Amazon’s Strange Lack of eReader Leadership

This rather fanciful depiction shows the new Barnes & Noble Simple Touch with Glowscreen

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Amazon, and I love the Kindle.  Indeed, I own three of them.

I have a great deal of respect for the company, and for all the innovation and creativity it has consistently provided in every respect since its founding in 1994.

One of the finest expressions of Amazon’s innovation and creative was formerly the Kindle – its flagship product, the one which founder Jeff Bezos has said is the key to Amazon’s future success.  When Amazon first released its original Kindle in November 2007, it took a moribund and largely ignored concept – eBooks – and singlehandedly transformed it with a huge corporate marketing push, even to the point of happily selling eBooks at a loss so as to encourage greater marketplace acceptance.

Amazon’s release of the Kindle saw a very fast response from Sony, which quickly slashed its formerly way-over-the-top pricing on its eBooks and started dropping prices on its readers too.  Most of us probably didn’t even know that prior to the Kindle, Sony had an eBook reader, which was however languishing neglected and rarely promoted or sold; indeed, as a sad reflection on Sony, most of us still don’t know about Sony’s eReaders.

Amazon largely had the market to itself for two years, until Barnes & Noble released its Nook eReader in November 2009.  The first Nook was not a very good product, but B&N deserved kudos for an attempt at thinking outside the box and by trying to come out with something more than just another ‘me too’ eInk powered eBook reader, the same as other companies were releasing.

Their first Nook had an eInk main screen and a small color touchscreen underneath which was the primary input device.  This represented two innovations – color, and a touch screen.  While the unit was problematic (and, some would say, ugly) B&N soldiered on, resolved the problems of the device, and pressed on forwards.

Amazon brought out its second Kindle at about the same time the Nook appeared.  This was an improved slimmed down eReader, but it had neither any color nor any touch screen capabilities.

This marked the start of an amazing thing that has continued to this present day, and which promises to continue into the foreseeable future, too.  At just about every turn, little Barnes & Noble, the financially struggling bricks & mortar bookstore, has been delivering better and more innovative eBook readers to the market than has Amazon.

For example, in November 2010, B&N brought out a fully color screen Nook reader, with a larger and higher resolution and color screen, beating the Kindle on all three points.

It was not until September 2011 before Amazon had a Kindle with a touch screen interface – an appalling omission, because ever since the release of the iPad (in April 2010) the essential interface for any sort of portable screen device had become a touch screen.

The Nook Color was notable for another thing as well.  It was not just an eBook reader.  It was a reasonably fully-fledged Android tablet computer, capable of many other things, and capable of running other Android software too.

Rumors came and went like crazy about Amazon’s response to variously the iPad, the Nook Color, and tablets in general, but it was only in September 2011 that Amazon released its Kindle Fire – its own color Android based tablet, and – at last – an eInk type touch screen Kindle too.

In many – but not all – respects, the Kindle Fire was better than the Nook Color, but not for long.  B&N announced the Nook Tablet in November 2011, and then in February 2012 announced a second less expensive Nook Tablet too.

Although rumor is now floating about new Kindle products – indeed, there has always been rumor and wishful thinking about Kindle devices – what is fact is not what Amazon may release in the future, but what B&N are continuing to release, right now.

Barnes & Noble has now released a new version of its eInk reader that contains a simple but brilliant (both literally and metaphorically) enhancement.  Unlike regular tablet screens which are self-illuminating, eInk screens do not have any built in illumination.  You can only read them if there is light from some other source to shine on the screen.

So the new Nook Simple Touch eReader adds some LEDs to selectively illuminate the screen.  You can turn them on if you need the screen lit up – for example, if you are reading late at night in bed and don’t want your partner to be bothered by the main room light being on.  If you don’t need the light, turn the LEDs off and save on battery life.

Rumors suggest Amazon will be releasing a Kindle with LED lighting too – possibly in July.  Rumors also suggest that Amazon will be releasing a new improved Kindle Fire, perhaps at the same time.  Other rumors suggest that Elvis Presley is still alive.

Our point is simply this.  Barnes & Noble has beat Amazon to the punch repeatedly.  It was the first with a touch screen interface, the first with a color screen display, the first with a 7″ screen, the first with a higher res screen, the first with an Android powered semi-tablet device, and now it is again the first with an LED lit eInk screen.

Amazon, for all its massive profits and corporate focus on its Kindle, seems unable to keep up with B&N’s innovation.  Why?

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