Exhaustive Kindle/Nook smackdown

Below and after the jump, an extremely detailed Kindle/Nook compare and contrast from a well-informed reader, in response to this previous comment by someone on the Nook team. This is presented in the public interest for those interested in the future of e-reading. More on the "all in one device" front later today.

"1. Google Books linkup. It might be worth clarifying for your readers that, like the Nook, the Kindle also can be used to read many (increasingly most) books that are available in "Full" (as distinct from Snippet or Preview) on Google Books. The only limitation is that Google Books aren't accessible through the Amazon wireless link or stored in the Amazon cloud -- and I haven't been able to figure out from the Nook publicity whether that's going to be substantially different for the Nook.
"Anyhow, apart from the Nook venture, Google Books is in the process of providing downloadable epub versions of all their Full (out-of-copyright) books as part of their normal Google Books features. Until recently, Google Books only provided txt or non-searchable (image only) pdf files of their Full books for download. Those didn't play nicely with Kindle at all. The amount of bad OCR in the txt files made them virtually unreadable. And the pdf image files didn't convert cleanly if at all.

"With Google Books now providing the epub format as an option, however, it's a piece of cake to download the epub file for a Full book to your computer and convert it to a mobi file (the free/shareware Calibre does the conversion work for you). Then transfer the mobi file to your Kindle. Voila.

"So I don't see where the Nook connection with Google Books is a big feature. Kindle can handle non-DRM epub files such as Google Books (with a quick extra conversion step). Even if Nook can be used to search/access Google Books, that still wouldn't be a plus for me. Finding a specific out-of-copyright book on a particular subject or by a particular author, and then finding the right edition of that book (especially older pre-20th century books that were published in multi-volume sets), is a specialized and time-consuming Googling skill that uses my full browser's broadband speed and flexibility. Especially since Google Books' metadata is notoriously unreliable or inadequate. It would be a nightmare to try to manage that process on an ereader's necessarily clunky web interface.

2. Business models and potential points of competitive advantage.  To put my following remarks in perspective, the majority of the things I have on my Kindle aren't books purchased from Amazon (though I do buy a lot of fiction for the Kindle). They're pdf work documents that I convert to Kindle using Amazon's email (I have a Generation 1 Kindle which doesn't directly handle pdfs like the new DX model does). Also I use the Kindle for Project Gutenberg books, which are increasingly available in "experimental" mobi format that's directly readable on the Kindle. But even before the mobi files were available, Project Gutenberg's txt or html files converted to Kindle without a hassle. And as noted above, I'm increasingly taking advantage of Google Books in epub format. [Note: A lot of what I have on my Kindle 1 is also PDF/DOC stuff I have emailed myself to read on airplanes or somewhere other than at the computer.]

"Any other non-DRM'd etexts of books and articles on the web are increasingly in epub among other formats, so they now work on Kindle with conversion. But even when a downloadable file isn't available in an epub or mobi format, the text on a website can usually be copied and saved by your browser as txt, rtf or pdf for conversion to Kindle. So basically, with a few quick steps, any free etext content on the web is readable on the Kindle.

"In the non-Amazon book-buying realm, Kindle has started to shift some publishers' behavior. More specialty epublishers are making books available in non-DRM epub or mobi formats that are readable on multiple devices including the Kindle (see for example the site Fictionwise, where I've noticed the portion of books from specialty epublishers that are available without DRM has been increasing significantly).

"So with that background of what's already available and what's not for the Kindle, here's how I see the competition between Kindle and Nook playing out. The big bottleneck in the expansion of the ereader public -- and the competition among ereader devices and retailers -- is being driven by the incompatibility of various DRM formats for books that people want to fork out money for (new releases and active backlists), not inaccessibility of free content.

