Nook vs. Kindle

Barnes & Nobles's Nook tries to leverage Bricks & Mortar
Barnes & Nobles's Nook tries to leverage Bricks & Mortar. It also looks quite nice.

It’s always puzzled me how bad a job Barnes & Noble has done of competing with Amazon. Obviously, it suffers from having to run a whole bunch of bricks and mortar stores — but why can’t it do a better job of leveraging the advantages this might give them?

For example, since BN has to maintain huge stocks of books whereas Amazon simply buys them “just in time”, BN should surely be able to negotiate better prices. Yet, my most common use-case for BN is to wander about, find a book I like, and then check its price on Amazon using my iPhone. I’ve literally walked into BN, found several books that looked interesting, and then ordered them for significantly less (including shipping and my BN member discount) from Amazon while still in the store. The problem is hugely magnified for DVDs which are just stupidly expensive at BN.

There’s something seriously screwed up about a world in which it’s cheaper to have something individually shipped to you than to buy it on the spot from someone who has one just sitting there for sale. If BN can’t figure out how to fix this, it should just close its doors, or become a Starbucks franchise… Well, maybe that’s exactly what it’s done.

Kindle 2. It's definitely less horribly ugly than the first version -- but which would you rather have, gorgeous color touchscreen or lame plastic keypad?
Kindle 2. It's definitely less horribly ugly than the first version -- but which would you rather have, gorgeous color touchscreen or lame plastic keypad?

My biggest problem with the Kindle is its lousy industrial design. The keyboard is just icky. Indeed, the chief attraction of Sony’s book reader over the Kindle is that the Sony product doesn’t look like ass. Industrial design, alone, may give the Nook a shot in the marketplace.

Another thing which may help the Nook is that — on release — it’s boasting a bigger library than the Kindle, the ability to loan books (which gives the Nook network effects the Kindle simply lacks), significantly better features (Wifi, direct PDF viewing, MiniSD slot), and a huge library of free books. It’s actually pretty impressive that the Nook offers a (roughly 3x*) bigger library than its more established competitor — maybe BN has finally figured out how to use its potential market clout.

Post Script: * BN’s arithmetic looks highly suspect. While Barnes & Noble claims that the Nook has a 500,000 free titles available and the Kindle does not, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why the Kindle wouldn’t be able to access those books. Also, while BN is claiming to offer a larger library of eBooks than Amazon, it’s very hard to verify this — searching the books available for the Kindle from a given author seems almost invariably to yield more hits than searching BN’s eBooks. It may be that BN will release more books when the Nook ships, or that their search function is broken, or that they’re simply lying. We shall see (or perhaps others will and I won’t, since I have no plans to buy either product).

BN has also, as yet, offered scant details on the licensing scheme. E.g. how many Nooks can access a title from a single account at once? Can you read a book on your Mac while your wife reads the same book on her Nook?

My usual objections to book readers hold. They’re one more damned thing to carry around and charge (but the Nook, at least, is smaller than the Kindle), and they’re one trick ponies. A good general-purpose tablet will eat their lunches. So, I’m not in the market for an electronic book reader right now, but if I were I’d buy pre-order a Nook.

As for whether the Kindle will continue to rule — I have my doubts. The only real lock-in Amazon has are the books themselves, and unlike music or apps, we don’t tend to read most books over and over. The Kindle has no network effect since it has no mechanism for sharing books (a stupid and much complained-about oversight). So, I just don’t see any reason why a Kindle early-adopter wouldn’t switch, or why a family with one Kindle in it wouldn’t buy a Nook instead of a second Kindle.

So — the Nook seems to have a shot, but based on BN’s inability to sell me a book in its physical store cheaper than Amazon can ship it to me, I have my doubts that they can execute.

  • I’ve had the Sony eReader for almost two years now. I looked at the Kindle and I just couldn’t put up with the design though it’s not like the Sony is that much better. It’s still not comfortable reading with it for hours on end because the buttons are just not right (though the newer models are certainly better than the original).

