I’ve been meaning to weigh in here on Barnes & Noble’s recent announcement about its new e-reader, Nook. It seems to be getting talked about everywhere, including this NPR story that I heard a few days ago. My bottom line is that, while I have not yet tried the device (it won’t be released until the end of November, just in time for the holidays), I am more optimistic about it and its capabilities compared to the Amazon Kindle.
It would be easy enough to point to Nook’s feature-ladenness as the reason behind my optimism. If nothing else it’s got a color screen, which sets it apart from that of Kindle. I’ve described the latter’s inexplicably well-touted e-ink display as reminiscent of an Etch-a-Sketch, although I’m also taken with Nicholson Baker’s description of it in the New Yorker: “[T]he screen was gray. And it wasn’t just gray; it was a greenish, sickly gray. A postmortem gray.” Nook also has touch screen capabilities; Kindle does not. While I’m not a proponent of touch simply for its own sake, I recognize tactility as a key experiential dimension of the handling of printed books. The touch screen thus makes for some nice experiential “carry-over” from the one (analog) reading platform to the other (digital).
But it’s not all about the interface. More important to me are Nook’s sharing functions and its — bear with me on this one — lack of a backup feature. The sharing function is straightforward enough: the device lets your friends borrow your e-titles for up to two weeks. Here’s what the Barnes & Noble website says:
You can share Nook to Nook, but it doesn’t stop there. Using the new Barnes & Noble LendMe™ technology… you will be able to lend to and from any iPhone™, iPod touch, BlackBerry, PC, or Mac, with the free Barnes and Noble eReader software downloaded on it.
Now, what the site neglects to mention is that publishers can opt-out of making their Nook books circulable. Nevertheless, I appreciate that even a limited type of sharing is the default position for the device and its content. Too much DRM does not a happy customer base make.
My delight at the lack of a backup feature clearly requires some explaining. One of the chief selling points of the Amazon Kindle is its so-called “backup” feature. I say “so called” because its not only about user-friendly content protection. The backup occurs on the Amazon server cloud, where intimate details about what, where, how, and for how long you read get archived, presumably forever. That’s great if your Kindle gets stolen or crashes, but it does open up all sorts of privacy concerns that I’ve been addressing lately in lectures at the University of Illinois, the University of Iowa, and tomorrow at Georgetown University.
All that to say, it pleases me that Barnes & Noble isn’t following Amazon into the cloud. Indeed its decision not to go there, it seems to me, is indicative of the company’s sense of its own identity. However much Barnes & Noble may venture into other areas, such as printed book publishing and e-book readers, at the end of the day it still recognizes itself for what it’s always been: a bookseller. Amazon, on the other hand, presents itself as though it were a retailer, but in reality it is, in the words of CEO Jeff Bezos, “a technology company at its core.” (Advertising Age, June 1, 2005). The two company’s respective — indeed, quite divergent — approaches to client e-reader data reflect these differences in their core missions.
I may yet pre-order a Nook to go along with my Kindle. I’m still on the fence, but I’m leaning towards giving it a try. I’ll keep you posted, but until them I’d be interested in hearing how others are weighing in.