Barnes and Noble's Nook as Low-Cost Android Tablet Raises Questions

Barnes & Noble's Nook has new features that make it into more of a low-cost Android tablet. Will that change the competition with Amazon's Kindle franchise?

Barnes & Noble announced April 25 a bevy of new features for its Nook e-reader, including email and Flash support. That makes the full-color Nook as much a tablet as an e-reader, but whether that boosts the device's competitive prospects against Amazon's Kindle remains to be seen.

Months ago, tech enthusiasts figured out how to hack the Nook and transform it into a full Android tablet. In early February, the tech Website Ars Technica even posted handy instructions on how to do so, complete with links to the Nookie Froyo project-described as "a community-driven effort to build a stock Android 2.2 environment that is tailored to the Nook Color hardware-as well as another effort to bring the tablet-optimized Android 3.0 (code-named "Honeycomb") to the e-reader.

The Nook retails for $249, far cheaper than the Android tablets on the market. That helps explain the appeal in transforming the 7-inch device into something broader than an e-reader. However, even as the Web chattered with information about how to "root" the Nook and turn it into a bargain-basement tablet, various Websites cautioned that doing so would potentially void the warranty.

"If your Nook Color explodes during experimentation, you're free to pursue a life of amoral crime and misdirected acts of vengeance against society," Ars Technica wrote in its February breakdown. "Just don't blame us or the Nook Color development community."

Somewhere along the way, either because of the evident interest or simply out of a need to differentiate its offering from Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble decided to officially meet that community halfway. Even if the aforementioned features don't magically transform the Nook into a muscular competitor to the Motorola Xoom or Apple iPad, they certainly offer reasons for even the most reading-adverse to take a second look at the device.

Specifically, the new features include access to 125 apps ranging from Angry Birds to Sudoku, enhanced video and audio for certain titles, enhancements to magazine navigation, and a social-networking app that lets readers swap books and recommendations. There's also an app that consolidates Web-based email into a single in-box, and support for Adobe Flash Player. Barnes & Noble plans to make the update (Version 1.2.0) available over the next week as an automatic download, according to a note on the Nook Website.

"These and other enhancements, plus new ways for adults and children to experience exciting content, make Nook Color a great alternative to paying double the price-or more-for an expensive tablet," William Lynch, Barnes & Noble's CEO, wrote in an April 25 statement.

Whether or not the Nook proves viable as an Android tablet competitor, the newest update suggests Barnes & Noble is veering away from competing directly with Amazon's Kindle, which continues to emphasize the e-reading experience over expanding its possible features. That's not to say the online retailer, which dominates the e-reader market, isn't bringing new functionality to the Kindle platform: On April 20, the company announced a Kindle Library Lending feature, due later in 2011, which will allow readers to borrow Kindle ebooks from more than 11,000 libraries in the United States. Amazon is also seeking to broaden Kindle adoption with an ad-supported device that retails for $114, slightly cheaper than the basic Kindle at $139 and the Kindle 3G at $189.

Of course, Barnes & Noble positioning the Nook as more of a low-cost tablet raises its own questions. Will Flash Player support and apps such as Angry Birds affect the device's advertised eight-hour battery life? Will customers prefer more expensive, powerful tablets running Android 3.0? Will Barnes & Noble find itself forced to boost the hardware in order to accommodate customer demand for more tabletlike functionality-along with the price?

The answers to those questions will determine the Nook's place in both the e-reader and tablet worlds.