December 9, 2013

The Missed Opportunities of the Barnes & Noble Nook

Consider this a 2760-word failed experiment.

I mentioned in my recent post about fatherhood that I had recently lost my job and bought an ereader. The only reason why those two things are interesting together is because the loss of my job has allowed me more time to read. The ereader that I purchased was a Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch, which was on basically clearance1 for Black Friday (and Black Thursday). I was excited because I have been contemplating buying an ereader for awhile now and why not. When the UPS guy came with the ereader, I immediately went about playing with it and getting all of my personal files loaded up.

Questions and Digressions

There are a few questions that should be answered as background before getting to the title issue; these may include the following: Why now? Why the Nook? and Why not the Kindle? These are all good questions and ones that I will attempt to answer below, but first a digression.

Allow me to digress for a few seconds to discuss the fact that I prefer DRM-free EPUB books over purchasing from a proprietary store, such as Amazon, Apple, or Barnes & Noble. That being said, however, when I do purchase DRM-laden books, I normally purchase from Apple’s iBookstore. Not only do I have all Apple products at home, but I trust that my purchases will be there when I need/want them from years of using the iTunes Music Store in similar ways. On the other hand, Barnes & Noble for a time had their classics collection available for free when they first joined the ebooks game, so I snapped up as many of them as I could. In short, I have a lot of EPUB books and any ereader that I choose must allow me to use them.

Why now and/or Why eInk?

Well, not only was the price right, but I have been discussing the purchase of an ereader for awhile, pretty much ever since eInk technologies have matured past the point where they are good enough” for diehard pbook (Physical Book) lovers. Also, having played with the various technologies before, I know that I like eInk. Although still inferior in some ways to tried-and-true LCDs, eInk has an underestimated nostalgia factor. The first time I started reading on the Nook, I was astounded by its ability to get me in the mood to read, which is similar to reading a printed book. My iPad and iPhone have rarely, if ever, been able to get me truly immersed in a book for long periods of time the way that a paperback can. The additional glorification of eInk, therefore, is its ability to get me interested in reading all sorts of long-form content outside of books and periodicals, most of which are saved in my Instapaper queue, but are really all over the web. More on this later.

Why the Nook and/or Why Not the Kindle?

The Nook has been the second place ereader since its inception. Barnes & Noble is a hold-out of the old guard bookstores and one that I continue to support because of my aforementioned nostalgia for pbooks and their continued support of the EPUB standard. The Nook’s software and hardware designs are pretty good as well, sticking with physical buttons for turning pages during reading sessions, while designing the software effectively with the touchscreen in mind. I have never understood Amazon’s aversion to buttons on their touchscreen devices and that has always been a point of reticence for me with their hardware.

On the software side, the fact that Amazon’s Kindle does not support EPUB books has always rubbed me the wrong way because of my now-extensive collection of DRM-free EPUB books.2 Also, Amazon’s Special Offers” have always reminded me of the type of business that Amazon runs, one that I am not always sure is on the up-and-up.3 The fact that the Nook’s webpage can list No Ads” as a pro of buying the Nook over the Kindle seems wrong to me somehow. The Nook has always seemed like a close second to the Kindle in the reviews I have read over the years, one of which is Marco Arment’s invaluable comparison post. After looking up The Verge’s ratings of the two devices, there might as well be no difference.4 Reviews aside, I will admit that the Nook would have been my initial choice no matter the price due to its compatibility with EPUB files, its lack of ads out of box, and its hardware buttons alongside a touchscreen.

Missed Opportunities

Which brings me to the title and the main reason why I was moved to write this post at all.5 The Nook is a great single purpose device. If you are a person who owns all their ebooks through Barnes & Noble (and will only ever purchase their books in that way), wants an eInk device, and is interested in any of the reasons I have given above, the Nook Simple Touch is definitely a not-self-lit eInk reader you should consider. For any person outside of those who fit the above statements exactly, I cannot recommend it.


Earlier in this post, I stated that one of the beauties of eInk technology for me was its ability to get me interested in reading, in general. One of the ways that I like to read, one that I have discussed on this site extensively, is Instapaper, a service that allows a person to save URLs for later reading with the added bonus of a stripped-down reading view sans ads and the bad formatting that is so prevalent the web over. Instapaper is my catch all for great content on the web and, in researching ereaders, I knew that the service was integrated rudimentarily with the Kindle. In addition, Instapaper can export EPUB files with selections from your queue. The Nook, being that it can handle EPUB files, enables me to read this content. I thought I would be set. However, there is no way to wirelessly access these files; even though the Nook has an Internet connection, it requires the user to plug-in the device to a computer to download files to it. First world problem I know, but as a technologist in the 21st Century, I dislike any device that forces me to have a computer in order to enjoy it to its full potential.

Personal EPUB Files

Since I have the aforementioned large library of EPUB files, I side-loaded all of those files the minute I got the Nook in the door. Even though I knew that those local files would need to be manually moved to the device, I assumed that my reading positions, notes, highlights, etc. would be synced across my devices once the same file existed on each one.6 This may sound like a silly assumption, but I assumed this with good reason: this is a feature that exists in every other modern ereader or ereading application today. When I add any of these files to the iBooks app on my iPhone and add the same file to my iPad or iBooks on the Mac, the position (and supplemental information) is synced across the three. When I convert one of my files to a Kindle-compatible file type and upload it to Amazon’s servers, the file becomes available on all devices connected to that Kindle account and the notes, highlights, and reading positions are synced along with it. Lexi doesn’t really understand why this is a big deal to me, but it is frustrating because this is a missed opportunity.

