Barnes & Noble, aided by Android, aims to disrupt the Kindle

The Nook has two important capabilities that could expand the market for e-book readers beyond Amazon's device

I've been following the development of smartphones, tablets, and single-purpose devices for quite a while in this blog, but every time I think that the market for e-book readers has calmed down, another announcement in the sector adds a new competitive dimension. A couple of weeks ago, Barnes & Noble introduced its own e-book reader, the Nook, just ahead of the holiday shopping season.

Back in the summer, I openly questioned what Barnes & Noble or Plastic Logic could do to disrupt the Kindle. After all, the Kindle itself is disruptive of the traditional book market, and it's notoriously hard to disrupt the disruptor.

[ Also on InfoWorld, see Zack Urlocker's first discussions of business disruption: "Disruption as a business strategy?" and "What does it take to create business disruption?" | Keep up with the latest open source news with InfoWorld's open source newsletter and topic center. ]

The Nook does have some nice incremental improvements over the Kindle: two screens, the familiar e-ink black-and-white reader screen that dominates the device's surface, a smaller horizontal color LCD at the bottom of the device used for navigation, typing on a virtual keyboard, and so on. It also has built-in Wi-Fi, a replaceable battery, and an SD slot, all of which are missing from Amazon's Kindle. The Nook matches the Kindle's lower $259 price, effectively forcing Amazon to drop the price of its global Kindle by $20. It's clear that Amazon is paying attention to what Barnes & Noble is doing. It won't cede any ground it doesn't have to.

Even though the Nook's improvements are nice, none of them are disruptive. They don't open up the market to a broader audience that has not bought into e-book readers. But there are two important elements of Barnes & Noble's strategy that could significantly change things.

First of all, the Nook uses Google's Android operating system. That could enable the Nook to become a significant application platform in the future. While the iPhone has many more applications available than Android, there are still plenty emerging on Google's platform. Currently, the Kindle has approximately zero third-party applications. (Admittedly, the Kindle has a Web browser, a curious omission in the Nook.) It's not clear how well the average Android application would perform on the slow-refresh e-ink display, but if the Nook is truly an open device, I have no doubt that will spur some level of application innovation.

The second point of disruption for the Nook should be more obvious: It has a huge retail channel with more than 750 retail locations and more than 600 college bookstore locations in the United States. While its $259 price tag disqualifies it as an "impulse buy," enabling consumers to see the Nook and try it out could be a significant advantage, especially as we head into the holiday shopping season.

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