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.
iRex’s iLiad e-reader has been the top dog in the “business e-reader” market, selling somewhere in the 60,000 units range to date. Today, CNET’s Crave blog reports iRex will offer a 3G-enabled reader with an 8.1-inch screen this fall. Plastic Logic enters the “business e-reader” business next year, so iRex is mixing a down-market device into its offering to counter the impact expected when that new competition appears.
Will the company find any wiggle room with Amazon, Sony, Samsung and Plastic Logic vying for market share? Instead it looks to me like iRex needs to focus on winning buyers in at least one segment rather than diversifying to meet the rising tide of e-readers. iRex has collaborated to develop specialized devices, such as the aviation-targeted SolidFX e-reader air travel charts. This device looks like another conform-to-compete e-reader.
Crave writer David Carnoy heads deep into speculative territory, saying this sub-DX but supersized consumer device will sell for “less than $400 and possibly less than $350” and that there will be a major bookseller offering e-books through the device, but iRex’s 8.1-inch screen, if it is Wacom-enabled, allowing users to write on the screen, is likely to keep the price near or north of $400. Furthermore, what major bookseller is left to do a deal with iRex? Borders? Perhaps, but that struggling bookseller has already released an e-reader from Elonex in the U.K. Plastic Logic has an exclusive with Barnes & Noble while Amazon has the Kindle.
There is so little information, other than a “mock-up” drawing of the device, that this looks more like a test balloon than a product. Grains of salt taken.
If you need more sodium in your diet: Acer may launch an e-reader, too.
Borders UK today introduced a lower-priced e-book reader, the Elonex, which it will offer alongside the £400 ($665) iRex Iliad e-book reader. The £189 ($314) Elonex, manufactured by the British PC maker of the same name for Borders UK, is a basic e-Ink screen e-reader with no wireless or other network connectivity. It supports the ePub and Adobe PDF formats and comes pre-loaded with 100 books (presumably out of copyright classics) and an SD memory slot. (A brief, not very informative review is here.)
Borders offers a catalog of 45,000 e-books, which can be displayed on the Elonex or iRex Iliad. Borders executives had previously told the Bookseller they did not consider the iRex, which includes annotation and handwriting recognition technology, “sustainable” at £400.
The dichotomy between the basic e-reader, which does little more than display pages, and a multi-purpose e-reader, like the iRex, is evolving to be the simple distinction made in this market. Amazon’s Kindle 2, however, splits the difference, doing more than a basic reader (notably with the WhisperNet delivery service, but also an increasing range of applications), at a price that, at this point, is so close to the “basic” models, it is poised to crush competitors that try to compete from the low-end. Now, if only Kindle supported ePub documents.