On the subject of their reader and their iOS software, I have reached out to Barnes & Noble Support services for an explanation as to why certain capabilities don’t exist. Apparently I am the only one that has noticed these gaps in service because the people with whom I have chatted have nothing to say on the subject.

Sharing Situations

While I was reading the other day, I wanted to find the definition of a word, so I tapped and held my finger on the word to pull up the contextual menu. Sharing was among the options that came up and because I had connected the device to Facebook and Twitter, I would have been able to share to those locations, which is great. Some devices allow you to share preemptively when there is no connectivity nearby, allowing you to craft your post then and there to be posted when you are connected to the Internet again. This feature is a remnant of a time when Internet connectivity was not as ubiquitous as it is now. It is also a feature that provides a better user experience than simply not allowing access to the feature when offline; I guess Barnes & Noble didn’t get that particular design memo. Recently, when I was in a new location, having not setup the Internet connection while reading, I again went to define a word. This time, the contextual menu came up with the sharing option grayed out. This perturbs me only because I know that there are times when I will think to share or note something in the moment and completely forget if I am forced to wait. In addition, I refer to my aforementioned dislike of needing two devices to use a hampered product to its full potential. I shouldn’t need to get out my phone in situations like this to fix” a situation in which I shouldn’t find myself in the first place.

Wasted Internet Connectivity

The bottom line is that the Nook’s Internet connection is wasted. Amazon shows it’s status as a web services company by its ability to cater to those who might want to use their ereader for outside-the-box practices. For one, Amazon has now released bookmarklets and extensions for a few major web browsers to send items from the web directly to their Kindle devices. For another, Amazon offers every Kindle owner 5GB of online storage for their personal items, which includes a healthy array of supported file types. Barnes & Noble, in my opinion, should have copied a few of the plays from Amazon’s book in the attempt to capitalize on their web presence (and the ability to connect to their web-connected devices) sooner than never.

I feel that I should mention just how far ahead Amazon is in this race. The company has produce a few new technologies over the years that have made their services all the more valuable: Kindle Matchbook, Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, X-Ray, and Whispersync For Voice, among others. I stated awhile back that a product like Whispersync For Voice—although Amazon had yet to announce it at that time—would be a killer feature in my mind.7 Add to that, X-Ray, a feature that allows you to find out more about a book’s characters and themes with one quick tap, and you have a winning combination.

At this point, the only thing that Barnes & Noble has going for it is the physical locations and even then the company is missing opportunities to use that as a card at all. People are no longer afraid to shop online and over time fewer people will feel the nostalgia that I feel with regard to bookstores. In addition, these stores are not ubiquitous, so that is not at all a feature if the closest one is half an hour or more away. These missed opportunities add up to a Barnes & Noble that is confused about the purpose of their ereader moving forward because single purpose devices can be great, but they have to be flexible to some degree, as well.

Next Steps

What does all of this mean? The Nook was a failed experiment for me as a consumer. I plan to return the Nook as soon as I can get across town to my nearest Barnes & Noble store to do so. However, I won’t be purchasing another ereader to take its place any time soon; I have a renewed understanding of what makes my tablet and phone ereading combination great and I want to capitalize on that. Perhaps something in an eInk form will come along that works within my workflow, perhaps not. I currently am testing out Marvin, Readmill, and the Kindle apps to see what other services have to offer. I have used the Apple iBooks apps for awhile and enjoy them, but have had some difficulty with them since the iOS 7 update, so I am in the market, so to speak. I will be reviewing Marvin relatively soon, if only to give initial impressions since it seems to be the most innovative app in the space right now, especially given its on-the-fly X-Ray-style feature that literally scans your book when you request more information about a character or place.

No matter what I decide in the future, I am disappointed by the inability of the Nook and Barnes & Noble to keep my interest past a couple weeks of occasional usage. Perhaps this will change in the future, but I have less confidence now that I have seen the major gaps between the Nook and its competitors firsthand.

  1. I have no misgivings about that fact; I’m stingy with my money and I am without a job. 

  2. I know about applications like Calibre and yes, some of the EPUB books came with Kindle-compatible files, but these are really not within the purview of this post. 

  3. I didn’t know this until I went to look up an explanation of Special Offers” at Amazon for this post, but Amazon actually allows people who have a Kindle without Special Offers to turn them on selectively. Why would someone opt-in to see ads? 

  4. I don’t read The Verge anymore and haven’t for awhile because of the oddness of their rating system. Of course, the postulation that the two ereaders are comparable in quality could not be further from reality. 

  5. If you know me or this site, I generally do not write reviews of products that I use unless it is because I love them dreadfully. In this case, I was moved to write because of my disappointments, which is abnormal. 

  6. The main reason why I did not opt for the Nook Glowlight was the assumption that I would be able to move from the Nook to the Nook app on an iOS device while retaining my position and supplemental information once the sun went down. This is apparently not the case. 

  7. Coincidentally, I had again become enamored with audiobooks at the time, often owning the text and the audiobook and wanting to be able to move seamlessly back and forth between the two; Amazon must have read my mind. 

post Nook Reading Books Instapaper

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