shopping, the lower screen will be used for running Android applications, although but it wasn't clear when support of Android apps will occur.
Lynch also said that Nook users who lend books will be granting the specific e-book's license for two weeks to another user. The e-book will appear on the second user's device for two weeks and will then "time out" or disappear for the second user, and will then return to the original user.
There's enormous potential for Internet browsing on the Nook on a separate screen from a screen used for reading text. Many observers have noticed the Nook's combined screen potential and said it could rival the rumored Apple tablet, expected next year.
Combining the functions of an e-reader with the full multimedia advantages of the Web have been touted as the next-generation of computing by some prognosticators, including Daniel Lyons who wrote in Newsweek this week that the purported tablet devices could speed up the arrive of a "golden age of journalism."
Many tech journalists and analysts scoff when anyone calls a new technology a game-changer or a product that will reinvent computing, but Lyons contended that full functioning tablets that play video and music and display text, while connected to the Internet at all times, will help fuel a revolution in the way stories are told.
While Lyons was focused on what the coming Apple tablet could offer, the same capabilities seem well within the reach of Barnes & Noble, assuming it equips its Nook with a full browser and open applications. Weiner has noted that the bookseller has an advantage over Amazon with its hundreds of brick-and-mortar stores where users can browse with the Nook or other devices, including the iRex e-reader or the coming Que from Plastic Logic that Barnes & Noble also supports. And Barnes & Noble is also supporting an open e-book publishing format, e.pub, that Amazon is not, Weiner noted.
Lynch said that having the physical stores will be a "huge benefit" to the success of the Nook, since users will be able to go a store to get help with their devices from workers there.
Asked whether Barnes & Noble could be in the early stages of becoming more of a technology company than a bookseller, Lynch noted that it has already made entries into an e-book device and online store. But despite such efforts, he said that "Barnes & Noble is about reading at its core, and we have an understanding of readers and content. There's a lot of technology, but really it's about reading and the reading set that readers told us they want."
Lynch also said that e-readers will alter the way books are written, read, distributed and published. Books, for example, will be broken into snippets and distributed wirelessly or even sold with alternative endings. "There are all types of models in content and book publishing that haven't been envisioned yet that this technology will unleash," he said.
Barnes & Noble expects e-books to account for less than 5% of all book sales in the next few years, Lynch added, with "minimal impact." However, he said the company is projecting a long-term conversion to digital books and is "committed to giving books to people regardless of the format ... We're the largest bookseller, and with the announcements we've made, we plan to be the largest seller of digital content as well." He also said he agreed with findings from Forrester Research that sales of e-readers will double in 2010, reaching about 6 million sold, up from about 3 million in 2009.
The Nook's announcement is just a start, Lynch said. "We see this as just the beginning, as we have a lot more in store, so stay tuned."
This story, "Nook Might Steal Apple Tablet's Thunder" was originally published by Computerworld.