Remember about 10 years ago, when everyone was talking about the "paperless office"? The idea was that offices wouldn't need to use paper, now that all companies were using the Internet and email. Finally, we would be able to stop killing so many trees and wasting natural resources.
How's that working out?
Today, the refrain is somewhat different, but I expect a similar result. The proliferation of e-readers and their more accomplished big brother, the tablet, will supposedly make physical books disappear. Some have written that physical newspapers and magazines will vanish within the decade.
The e-reader business has generated a lot of positive buzz for a struggling publishing industry, and it's even helped a company near its deathbed show some signs of life. However, I don't believe the physical book is going away. And for Barnes & Noble's
Welcome to Apple's world
To be fair, Barnes & Noble's new NOOKcolor e-reader has been well-received and highly regarded. But there's a big gap between an e-reader like Amazon's Kindle and a tablet like Apple's
Barnes & Noble's new NOOKcolor has stumbled into that no-man's-land, between the pure e-ink experience of the Kindle and the multimedia power of the iPad. Sure, at $249, the NOOKcolor costs about half as much as the entry-level iPad. But consumers looking only for an e-reader can buy a Kindle for $139.
The NOOKcolor combines the worst attributes of these competitors' products. It's not as easy to read as the Kindle or other e-ink readers, and it doesn't come close to the functionality, or even the battery life, of an iPad. Do you think any Barnes & Noble product will be able to compete at that next level with Apple? I sure don't.
Steve Jobs doesn't, either. During Apple's most recent conference call, he called the imminent arrival of middle-of-nowhere seven-inch screen tablets "dead on arrival." The Apple CEO was most likely talking about upcoming tablet releases by closer rivals such as Research In Motion
More disturbing is the increasing competition and industry fragmentation on the horizon. It's expected that at least 50 new tablet devices will debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2011, as well as new products from other manufacturers of dedicated e-readers, such as Sony
Long road to nowhere
I could get more excited about the NOOKcolor if the Barnes & Noble business model were still viable. But the company is not an e-reader or tablet maker: It's a brick-and-mortar retailer on its last legs. Just as the "paperless office" never materialized, I don't believe the bookless world will, either. But that doesn't mean there will still be a need for large brick-and-mortar retailers like Barnes & Noble and Borders
Of course, Amazon isn't naturally a device maker, either -- but it is an innovative and rapidly growing business that will most certainly play an extremely important role in the growth of e-commerce and technology delivery over the next decade. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Barnes & Noble.