B&N will offer iRex device, too

Dropping in from a flu-induced respite to say: Barnes & Noble is trying too hard. According to The Wall Street Journal‘s Peter Kafka, BN.com, in addition to teaming with Plastic Logic to sell ebooks, now plans to partner with iRex, maker of an upcoming iLiad device the features 3G connectivity and an 8.1-inch screen, described here. BN.com will be the e-book store for both devices.

We get the “we’re more open” argument already, even though every e-book format comes with DRM and compatibility baggage, but the challenge is not merely to sell books but to establish a platform customers can rely on. That comprehensive experience of reading goodness doesn’t come from a shallow focus across many devices, but deep focus on the reader’s experience with an e-book.

It would be a better use of Barnes & Noble’s modest marketplace goodwill to focus on making one device a stellar experience while supplementing that experience withiPhone and other smartphone e-reader applications than to try to sell and support e-books across a growing inventory of devices. Individually, any one device will require a substantial amount of BN customer support, which they are not well placed to provide, and as a group of devices that still are incompatible with half of the e-books or more sold, they increase the complexity of the customer’s choice. So, if BN.com fails to support the devices, even if it is the manufacturer’s problem, they will lose a customer. If their books don’t work with a device, it’s BN’s problem.

Now is the time for focused investment in a pleasing end-to-end shopping and reading experience. Amazon is already poised to compete with compatibility, so Barnes and Noble has nothing to win by spreading its bets. Factor in the Apple tablet-of-destiny (the Journal also reports today Steve Jobs is all over that tablet), which will run all sorts of e-reader apps at launch, and BN’s strategy looks very dangerous. It could be overwhelmed on the customer experience front, the e-book choice front and in terms of its relationships with marginally committed partners—in exchange for a largely undifferentiated (“we’re as open as anyone”) win if they execute perfectly.

Barnes & Noble moves, embracing Google and Plastic Logic

barnes-noble-e-books-oBarnes & Noble, which introduced its iPhone e-reader back on June 29, launched a vastly expanded e-book store today. The announcement of the “world’s largest bookstore” is actually a combination of several existing catalogs, Barnes & Noble’s previous e-book listings, the ereader.com site and the Google Book Search catalog for a total of 700,000 titles, which may be read on iPhones, Blackberry, PC and Mac client software.

The application, largely a re-skinned version of the Fictionwise e-reader application it acquired, is useful (the user agreement references the ereader.com site as the source of user support). BN.com will store books for repeated downloads. There is no information about limits on simultaneous devices or download limits on the site.

The big news is that Plastic Logic has signed on to link its e-reader device that will ship in early 2010 to the BN.com bookstore, a relationship that BN executives described as “exclusive” during a conference call. This means we can probably expect format conflicts between Kindle and Plastic Logic. Oddly, there was no comment from Plastic Logic about this partnership, which draws a significant battle line in the e-book market.

While B&N has endorsed the $9.99 price point for frontlist titles and bestsellers, the store features books ranging in price from a dollar (including many $4.99 books from Barnes & Noble’s imprint, which has specialized in cheap editions of classic literature) to much more expensive e-books discounted from the hardcover or trade paper price, but well above $9.99. Flexibility in pricing will likely be one of B&N’s competitive strategies with publishers.

DRM is prominent in the application. The manual deals immediately with how to enter an “unlock code” for DRM’d titles.

Usability note about the app on most platforms (iPhone version pictured at right): Once installed, the application displays the title page of the user manual, but doesn’t explain it is a user manual or provide any navigation cues. They should fix that. It would be better if the first thing the app displayed was an “add books” dialog that walked the user right a reading experience of their own choice. Manuals, even good ones, are so 1990s. If your app isn’t intuitive, it needs more work. The PC version of the application opens to the user’s library, which is prepopulated with Last of the Mohicans, Sense and Sensibility, Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Dictionary, Dracula, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice and the user manual.

Strange bargain alert: Windows PC users who download and install the B&N e-reader app get six e-books (all pre-selected by BN.com-described above) free, but the offer apparently isn’t available for Mac users.

In the irony department, the fact that Chris Anderson’s book, Free, which is free on Amazon and Google Books, doesn’t appear in the B&N e-books search suggests that while the site is operating it is not being actively managed with the care one would expect. Either that or it’s a judgment by Hyperion, Anderson’s publisher, that B&N’s store won’t have a material impact on one of its important titles of the season.

There’s no way of telling whether BN will get great traction with the e-book initiative unveiled today. We know free reader applications get a novelty bump in downloads, sales from those downloads aren’t guaranteed. BN may benefit from launching the first business day after Amazon bungled the Kindle 1984 “refund,” but was anyone really waiting for another e-reader before jumping into this kind of reading? No.