A Look at the Nook: No, It’s Not a Book!

by Joel Friedlander on December 16, 2009 · 1 comment

I wonder if we’re getting over our recent taste for gift cards. From the look of the racks crowded around the cash registers at the local Safeway, I would say they’re still popular. Sometimes, instead of these cards being a gift, they seem to be become an obligation, an errand, or a chore.

I should use up that gift card that’s got $3.62 left on it. I should drive right past the Border’s I sometimes shop at and go instead to Barnes & Noble because, after all, we’ve got these gift cards, and just looking at them sitting in a drawer makes me feel like something’s been left undone.

nookdisplaySo off we went this evening to get rid of those cards, into the new Barnes & Noble, full of optimism.

Facing the front doors was this massive Nook display towering over the entrance. The Nook is the newest ereader to hit the market, a direct challenge to Amazon’s Kindle. Two B&N fellows were manning the booth.

I picked up one of the models in the display, to discover that it was a dummy. Apparently they only had one working machine, and were telling the woman at the booth that the Nook wouldn’t be available until 2010. I expect that B&N believes a lot of people will wake up Christmas morning with the promise of an ereader under their tree. Or a gift card, maybe.

The Nook in All It’s Glory

Eventually I got to try the one working model, and received a lengthy and expert tour of the device by one of the most experienced people I’ve ever met in a chain bookstore. It came complete with an explanation of how the publishers were trying to get the same wholesale price for an ebook, which costs nothing to reproduce, that they get for a printed book, whose price is explained by the materials and labor involved in its manufacture.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

The Nook is more attractive than the Kindle. It lacks the Kindle’s keyboard, substituting a touchscreen keyboard in its small color window that runs along the bottom of the screen. This window is used mostly for navigation and system controls, like changing type sizes on the reader. There is also a virtual d-pad for scrolling.

You can see both screens in the accompanying photo. The top shows the eInk screen of text, the bottom color window is displaying a gallery of covers of other books available. Why would you want to look at the cover of Eat Pray Love while you’re reading Pride and Prejudice? Good question!

The Nook thoughfully includes hardware buttons for paging forward or backward in a book, and there’s a set on both sides, so you can turn either way easily. It has the same eInk screen as the Kindle, providing an eerily sharp and readable image of the text. I was told that different texts have different sets of fonts to choose from, although there is only a small set of fonts available. I switched the text of Pride and Prejudice I was reading to the serif font, and it looked more book-like.

It has a slot for a micro SD card for up to 16 G of storage, and it will play MP3 files too. It can display PDF files as well as ePub files, although for the B&N texts a proprietary format is used. There is a long list of magazines and some newspapers available for subscriptions, and the Nook uses both G3 cellular network as well as WIFI when it’s available. You can bring your Nook into a B&N store and read a select group of books for free—but only for one hour.

Yes, But Do You Want to Read It?

The Nook costs $259, which is quite a bit of money to acquire a device without any books on it. Oh, I suppose it comes with Pride and Prejudice and a few other public domain titles, just to give you something to do during the minute you will need to wait to download your first book purchase, which will typically cost you $9.99.

We’ve been looking at these eInk screens for some time. They haven’t changed. The screen is glare resistant, so you can read it outdoors. But do you really want to? You can’t stick it in your back pocket. You want to risk getting sand in the mini USB port? Scratching the screens?

Two More Reasons I Don’t Like eReaders

“Well, travelers like them,” the B&N man said, after I pointed out the financial penalty for buying the Nook. Of course, the market that really needs this type of device isn’t going to get it any time soon. That would be my son and all the other teens going back and forth to school with 40 pound backpacks.

Unfortunately for them, the most lucrative part of the book publishing business is textbooks. You remember what they cost, don’t you. The textbook publishers won’t be letting those expensive, hard-to-update books out of their hands anytime soon.

But here are two more reasons I just don’t care for these eReaders:

  1. Single-tasking hardware in a multi-tasking world. I think the movement that makes the most sense is convergent technology, most brilliantly displayed in the Apple iPhone. The idea of a text reader as a consumer appliance like a DVD player seems short-sighted to me.

    The Nook and its brethren deny the way digitization is usurping text itself. When the book became unbound, merely data to be displayed in various formats, it ceased to be a book. The devices that acknowledge this reality will be the ones that succeed in bridging the print world with the digital world.
  2. Replacing design with formatting. Design reflects the hand of man, the uniqueness of human imagination and invention. As a book designer, I appreciate this in the very humility of book design, the manipulation of typographic materials to render a text perfectly transparent to the reader.

    The eReader, on the other hand, eliminates this step entirely. Raw text is basically poured into a device that “formats” it on the fly into a standardized layout. Readability is guaranteed, but elegance, wit, thrift, color, idiosyncracy, are all sacrificed. And worse, every book looks pretty much the same.

As others have noted, the Nook also seems to have been rushed to market, despite the lack of any products available to purchase. The Nook imposed long waits between screens, had none of the smoothness we associate with decent interfaces, and was generally awkward to use.

It’s indisputable that ebooks are becoming a new reality, but the devices I’ve seen so far have limited attraction. Look for my interview with a Kindle-loving reader coming soon for the view from the other side.

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