eReader Wars: Can the NOOK Make Headway?

March 31, 2011

4:30 pm

Until I took the iPad plunge last year, I had little incentive to purchase e-books.  However, once I had the iPad in hand and downloaded the Kindle app, my bookshelves have had a lot more space as e-books have been my primary method of reading.  I’m obviously not alone here.  The Association of American Publishers reports that in the U.S., e-book sales registered over $70 million this past January, a 116% increase from the prior year.  You can bet much of that was driven by the launch of the iPad.  However, there are some well-documented flaws with the reading experience on the iPad which has led many people to consider a dedicated reading device:

  • The weight of the iPad (Wi-Fi only) does not lend itself to long reading sessions.  The original iPad weighed 1.5 lbs (24 oz.), and the iPad 2 has only been trimmed down to 1.3 lbs (21.2 oz).  However this is still significantly heavier than most e-readers on the market.  It’s a natural drawback for a device that is larger and contains the necessary circuitry to power all the other lovable goodness that device has to offer.  It’s a prime example of how designing something for everyone leaves you at risk of not satisfying everyone.  This is where the Kindle and other e-readers have made headway.
  • The other major issue is reading in direct sunlight.  Have you tried to read a book on the iPad while sitting outside?  To put it mildly, it’s not easy.  With the summer reading season approaching, this is an incredibly important deficiency, and one that Kindle has exploited in some of their TV ads.

The result: Kindle has taken off by storm.  Even though Amazon still refuses to cite Kindle unit sales, they have repeatedly mentioned it is their best-selling SKU.  For both the reasons cited above, it is fantastic for the avid reader.  It weighs only 8.5 oz. and reads like a paperback book in sunlight.

So how is another firm going to manage to compete with these 800-lb guerrillas named Apple and Amazon?  If you’ve followed the e-reader market, you may have noticed that Barnes & Noble’s NOOK line of e-readers has had strong reviews from product experts.  In particular the NOOK Color is their 7” Android-based color tablet that sports a nice blend of portability, usability, and content that makes it a nice alternative to the big boys.  And at $249, it is half the price of the iPad.  While many e-reader vendors are coming out with different specs to try to differentiate, one of the ways Barnes & Noble is differentiating is by focusing on a distinct target market: kids.

NOOK Kids has content from popular characters such as Barbie, Dora, and SpongeBob.  This is a smart strategy in their battle with Apple.  While the iPad has been a lights-out product since its launch, its versatility does not lend itself to be easily marketed for specific uses or specific customer groups.  NOOK is taking the approach of offering a product that is clearly focused at avid readers, but also targeting a niche group directly, children.  And for those with children, they know kids can be very influential in buying decisions!  It is certainly an uphill climb for anyone not named Amazon or Apple in the e-reader market, but Barnes & Noble is taking an approach to differentiate itself and find its niche, something others such as the Borders Kobo e-reader hasn’t done.

Which leads to the final point.  With the recent, and in progress demise of Borders, consumers may find it risky to buy an e-reader/tablet that is associated with a bricks-and-mortar bookstore.  But with Barnes & Noble providing an Android-based device, which will get a software update in April and be able to support apps, it still has enough flexibility that it can be used for other functions as well. This should help alleviate potential customer concerns of having a colorful paperweight in the near future if Barnes & Noble’s retail business fades.

While it will be an uphill climb, Barnes & Noble is taking an overall smart approach to this market.  So far, the NOOK Color has sold 3 million units.

Which eReader do you prefer, and why?  Leave a comment below!

Anuj Agrawal is a digital media enthusiast in the DC area.  He’s been part of the digital media scene in Silicon Valley as well as up and down the East Coast.  He can be reached at anujagra@gmail or @anujagra.

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Anuj Agrawal (@anujagra) is a digital media enthusiast in the DC area, with a passion for understanding what makes consumers tick. From the fundamentals of designing products that are engaging to understanding the psychology of the buying process, he has helped companies develop innovative consumer experiences.

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