    The Sony software sucks. They have a Mac version now but my criticisms of the Windows version have been ported to the Mac! Ugly UI aside, I’ve gotten some comments on my blog that the Mac version is really buggy. If my Sony *happens* to fall off the table and breaks I would seriously consider the Nook.

    I agree with your one-trick-pony comment. If Apple makes a general purpose tablet I’ll have absolutely no problem dropping my Sony.

  • grasshopper

    yeah, I tend to agree. If Apple makes a tablet/reader, it would dominate the e-reader market like it did with the smart-phones, ipods, apps store etc. Not only would their ebook work well, it would certainly look cool–can’t beat that combination.

  • I think you’re agreeing with someone else! Apple’s “bookreader” will — I predict — triumph over existing e-readers (if and when it ships) precisely because it won’t be a bookreader but a more general device. Yes it will look great, bit it will reduce the amount of crap you need to carry around.

    The iPhone is a smartphone, handheld computer, game machine, and iPod. If you’re like me, it replaces your Nintendo DS/Sony PSP, netbook, phone, organizer, and iPod — it not only does everything they do, but it does most of them better than dedicated devices. (Oh, and hey it’s a GPS and camera too.) So that’s one thing to remember, charge, keep up to date, etc. vs. 3 or 4 or 5. It’s not “one more damn thing” but “three fewer damn things”.

    The problem for Apple with entering the netbook market is that they would be competing with the iPod Touch and iPhone with a lower margin, generally less good device. (It would have a bigger screen and keyboard, but it would be less portable, probably have worse battery life, wouldn’t work well as a walkabout music player.) If and when Apple releases a touch device bigger than an iPod Touch and smaller than a Macbook Air — it will need to either replace two or more popular things or do something new and indispensable. That’s very hard to do… which is why the Apple tablet continues to be a rumor and not a product.

    The world of music before iPods was a world of giant stereo systems with amplifiers, CD and tape players, discmans, etc. Now you have an iPod and maybe a dock. Done.

  • Joe

    The Kindle also has access to a huge library of free books, and has since launch. Why this is continually overlooked and/or ignored is beyond me. It’s called Feedbooks, and the app can be downloaded directly to the Kindle, allowing access to thousands upon thousands of books that have passed into the public domain.

    As for the Nook’s lend feature, it is quite limited. It allows one to lend a book to a friend for 14 days, once – after 14 days, the book is “returned” to its owner, and cannot be lent to the same person again. While the book is on loan, it is no longer available to its owner.

  • Joe

    As for why a family with one Kindle wouldn’t purchase a Nook, well, perhaps it’s because up to SIX Kindles can be registered to one account, allowing the second family member to access the original owner’s entire library, without any sort of restrictions.

    Going back to the size of the Nook’s library, to date, there is not a single free book available on the Nook, that is not available on the Kindle. The million books figure touted by B&N includes the very same free books available on the Kindle. The only difference, Amazon has not made this fact part of their marketing campaign.

    With all due respect, before writing a comparison of two products, next time, take a moment or two to do some research, your post is littered with half-truths and misinformation.

  • (I love the phrase “with all due respect” since it is almost never sincere.)

    I missed the fact that the 1,000,000 books is inflated by the 500,000 free books, but BN claims that the 500,000 free books are not available on the Kindle and I see no evidence of there being 500,000 free titles (looks more like 200,000). My research is based on reading the publicly available material from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. If their material is misleading then I have been misled.

    Even if everything you say is true: 360,000 + 500,000 ≠ 1,000,000 last time I checked.

    As for the lending feature — limited is better than absent… and the fact you can lend a book and automatically get it back is really wonderful. Like a book, you can’t both read it and lend it simultaneously. Unlike a book it always comes back and your marginal notes remain private (which could be good or bad, obviously).

    I take it from the tone of your responses that you’ve bought a Kindle and are now talking yourself into being convinced the Nook offers nothing you haven’t already got. OK, we’re all human.

    There appear to be other points in the Kindle’s favor of which I was unaware — the Nook can’t do text-to-speech and the Kindle’s books may be cheaper. If BN manages to be undersold by Amazon on eBooks the way they are on physical books, the Nook is DOA.

