Clone Wars: B&N Takes Gloves Off with New Touch-Screen Nook

Jessanne Collins | May 26th, 2011

Nook Simple Touch Reader

To hear Barnes and Noble CEO William Lynch tell it, the biggest selling point of the latest Nook e-reader is that “it does what people want to do with books.”  To state the obvious,  he means to read them, to pocket them, and to pass them around.

It’s been generally accepted that there are two types of digital reading consumers: book readers and gadget wonks. The wonks want gadgets that allow them to choose instantaneously from zillions of apps and diversions, which may or may not include books. For them, who by a slim majority, incidentally, seem to be men, there’s the tablet, foremost among them the iPad. Unlike tablet users, book readers want their gadgets to be more like a book — beach-ready and distraction-free. That’s Amazon’s Kindle, of course, with its charming analog keypad, the Sony Reader, and earlier versions of the Nook, including the Nook Color, which, with its color touch-screen and heftier price-point, is the closest thing to a tablet/e-reader hybrid.

Priced at $139, same as the Kindle, it’s hard not to see the new Nook Simple Touch Reader, unveiled on Tuesday at Barnes and Noble in Union Square, as a no-holds-barred reach for Kindle’s market share.  The new Nook uses the same E Ink technology — i.e., the black on white text you can read in direct sunlight — and at eight ounces and six inches, it’s trimmer and cuter than Amazon’s baby. It has a graphic-based homepage that shows at a glance where you are at in what you’re reading — something Kindle readers gripe about not being able to do — and offers magazine subscriptions. The new Nook will let avid readers go at it for an average of half an hour a day for up to two months without a recharge. (B&N says that’s more than twice the battery life of the Kindle; Amazon has publicly disagreed.)

But the vastest improvement over the Kindle, hands down, is the Nook’s touch screen. On the Nook, the myriad clicks it takes to look up a word in the dictionary on a Kindle are reduced to a tap. These days we get cash, check baggage, and order sandwiches at Wawa with our fingertips, so it’s fair to say we expect no less of our gadgets. It isn’t even a matter of laziness or aesthetic — the ability to page through a text with a swipe of your finger, rather than the sterile click of a button, arguably makes for a reading experience that’s a little more, well, bookish.

Maybe it was the soothing lets-go-technology-shopping soundtrack (Moby, of course), but watching the big reveal I, for one, felt a covetous pang. I’m the quintessential ambivalent Kindle owner. An iPad still seems like an unnecessary indulgence, but, on the occasions I do use the Kindle, I find myself tapping frustratedly on its face. Most of the time it snoozes its battery life away in the dynamic stack of actual books that lives on my desk. If I could trade it in for something with a touch screen and a friendly front page, I would!

I wouldn’t give up actual books for it, of course. I’m one of those who never will. But e-readers no longer seem like a huge threat to the printed page people like me once feared they would be. Even B&N projects that physical books will continue to dominate the marketplace, at least for the next few years. Instead, we can see e-readers for what they are right now: evolving tools that can either supplement or detract from the reading experience, depending on how you use them and what your expectations are.

The Nook, for instance, is vehemently social. Aside from the ability to tweet and post to their Facebook walls right from the page they’re on, Nook users can join B&N’s proprietary social network, Nook Friends, which lets a users lend and borrow e-books, share recommendations, and see what other users “like.” Amazon unveiled similar social mechanisms in its last update, in February, and Jamie Iannone, B&N’s digital president, thinks that “the social aspect is a game-changer.”

Reading has always been one of the most social of solitary pastimes. But is the conceptual leap from Sunday afternoon book club meetings and first-date Dostoevsky discussions to the ability to ping a rec to a friend in China or react to Raskolnikov in 140 characters that easy? I imagine there’s a facet of the dedicated readers Barnes and Noble is hoping to target that will be turned off by the prospect of social diversions embedded in their books. It’s a built-in invitation into the digital noise that many of us turn to books to escape.

It’s a given that Amazon will try to appropriate and surpass Nook’s features in future iterations of the Kindle, but for now what B&N is banking on is that combining Kindle sleek, portable size with a touch screen and book-lending features, and a more streamlined experience in general, will prompt Kindle users (ambivalent and loyal alike) to switch teams. This year’s holiday season will bear out the answer more accurately than we or anyone else can.