If the iPad is the new iPod, is the new Nook an Atari Lynx?

October 29, 2010: 12:43 PM ET

Barnes & Noble decided it had to be first to market with a color e-reader, even if that meant not putting out a perfectly polished device. But in an iPad world, the dedicated e-reader race might not even matter.

When news leaked of the Nook Color, the new e-reader with a color screen from Barnes & Noble (BKS), the hype machine went into overdrive. Pundits frothed at that idea that this could be the holy grail of e-readers: a dedicated reading device with all the current benefits paired with a color screen like the frequently-delayed low-power Mirasol display from Qualcomm (QCOM), that would be every bit as easy to read in the sunlight.

Now we know better. It's an interesting product, but probably not the game-changer some people had hoped for. The Nook will be the first consumer product to have LG's VividView display, an LCD with so-called "full lamination film technology" that the company promises will maximize readability while reducing glare. The whole concept sounded great in theory, but even in an extremely-controlled environment like the dimly-lit fourth floor of the Union Square Barnes and Noble, reflections were still easy enough to see. One B&N employee compared the final viewing experience as being somewhere between glare-free e-ink and the glare-loving gorilla glass of the iPad. In other words: glare! And for every novel feature like say, magazine subscriptions, Pandora, and social media integration, there were also some potential red flags: the 8-hour battery life without WiFI, some OS bugginess, and perhaps most egregious for e-reader owners accustomed to it, no 3G. So, criticism came fast and furious.

But should we be shocked? Not really.

As tech companies have proven time and time again, the "first in class" isn't usually the "best in class." Now, before millions of iPad owners bomb my inbox, remember that Apple's celebrated tablet, like it's iPod several years prior, wasn't actually the first of its kind to hit the scene -- it was merely the first to get things right. (Also, FYI: I'm a proud iPad owner.)

Think about the video game console wars, which worked much the same way. Every few years, a new generation of consoles would hit the scene, in rapid succession. But when the first console in its generation arrived, there was almost always a slow, long adoption curve, which for some consoles, meant oblivion. Remember the Sega Dreamcast, and the Atari Jaguar? How about the original Game Boy or the Atari Lynx? Granted, several basked in success -- the Sega Genesis survived a slow start to become beloved by gamers everywhere -- and some like the critically-acclaimed, but underperforming Dreamcast left their marks on gaming history. But most were an example of a how a company could sabotage itself by putting the desire to be first over the importance of releasing a truly killer product.

It's true that some of the failure of first-mover consoles came from manufacturers' mismanagement of their relationships with developers, either in having new games ready or helping game developers to fully utilize the hardware advances in the new system. But it's also true that when a console maker nailed a system -- think Nintendo and the original PlayStation -- they hardly had to beg developers to learn and write games for their system. Again, as in the digital music world, Apple (AAPL) didn't have to twist many arms (or twist them very hard) to get record companies to adopt the iTunes Music Store thanks to its being a conduit into the wildly popular iPod. In that frame, it's hard to see what the Nook's nailed here.

The same paradigm goes for the iPad and its relationship to Android tablets -- the iPad is such a good device, the Nook's only chance at competing over the long haul is if Android-based tablets really take off, allowing the Nook to thrive as part of that ecosystem. Yet Barnes & Noble will apparently retain final approval rights over what Android apps it allows to run on the Nook, potentially limiting that fringe benefit of being an Android device. That could be necessary, to insure only apps that run well on the device and its 7-inch screen are approved, but it could also foil Nook users from partaking in, and getting hooked on, the full Android experience.

There is one tack the Nook can emulate from video game makers: Lately, companies like Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft (MSFT) have also gone back to successful current-generation products still on the market and improved them. Sony and Microsoft released slimmer, cheaper, more power-conscious versions of their Sony Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 within the last 12 months. And Nintendo? Well, it's safe to call it "iterative king," having released countless editions of its classic Game Boy: the Game Boy pocket, the Game Boy Color, the Game Boy Advance, the Game Boy Micro, and so on in numerous colors and limited editions.

Just as those companies have done, we're probably likely to see several iterations of the Nook Color. Perhaps one way to answer Apple's monolithic slab is for Barnes & Noble to relentlessly update and upgrade the Nook. When asked at the launch event this past Tuesday, Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch didn't discount the possibility of releasing a 3G version somewhere down the line. He also said improved color-screen technologies like Mirasol, for example, won't be ready for mass production until late 2011.

How much do you want to bet we'll see a "new-and-improved Nook" color around then? But there is an almost inevitable conclusion to the Nook's tablet battle: If all it boasts by 2011-12 is 3G, a robust app store, improved battery life, and a bigger, better screen, won't it pretty much look like a circa 2010 iPad?

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About This Author
JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

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