    The fact is, I don’t find either device compelling. I just find the Nook a bit more attractive than the Kindle.

    Oh and finally — a quick experiment:

    Two of my favorite SF writers are Jack Vance (almost entirely out of print) and Iain M Banks (almost entirely in print). Jack Vance has four titles on Kindle (one short story, three novels), nothing on BN eBooks. Iain M Banks has five titles on Kindle, four titles on BN eBooks. I also like James Ellroy: three titles on Kindle, four on BN. Mark Bowden: nine title on Kindle, one on BN. Patricia Cornwell: 22 on Kindle, 14 on BN. I have no idea if BN is making a slew of new titles available as part of the Nook release, but right now BN’s selection of eBooks is laughable. (BN’s search doesn’t give you so many false positives, which is good and bad.)

  • Matt

    Just an FYI — Page Up / Page Down on your site is all kinds of broken, at least with Firefox 3.5.3 on Windows. I suspect it’s the result of your mostly opaque fixed header/footer that obscure the rest of the page… Page Up/Down (or space) is not advancing only the visible part of the page between the header and footer, it advances the entire page including the hidden parts. So multi-line chunks of text are missed and the result is a discontinuous jumping past parts of your article.

  • That’s odd — I’m using Firefox 3.5.2 (it’s my daily browser) and no issues here.

    I just updated to FF 3.5.3 — still no problems. So — I’d check my extensions if I were you.

  • Matt

    The result was the same for me starting in safe mode (all add-ons disabled):

    Page 1:
    Page 2 (all I did was hit space once):

    Text on the page appears (greyed) behind the header and footer. You can see at the bottom of page 1 and the top and bottom of page 2. In particular these 2 lines appear greyed out in the footer of page 1:

    “into BN, found several books that looked interesting, and then ordered them for significantly less (including shipping and my BN member discount) from Amazon while still in the store. The problem is hugely magnified”

    and they along with the next line are obscured behind the header of page 2:

    “into BN, found several books that looked interesting, and then ordered them for significantly less (including shipping and my BN member discount) from Amazon while still in the store. The problem is hugely magnified for DVDs which are just stupidly expensive at BN.”

    Without using arrow keys or mouse / scrollbar scrolling I wouldn’t have come across them in normal paging down through your article.

  • Matt

    Just as a followup, I tried IE8 on Vista as well, and there’s a similar though not-identical result. Basically the whole page is still advancing, even the parts obscured by the header and footer, but with IE it completely obscures the text behind the header and footer (so you don’t see it greyed out or at all). However since the whole page is advancing with a page down, including the obscured parts, chunks of text are skipped over in the visible reading area between the header and footer when paging.

  • As you may have suspected — I’m a web developer. I happen to live in Firefox under Windows, so I think I would notice (at least on that particular machine). The translucent footer is deliberate — I happen to like it. I design my website so that you don’t end up with a partial scrollbar, and there are floating headers and footers. I try to make sure everything scrolls correctly, and I test under Firefox 3.5x, Safari 4.x, and IE8 routinely, and Opera 10.x and IE7 occasionally.

    Many websites like users to have to scroll back up top to use the navigation widgets. I despise it.

  • Matt

    But do you not experience the same missed/obscured text phenomenon when you page up or down, or use Space / Shift+Space? You say you design it so everything scrolls correctly, but I’m not talking about smooth scrolling, I’m talking about full page advancement. The text that is “missed” is still there (in Firefox at least; IE8 doesn’t have the same translucency), so it’s not like it’s skipping it — but it’s just counting the entire vertical span as a place the text can advance, even though the stuff at the top and bottom is going to be greyed out and placed behind the header and footer overlays.

    I have no problem with the translucent & floating header and footer… it just seems like bad functionality to me that parts of your content is missed by users doing full page up/downs via Page Down / Space instead of using keyboard or mouse scrolling. If you don’t experience that yourself I don’t know how to explain the disconnect between what I am experience with absolute vanilla Firefox (no extensions) and IE8. I certainly didn’t hack the screenshots I took for you.

