Do you care how fast the processor in your e-book reader is? Barnes & Noble seems to hope so. It’s announcement today was heavy on comparing its specs to Amazon’s Kindle Fire. There’s no doubt the Nook beats the Kindle hands down in speeds and feeds: more memory, much more storage, better display. But there’s little doubt that Amazon offers a superior ecosystem that may turn into a better user experience.
The Nook Tablet is basically an upgraded Nook Color: thinner, lighter, faster, better looking, but functionally similar. The Tablet will sell for $249; the Color remains in the lineup at a reduce price of $199, matching the Fire.
A bigger difference than the specs is how the two devices present content. The Nook, of course, connects (via Wi-Fi) to the Barnes & Noble store for books and periodicals. Music can be streamed over a number of services, including the built-in Pandora app, but there is no integrated music store. Video can be streamed over Netflix and Hulu Plus, or downloaded from Flixter.
Fire, by contrast, is an all-Amazon production: Kindle books, magazine,and newspapers; Amazon Music (including streaming of your own music uploaded to Amazon’s cloud), Amazon video to buy or stream. No separate apps, no separate subscriptions. But anyone who signs up for the $80 a year Amazon Prime after the free 30-day trial gets free book loans, free video streaming, and–Prime’s original purchase–free two-day shipping on Amazon purchases. My guess–and it can only be a guess until we have a chance to put these devices through their paces–is that a superior shopping experience will trump a superior display.
Fire also has a wild card in its Silk browser. The Nook Tablet has a browser, of course, but not much was said about it at the launch. Fire has a novel split browser that offloads much of the work of rendering pages to Amazon’s cloud servers and promises much speedier browsing. Again, we can’t really come to any conclusions about how big an advantage this is until we see it in the wild.
Barnes & Noble also promoted the competitive advantage of its retail stores by promising a sort of Genius Bar to help consumers with Nook problems. One can only hope that it won’t be used much; something would be very wrong with the design of the tablet if large numbers of consumers have to seek help in using it.
Amazon gains a considerable leg up in this fight because of its unique combination of retailing chops and deep technology skills. Amazon Web Services represents a very sophisticated technology infrastructure that Amazon can throw behind a project like Fire that no one, except maybe Google can approach.