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10.21.09

Is This the Device That Will Revolutionize Reading?

Yesterday, Barnes and Noble unveiled its e-book reader, the Nook, but despite modern bells and whistles, it's one of the most low-technology concepts that may challenge the primacy of the mighty Kindle.

Barnes & Noble may have found the perfect angle from which to attack Amazon's mighty Kindle. With its new e-book reader, the "Nook," the retail chain is embracing a familiar, low-tech concept: lending a book to a friend.

In an industry first, Nook owners will be able to digitally lend their e-books to a friend's Nook, smartphone, or computer for two weeks. Lending won't be available for every book on the Nook—but it's not offered at all on the Kindle, the reigning champ of e-book readers, which requires users to buy their own individual copies of each book.

The $259 Nook, which Barnes & Noble unveiled yesterday in New York, boasts an impressive feature set that includes a sleek design, wireless capabilities, and a color touchscreen for navigation. For book publishers, however, the Nook's main asset seems to be the fact that it isn't a Kindle.

Features such as book lending have the potential to transform the present relationship between consumers and their e-books.

Larry Kirschbaum, the former head of the Time-Warner Book Group, was quoted by The New York Times saying "people are happy to have a competitor" to Amazon's e-book reader. And why shouldn't they be? Analysts predict that Amazon will sell 1.5 million Kindles this year, dominating the market for e-book readers, and the publishing industry has become suspicious of the online retailer's growing clout.

"Publishers and authors want to make sure there’s healthy competition so that Amazon and Kindle don’t become the equivalent of Apple and iTunes,” Brian Murray, the chief executive of HarperCollins, told Bloomberg earlier this year. "We want to make sure there are a number of successful companies selling e-books on devices."

In its e-book store, Amazon offers most bestsellers for $9.99 (and reportedly pays publishers a few dollars more than that, apparently selling these books at a loss). Publishers fear that Amazon will use its hegemony to dictate even lower prices from them in the future. Enter the Nook: the publishing industry was evidently so eager to see Barnes & Noble field a strong competitor to the Kindle that it agreed to unprecedented new consumer-friendly features that the Kindle doesn't support, like book lending.

It's too early to tell whether the Nook can steal significant market share from the Kindle. The Nook, which is set to ship November 30, will join several other new e-book readers—from electronics giants, like Sony, and also from smaller firms, like IREX—competing vigorously for holiday shopping dollars. It will also contend with a cut-price Kindle, recently reduced to $259, as well as an international edition that works in more than 100 countries. (The Nook is initially being sold only in the U.S.)

But even if the Nook is unable to dethrone the Kindle, it may accomplish something even more important: features such as book lending have the potential to transform the present relationship between consumers and their e-books.

Downloading an e-book on the Kindle has always felt somewhat restricting, more akin to renting a movie than buying a book. There are several reasons for this: You can't resell your books after you've finished reading them. Earlier this summer, Amazon remotely deleted e-books from some users' libraries in the middle of the night. (The company apologized and said it wouldn't happen again.) And you can't lend books to your friends.

By introducing e-book lending to the marketplace, the Nook will have empowered consumers a bit and helped forge a model that's more friendly to users—and ultimately, much closer to the experience of owning a book.

Nicholas Ciarelli is an assistant product manager at The Daily Beast.