    If you do get the same result I do when hitting space/page-down (and not scrolling) I’m not sure there’s a technological solution to having your fixed and translucent navigation header and footers without subframes or such that would have a separate scrollbar — but then I am *not* a web developer. However in my web user-not-developer opinion breaking basic paging functionality is not worth the aesthetic — it definitely provides less “usability.” I wouldn’t want to use an e-reader that either didn’t have a page advance button or if it did required me to manually scroll back a few sentences after using it.

  • D’oh. OK I see what your problem is. I guess my problem is I never scroll using space or pagedown. That’s very annoying… and I guess there’s no way of controlling it. And I despise inserting scrollbars inside pages.

    I’ve changed the site so that the header scrolls out of view and the footer is moved to the right. So it should fix the problem you reported. (It’s annoying to my aesthetically though — but the alternative would be overriding default scrolling behavior with JavaScript, and it would probably not be very nice.)

    Thanks for your patience.

  • Matt

    No problem, I appreciate you taking the time to understand the problem and making the change. And I do appreciate the lost aesthetic — it was a cool effect. My guess is that you mostly use Macs — I know if I had two finger scrolling I’d probably rarely page down too. 🙂 Sadly though, it’s Thinkpad Trackpoint+middle-button if I want to scroll or nothing for me, so I usually just page down. I imagine a lot of other PC users do the same.

  • I ended up buying a Kindle because I don’t like the touch screen on the bottom of the nook. While it is a cool idea, it seems very laggy and slow in videos so far. Also I travel internationally. I am pretty happy with my Kindle and have posted a comparison between Nook and Kindle in case anyone is interested.

  • Based on the early reviews I’ve seen of the Nook, it’s very much a “beta” product. So it won’t really be fair to compare them right now, although — obviously — if you “need” one right now, the Kindle works and the Nook — basically — doesn’t. It seems to me that both of these products suffer from trying to be a monopoly (like iTunes) without the ability to “rip” your existing content (unlike iTunes). This is why iTunes hasn’t taken off in the video world — if you could rip your DVDs into iTunes then the stuff that’s missing from the iTunes movie library wouldn’t matter. It’s also why the MPAA is clinging to region encoding and encryption — it doesn’t want to be roadkill on the freeway to convergence.

    Unfortunately, since “ripping” books is impractical, we’re stuck with proprietary content/viewer stacks, which is highly unsatisfactory — especially since in raw data terms books ought to have the smallest digital footprint of the core media types.

  • Hans Meinz

    Yes I agree, I think b&n should have really took more time to beta the nook and not rush the release with laggy interface etc. I wonder if it is a software problem or that the actual processor can’t handle the 2nd screen as smoothly as we are used to now (blame the iPhone/touch)…

  • Daniel

    I just recently bought a Nook. I fear I may have bought too early. I definately like reading from it. I didn’t like that the Kindle could only be bought online, I couldn’t see one before I bought it.

    I am finding now that most of the conflict is coming from the publishers. Given that the Kindle format is exclusive, and Apple’s will be as well. There are some titles that are available for Kindle and not the Nook. Publishers are also going to delay the ebook releases for several months to boost Hardback sales.

    My biggest issue with the Kindle was that it was holding you hostage with on having to buy from their store and their format. What if I simply liked the looks and feel of the Nook, but wanted to buy books from Amazon?

    I am hoping that the majority of titles will end up being available on all formats or that Amazon will change their stance. I am the type of person that if the title isn’t availabe or if I have to wait too long, I will lose interest and read something else.

  • Actually I think the iPad will have a tremendous advantage over the Kindle and Nook since it will read books for both (Kindle and Nook software are available for free for the iPhone, and will thus run transparently on the iPad even if they aren’t updated for it specifically — which would be silly). The nice thing about a general-purpose computing platform that can run native apps is that those apps can run whatever DRM schema you need.

  • Sean Case

    Nook software is available for the iPhone, but you can’t actually buy content to read with it from where I am. Now that the Kindle has gone globalish, Amazon’s proprietary ecosystem has a big edge over B&N’s.