Just when you thought e-reading was all black and white, Barnes & Noble tosses some color into the mix with the release of the NOOKColor, a reading device that expands beyond best sellers to include media that thrives in a color setting, namely children’s books and magazines and newspapers. Just in time for the holiday 2010 season (natch), the new device, boasting a snazzy relatively glare screen seven-inch screen, retails for $249 and uses WiFi as its means of connecting to the B&N marketplace and the internet. The marketplace has been expanded to include a number of newspapers and magazines (which include free trial offers) and, at some point, applications (content and otherwise) built on the Android operating system using Nook’s SDK. At launch, the “marketplace” includes Pandora, a few games and a surprisingly robust web browser. (Check out YouTube and you’ll see what I mean)
First impressions: the hardware design is slick with a little notch type thingie on the bottom left of the device. The navigation is really solid and the built-in social features that allow a user to link his/her Twitter, Facebook and Gmail accounts to the device lead to seamless content sharing. The device is slightly heavier than the original Nook but still has a portable “stick it in your pocket” feel to it unlike a larger tablet device.
And then there’s the content. Best sellers look good on the NOOKColor, but it don’t look any better than they do on the black and white original. Kids’ books look very good and the read-along feature (available on some books) is nice and not overpowering. Newspapers, on the other hand, are a major disappointment as they are rendered much as black and white e-readers display similar content. The look is just a hair north of RSS feeds with limited navigation, no video and only display in portrait mode. Certainly, there must be some leeway for the initial implementation of newspaper on the device, but the limited real estate on a seven-inch screen will make reading your local daily or favorite national newspaper somewhat challenging on the NOOKColor.
Magazines—now that’s an interesting topic since beyond books, magazines are low-hanging fruit for color device manufacturers. After a long dry spell brought about by black and white e-readers, the color device folks are embracing magazines as a content (and hopefully revenue) source. While no one has gotten the magazine thing quite right (replicas provide portability but not much in the way of experience), the NOOKColor’s smallish real estate offers some challenges in terms of visual acuity. B&N’s way around those issues is a clever application called “Article View” which takes individual stories and enlarges them for easier reading. An experienced magazine retailer (they sell periodicals in their more than 700 retail outlets), B&B offers free 14-day trials of both magazines and newspapers. That’s a smart play. While I consider magazines and newspapers a shortcoming on the NOOKColor, publishers in those sectors are struggling to find their digital future regardless of device; if B&N can provide them guidance and a transparent, flexible marketplace (per issue and subscriptions), publishers may respond with content suited to color, content consumption devices.
My overall take on the NOOKColor is positive, not so much for the device I see before me but more on what I see the device becoming over the next 60-90 days. I expect reaction from publishers to be positive and as such we will see book apps that take advantage of the device’s color, sound and video capabilities. Lonely Planet, for one, is working on such apps and taking into account the NOOKColor’s GPS (on board, but not activated yet) travel content could get timely and location aware. The rich media attributes will also spur activities in the kids’ book area, a sector likely to explode in 2011 with the NOOKColor as well as the advent of devices such as The Fable from Isabella Products geared specifically to kids’ books.
As the folks at Google bake future versions of Android suitable for tablets (i.e., the long-awaited Gingerbread), B&N will update the NOOKColor’s OS offering a wider array of application. The OS upgrades, development of book applications using the Nook SDK, in-store signage/promotion, competitive price, strong social commerce functionality and a powerful near-glare-free screen make NOOKColor a strong competitor for the e-reading dollar and a choice for those tablet-hungry shoppers for whom reading is a primary desire. Yes, the purchase of a NOOKColor is somewhat of a bet on the future, but looking at B&N’s track record over the past year (since the launch of the first Nook), it’s a safe bet the book retailer will make good on its promises.