Six Ways of Looking at the Nook

Barnes and Noble announced today that it was introducing a WiFi-only version of its e-reader, the Nook, for $149. It has also reduced the WiFi+3G model to $199, from $259. The Amazon Kindle is $259. [Whoops! That was a few minutes ago. Kindle now down to $189. Interesting.] Points to make:


1) I have used Nook for several months, and like it a lot. (Spelling note: B&N was originally pushing an all lower-case spelling of the name, as nook, which just looks odd. It now seems to be getting around the problem by switching to all upper-case, NOOK. I'm sticking to conventional orthography and calling it Nook. Disclosure note: as mentioned several times earlier, I've bought the two Kindles I use but got the Nook as a gift from someone involved in its production. Photo from B&N site.)

2) The Nook should be thought of as basically similar to the Kindle, rather than basically different -- though it has several nice touches. Trivial-sounding but convenient: the Nook has "forward" and "backward" buttons on both the left and right side of the device. The Kindle has a back button on the left side only. I often find that useful when I'm holding the Nook with my right hand while on a subway etc. The ability to use WiFi connections is also handy; as long as you're at a hot spot, you can shop or browse whether or not you have good phone coverage. (Turns out that this works only inside the US, for copyright rather than technical reasons. I'm still trying to find out whether it would work overseas, if the WiFi connection ran through a VPN that "seemed" to be in the US.) For more, some earlier compare-and-contrasts here and here.

3) The real differences between the Nook and the Kindle should be thought of as large-scale business model differences, even future-of-publishing-industry differences, rather than look-and-feel differences as you hold the devices in your hand. In this sense, the decision to use one or the other is somewhat like deciding to use Firefox rather than IE, when Firefox first emerged several years ago. That is, part of what you're choosing involves the actual features of the product. ("Tabs" and "extensions" when it came to Firefox; WiFi, "sharing," and other features for the Nook.) But part is also an "open" versus "closed" or proprietary business model. Firefox was of course an open-source software development project, versus Microsoft's proprietary IE. The Nook is meant to break two closed systems. One is Amazon's proprietary Kindle format for e-reading books, versus the Nook's open ePub format. The other is Apple's implicit efforts to "app"-ize the Web,

4) For a very good discussion of the stakes in both the Amazon and Apple efforts, including app-izing the Web, see this article by Sue Halpern in the New York Review of Books, which centers on the emergence of the iPad. She argues that publishers, writers, and readers will all be better off if the "open" models prevail and both the Amazon and the Apple proprietary efforts are defeated. After the jump, a note from a reader to the same effect. And our new issue has a very good story by Michael Hirschorn on this trend.

5) Also after the jump, a comment by a first-hand informed source about another larger implication of the Nook's emergence: What it means for the next stages of electronic-device development in general, especially in China.

6) Probably tomorrow, a guest essay by David Rothman, of Teleread, who has been talking and writing about e-readers since long before they were cool (or existed). He also has a theory about the larger importance of these devices, notably the iPad. 

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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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