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.