"As long as most publishers are insisting on DRM, the choice of an ereader device locks you in to your primary retailer -- in short, am I going to want to buy most of my books from B&N or from Amazon or from a variety of smaller ebooks websites (both retailers and publishers). If B&N can meet Amazon's convenience for book buying via wireless (which Sony hasn't managed to approach), then Nook will compete with Kindle on two basic elements: (1) inventory availability on B&N vs Amazon (and if Amazon can negotiate more international distribution rights now that Kindle is going international, that alone will be an enormous leg up for Amazon), and (2) price (of the proprietary ereader device and of the books themselves). The other bells and whistles (Nook's color covers or a slightly expedited way of getting to free web content like Google Books) aren't going to make any significant difference.

"Nook and Kindle aren't grossly different cost-wise. So for me, the only reason to switch to the Nook (or if I were a virgin ereader, to buy the Nook rather than the Kindle) is if I thought I'd get a wider selection of the sorts of books I'm likely to buy for my Kindle at a better price from B&N than from Amazon. Since B&N's non-ebook web-retail hasn't, through product availability, convenience or price, lured me away from Amazon for my regular (non-ereader) book buying, that suggests to me that B&N has its work cut out for them.

"I think the only thing that would change the above calculus is if the Nook had a major additional or qualitatively better feature on the ereader device itself (and color covers don't count as a major feature). Frex -- ability to use the screen to take handwritten notes that are portable in txt files to your computer --- but that sort of handwriting recognition feature probably is going to require a powerful multi-function device like the (?)Apple Tablet(?).

"Or if the Nook offered a significant bundle of minor improvements over the Kindle that added up to noticeably enhanced functionality (the stuff Kindle already knows from user feedback should be included in next generations) -- e.g. a combo of a more refined search functions (such as search just within the document you're reading, not your whole library and the web), a folder system to be able to organize one's personal library, an ability to edit the metadata on each book (frex books by the same author are arbitrarily sorted sometimes by first name, sometimes by last, so they don't show up together under the "by author" sort), and a better way of being able to work with notes and highlights outside of the Kindle.

"Amazon also needs to make their "sharing" arrangement better -- limiting it to Kindles that are registered to your own Kindle account (which means that anyone whom you register can buy using your credit card and can browse through and download everything you've ever bought for your Kindle from Amazon) isn't terribly attractive. There ought to be a "per book" arrangement whereby over, say, three years, you can share a book with up to a certain number of registered ereader devices. If B&N can come up with an attractive and flexible sharing arrangement, that would be a major competitive advantage over Amazon.

"The various basic features that I think Kindle is missing (or has poorly implemented) suggest to me that Amazon is too wedded to the synchronized cloud feature, which is nifty for Amazon-purchased books but useless for all the other ways the Kindle can be used. Prioritizing the cloud seems to have set limits on other functionalities that should have been designed into the Kindle's system for basic usability from the outset. But hey, so far Amazon's focus is getting a critical mass of customers buying ebooks, first in the US and now international, so I understand why they've chosen the path they have.

"That being said, if Amazon wants to maintain competitive position, they ought to start looking at the Kindle more as a multi-purpose ereader, not just a tool for buying and reading Amazon-purchased books. And no, being able to access blogs or magazine articles on the Kindle isn't a killer app -- that's not where they should focus energy on new features/usability (see frex the highly revealing feedback from Josh Marshall's TPM readers when asked about TPM for mobile platforms -- even the Kindle aficionados said "don't bother" with the Kindle).

"The TPM feedback reinforces what I've long concluded -- Amazon should work on making the Kindle the preferred long-form reading device for all the stuff that's long enough that it gets tedious on computer screens and is awkward on small iPhone-type displays -- texts you otherwise want in physical print (either book or printed-out document) but that aren't so dependent on a visual experience (loaded with graphics, photos etc) that only physical print or a large, high-quality computer display will do. The link to purchasing from Amazon should remain a highly attractive convenience feature that biases a user to choose Amazon as retailer-of-choice, but not the driver of the Kindle's future.

"From the foregoing, you'll understand that I'm of the school that multi-function devices won't represent the demise of dedicated ereaders. Some folks will go multi-function -- especially if Apple Tablet eventually delivers most of the dream-functions that have been rumored. But there are lots of pros to having a reading device that's designed specifically for reading and working with long-form text. So I expect there will be many folks who will continue to prefer a dedicated ereader, and I expect I'll be among them."
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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