Analysis: Nook could pre-empt the rumored Apple tablet

Barnes & Noble CEO says e-readers will bring far-reaching changes to publishing

The Nook e-book reader announced by Barnes & Noble offers several novelties, including an Android OS, two screens and the ability for users to lend e-books, but its biggest impact could be on the widely rumored tablet computers expected from Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch told reporters in a conference call today that the bookseller is open to giving the Nook a full-functioning Web browser for its lower 3.5-inch color touch display. It would also be willing to open up the platform to third-party Android developers.

Lynch did not directly compare the Nook to the rumored tablets coming from Apple and Microsoft, preferring instead to compare it to Amazon.com's Kindle 2, which is priced the same as the Nook at $259. The Nook goes on sale in November.

Barnes & Noble's Nook
Barnes & Noble's Nook.

Gartner Inc. analyst Allen Weiner, however, compared the Nook to the Kindle and other coming devices, saying the Nook "should not only throw a scare into Amazon but also put somewhat of a damper on the e-reading capabilities of planned tablets/devices from Apple and Microsoft."

To that point, Lynch made it clear that his company's Nook is capable of being much more than a typical e-reader with future browsing and open application support.

"There's no browser on the Nook today, but could we have one in the future? Sure," Lynch said, indicating the touch-screen area which he likened to an iPhone's touch capability and virtual keyboard. "We're looking at all kinds of features sets for the [Nook] roadmap ... What people want to do today is read trade books and bestsellers ... In the future, consumers may want and demand additional features."

Lynch also said using Android version 1.5 on Nook "opens up exciting opportunities" for third-party Android applications built by the open source community. While that application capability was not the driving reason for picking Android, Lynch said that Barnes & Noble is planning to put out an SDK for Android developers. He said the Android OS was primarily selected for its navigation and user interface capabilities.

Customers will primarily use the Nook's lower screen to shop for e-books on the Barnes & Noble e-bookstore and perform other navigation functions, using the touch screen and wireless access from AT&T or Wi-Fi, Lynch noted. Barnes & Noble will provide daily content accessible over wireless, including some special offers for customers who are using the Nook while visiting one of the more than 700 Barnes & Noble stores, which are already Wi-Fi enabled.

The lower color screen will also provide a virtual touch keyboard for searching, annotating e-books and notes, and lending books to others using Barnes & Noble e-reader software on a variety of devices, including some BlackBerries, Motorola smartphones and iPhone and iPod touch devices, Lynch said.

Weiner added in a blog that besides shopping, the lower screen will be used for running Android applications, although it wasn't clear when support of Android apps will occur.

Lynch also said that Nook users who lend books will be granting the specific e-book's license for two weeks to another user. The e-book will appear on the second user's device for two weeks and will then "time out" or disappear and return to the original user.

There's enormous potential for Internet browsing on the Nook on a separate screen from a screen used for reading text. Many observers have noticed the Nook's combined screen potential and said it could rival the rumored Apple tablet, expected next year.

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