Barnes & Noble has unveiled a Nook e-reader with a color touch screen and more social networking features that give the bookseller solid advantages over rival Amazon.com's Kindle, while also giving avid readers reasons not to switch to more expensive tablet-style computers, such as the Apple iPad.
The $249 Nookcolor, introduced Tuesday, trades the black-and-white, E Ink digital paper display in the rest of the Nook family for a 7-inch, full-color screen. The new display takes the device into the business of selling magazine subscriptions and children's books, many of which depend on color, so are unavailable for E Ink-based e-readers, such as the Kindle.
B&N celebrated the launch of the Nookcolor by opening a new section on its online bookstore dedicated to children's books. B&N has also added to the Nookcolor software technology that publishers can use to give children a more interactive experience with words and pictures. By the end of the year, B&N plans to offer 260 digital picture books for children.
In addition, B&N has added new social networking features. Besides being able to share digital books electronically with other Nook and Nookcolor owners, the new e-reader will also enable users to look at books their Facebook friends have marked for lending and download them through the online social network or receive the digital tomes via e-mail.
The Nookcolor, which is scheduled to ship next month, uses only a Wi-Fi connection for book shopping, downloading and sharing e-books. The device has 8 GB of internal memory, which is enough to store 6,000 e-books, and can use a microSD card if more storage is needed. The e-reader includes a browser for surfing the web and can play music streamed from a site.
The Nookcolor runs Google's Android 2.1 operating system, which means it doesn't support Flash, Adobe's ubiquitous software for playing video on the web. Flash support could be added later through a software upgrade. B&N is offering a software development kit for the Nookcolor, so developers can create book applications to add, for example, video to how-to or travel books.
Despite all the tablet-like features added to the Nookcolor, B&N insists that it is still focused on readers, and not on people looking to buy an entertainment device. "Most importantly, Nookcolor is designed for and differentiated by what Barnes & Noble knows best: reading," William Lynch, chief executive of the bookseller, said in a statement.
Allen Weiner, analyst for Gartner, said the Nookcolor's ability to expand B&N's reach into digital magazines, children's books and other content dependent on color, takes the company to "the head of the class" among e-reader makers. In addition, the device sets up B&N as a potential platform provider for textbook publishers. B&N already operates a large number of college bookstores.
Amazon could respond to the Nookcolor with its own color-supporting Kindle. However, the retailer has yet to give any indication that those are its plans. In the meantime, the potential market impact of Nookcolor goes beyond e-reader makers, and has serious implications for Apple, Weiner said in his blog.
"I would say that Apple's iPad suffers a blow as a digital publishing distributor competing head-to-head with a tablet reading device from a major bookseller," he said.
In addition, Apple has upset some publishers by refusing to share consumer data with them. And for readers, the Nookcolor does the job at half the price of Apple's starting price for the iPad, which is $499.
The Nookcolor, which is roughly 8 inches high, 5 inches wide and a half-inch thick and weighs 15.8 ounces, is scheduled to begin shipping Nov. 19. The e-reader will be available through B&N's bookstores and website, as well as Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Books-A-Million. B&N is expected to start taking pre-orders Oct. 27.
In addition, B&N said it plans to release next month a major software upgrade for its E Ink-based Nooks that will include faster page turning, better search capabilities, password protection and other features. The Nook starts at $149.