Weekend Tech Scan: a tale of 2 readers (digital, of course)

It's down to the wire with the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet delivering their new multimedia ereaders next week

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The Kindle family.

It's down to the wire with the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet delivering their new multimedia ereaders next week

This just in . . . and it stinks. For the thousands of people who plunged down their $300 for the Google TV Logitech Revue, the set top device that was designed to integrate commercial television and the Internet through the magic of Google TV software, the word is now official that Logitech is discontinuing the manufacture of the once-promising system.

Those people (I am one of them) who purchased the cumbersome device at full retail price — now discounted down to $99 — will receive the Google TV 3.0 Honeycomb software update announced by Google less than two weeks ago. But that's it. After this update, the Logitech Revue is an orphaned product.  Whether software updates will be available beyond the one already promised is not known. 

Here's a report from the Los Angeles Times that explains the whole sorry story, including a quote from Logitech's CEO that his company's involvement with Google TV was a $100 million "big mistake." Look for more on this story, especially what could be some nasty legal battles, and perhaps a permanent tarnishing of Google's future television plans.

Moving along to other news, when Amazon announced its $199 7-inch Kindle Fire tablet, speculation was rife about what Barnes & Noble, makers of the surprisingly successful Nook Color, would do. This past week we found out.

Rather than merely presenting a new reader with all the glorious things it can and will do, the company chose to take on a full-on battle with Amazon over their respective readers, delivered combatively, even condescendingly by CEO William Lynch. “We are trying to lead, not follow,” he said while launching a pre-emptive strike about why the Nook Tablet is a better value than the Kindle Fire. It was a reasonable strategy, given that that the Kindle Fire appears to be a marketing juggernaut of Apple-like proportions.

Both devices start shipping next week: the Kindle Fire on Nov. 15; the Nook Tablet on Nov. 17.

Last week, Barnes & Noble teased the press with a mystery invitation to an event this week. The company’s hand was tipped via a leak which made it clear that the company’s big surprise was an upgrade of its Nook Color. Even with the leak, the device, now dubbed the Nook Tablet, had several surprises of its own.

At $249, the device is $50 more expensive than the Kindle Fire, but at a press conference, Lynch made it clear that its strategy was to stress the tablet’s “tablet” features instead of doing a me-too clone of the new Amazon device.

The new Nook resembles the existing color version with its distinctive “loop” on the bottom left, but the device is lighter in weight than the older unit (14.1 oz. vs. 15.8 oz.). More important, it is far more powerful: now featuring a dual-core 1GHz processor (Texas Instruments OMAP 4), 16 gigabytes of internal memory, and up to 32 gb in expandable memory through an SD card add-on. And the claimed battery life is 9 hours for back-to-back video movie watching, and cloud storage.  That memory alone made it serious competition to the Kindle Fire, which has only 6 gb of internal memory and no expansion card.

The Nook now has a microphone, which the earlier Nook Color version lacked, and is lacking in the Kindle Fire. Could Skype or similar service make its way to the Nook Tablet? The mic is for adding your personal voice narration to your children's books, a thoughtful touch, but if users see this device as a tablet, then the voice function could be important for web-based phone calls. As for Bluetooth, the Nook Tablet allegedly has none, although hackers found it built into the earlier device — but not easily accessible.

How would it counter the Kindle Fire with its multimedia apps? By making several leading non-Amazon apps available that also do the job: Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora, among others. It also offered something quite un-Amazon-ish: tech support for the device in all 900-plus Barnes & Noble stores nationwide. The Nook Digital Shop, special kiosks in each store, are being built to support the Nook product line: think of it as an Apple retail store approach to marketing its digital products and you’ll have a better idea of what is happening.

Another sidelight: the now-older Nook Color was easily transformed into a tablet with add-ons such as the $35 N2A card, which enabled owners to convert their Nook Color almost instantly to an Android Gingerbread tablet, running virtually every app in the Android universe. 

If the new tablet is equally convertible, Nook Tablet owners should look at conversion kits such as the N2A card as a safe way to use all the functions of the tablet. Anyone familiar with Apple computers is aware of the built-in Boot Camp function, which lets Mac desktop and laptop computers run both Microsoft AND Apple operating systems simply by choosing one or the other at startup. The N2A card performs roughly the same function for the Nook Color and, hopefully, for the Nook Tablet.  

This too: Both device manufacturers say they will scrutinize the apps available in their respective markets to assure compatibility with their modified Android devices. One translation: there will be somewhat limited apps on each side. With access to a full tablet on the "other" side of the Nook Tablet, users should have a greater choice of apps — perhaps, possibly, access to the full Android Market. 

While much has already been written about the Amazon Kindle Fire and what it can or cannot do (pre-orders reportedly are somewhere in the vicinity of 5 million) a question about third-party apps, software possibly competitive with Amazon's own content offerings, has nagged the blogosphere. It would seem counter-intuitive; after all, this device is an elegantly tooled Amazon marketing machine, designed to cause its owners to spend big bucks on Amazon’s bulging digital store: purportedly 18 million books, movies, TV shows, music, and apps, as well as free storage in the Amazon Cloud.

Surprise, surprise. This week, Amazon announced via a press release that it would indeed offer Netflix, and, in addition, popular apps such as Rhapsody, Pandora, Twitter, Comics by comiXology, Facebook, The Weather Channel and game apps from Zynga, EA, Gameloft, PopCap and Rovio.  The release also mentions roughly a dozen more apps, including Cut The Rope and Doodle Jump.

What the release didn’t make clear is whether these apps would be pre-installed or downloadable from the Amazon App Store: the Fire’s answer to the Android Market. The Android marketplace appears to be personna non grata on the Kindle Fire. Apparently, Amazon is going all-out to compete with the Android Market; any question about the availability of most Android apps will probably be moot as Amazon continues acquiring app rights. I wouldn’t look for too many Google-branded apps such as Google Maps, Google Plus, and other favorites, however.

This being the week before the Kindle Fire release, Amazon also sweetened the pot for potential buyers by also announcing that the Kindle Fire Newsstand will offer over 400 full-color magazines and newspapers from publishers including Condé Nast, Meredith, and Hearst. Free three-month trial subscriptions of 17 Condé Nast magazines, including Vanity Fair and Wired, will be available.

Is the Nook Tablet fearsome enough to beat the Kindle Fire, or even to score significantly against it? Some early reviewers thought so. PC World, emphasizing its tablet qualities, called it “the value tablet to beat.” Then again, while purely anecdotal, a snap poll by ZD Net gave the Kindle Fire a 53 percent to 33 percent edge to the Kindle Fire. ZD Net thinks that Amazon has trumped Barnes & Noble because it is introducing third-party apps and not just offering their own — presumably a feature that the Nook Tablet had over the Kindle Fire. 

Time Magazine calls it a toss-up; I tend to agree, except I believe that Amazon’s marketing muscle and the cheaper cost of the device give Amazon the early edge — until people try it out and see if they’re happy with Amazon’s closed vs. Barnes & Noble’s more hardware-oriented and more open system approach.

Are you in the hunt for either tablet? Could you care less? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts and comments.


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