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Rumor: Did B&N Pass on a Chance to Make a 6.8″ Nook Glow HD?

Meet the Nook Aura HD

Meet the Nook Aura HD

The most interesting rumor crossed my desk today. According to a source I trust, Kobo wasn’t the first ereader maker to express an interest in the 6.8″ HD E-ink screen used in the Kobo Aura HD.

I have been told that Barnes & Noble was the first company to be interested in the screens, but then they changed their minds. They passed on buying the initial production run, giving Kobo a chance to step in and buy all 300,000 screen units.

Update: Now that I have the Aura HD in hand I am convinced the rumor is true.

My source was quite firm on both the number of screens made and the fact that B&N passed on buying them. I have not been able to verify either part of the rumor, but I do have a few facts to flesh it out.

E-ink makes the screen (obviously), and in the case of the 6.8″ screen E-ink can assemble the entire combined unit (frontlight, touchpanel, and E-ink screen) and sell the screen as a unit to Kobo or anyone who wants to buy. E-ink tells me that this screen is in production at the moment and that it is available to Kobo’s competitors.

On a related note, this ereader showed up on the FCC website in March and was originally tested in February of this year. No, I didn’t see it at the time and I am still kicking myself for that.

Assuming this rumor is true, when do you think B&N decided to pass on the screen?

Here’s my speculation.

First, I find this rumor plausible because Kobo doesn’t do Spring launches; the Aura HD launch came as a shock. Also, Kobo released their newest devices only 7 or 8 months ago so releasing another new device this soon was a double surprise.

But as for B&N, this could not have been the screen that B&N wanted on the Nook Glow; that was far too long ago. That ereader would have had to have been finalized in February or March 2012 so it could hit the market in May 2012.

That suggests this 6.8″ screen would have had to have been intended for the next model, and I think I can show that B&N would have been interested. Last Fall B&N revealed a marked interest in cutting edge screen tech. The Nook HD had a higher resolution 7″ screen than anything on the market. Ask any reviewer and they’ll say that it’s biggest issue was the B&N lock-in, but other than that it had all around impressive hardware. What if B&N was planning for their next ereader to be similarly impressive?

If you find that plausible then I’m sure you’d agree it’s entirely possible that B&N was also quietly funding the development of a high resolution E-ink screen in preparation for a Spring launch.

We didn’t see that screen last Fall because B&N has a policy of only releasing new Nook ereaders in the Spring (May or June). That’s when they released the Nook Touch and when they released the Nook Glow. Furthermore, this policy was confirmed to me at the Nook HD launch event last year.

Only now I don’t think they will – not this year.

It’s my guess that, assuming this rumor is true, B&N passed on the 6.8″ screen as a result of the disastrous holiday season. Take this a step further and we see that they might no longer be investing in new hardware.

To be completely honest, I hope this is not true. A new cutting edge ereader would have changed public opinion about B&N and it could have revitalized the Nook platform.

But is this rumor true? I don’t know, but I tend to think it is. It just fits too well with the facts I do have, though I cannot prove the connection.

I contacted both E-ink and Kobo, and held this post until I heard from one of the companies. E-ink sent me a politely phrased no comment (and answered some technical questions), which I won’t quote here.

Kobo has yet to respond. TBH, Kobo has only responded to my press queries twice since July 2012 (I’m not kidding), so I was not surprised to be ignored once more.

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Logan Kennelly April 18, 2013 um 5:54 pm

"A new cutting edge ereader would have changed public opinion about B&N and it could have revitalized the Nook platform."

They’ve been releasing new, cutting edge eReaders all along. Why should they expect different results this time?

I’m not sure what B&N’s plan is, but reducing investment in the hardware (which is, frankly, probably as good as needed for another year or more) is probably not a bad thing. Promote their brand through sales, improve the entire Nook platform, and show commitment to Nook through software updates. If the market for eReaders has largely dried up (as it appears to have done), then focus on making your existing customers happy with their purchase through continual improvements (which is cheaper than doing so and investing in new hardware) and new customers will arrive based on that positive image.

I do also wish B&N had gone the Kobo route and simply used the Play market. While I appreciate that B&N now officially allows sideloading of applications, what I really want is a top-notch e-Reader that can easily tie into the content I’ve purchased for my phone.

A larger, sharper e-Ink reader is interesting, but it appears (just based on what is selling) that many people are coming to accept high-quality LCDs as an alternative, and B&N already has a large-screen reader to offer.

fjtorres April 18, 2013 um 6:43 pm

The market for ereaders may or not have dried up in the US but not in the second-tier countries where ebook adoption is now reaching mainstream levels (UK) or the third tier that seem headed that way (UK, Spain, italy, brazil, etc).
If B&N takes that tack then they are deciding against being a global ereader player.
Which may not be totally bad if they at least try to be a global *ebook* player but it would be a big step away from their hardware-driven walled-garden approach.
It would be them retrenching to the original Fictionwise model…

Logan Kennelly April 18, 2013 um 6:56 pm

Sorry, you are correct in that I was speaking of the US only.

I still don’t think that B&N’s current devices will be considered insufficient for reading for a while yet. Investing into the platform and demonstrating support for the existing devices should be sufficient for growing countries, as well. I’m not sure how consumer electronics work in those countries, but I wouldn’t expect a current-generation eReader to be considered outdated until 18–24 months out.

flyingtoastr April 18, 2013 um 6:56 pm

BN ereaders are easily the most permissive of the major brands, allowing ADEPT DRM, their own social DRM, and non-DRM in standardized formats.

There’s no "walled garden" to speak of, you’re confusing them with your buddies at Amazon.

fjtorres April 18, 2013 um 7:15 pm

Amazon is no buddy of mine.
They are at most occasional paid servants. 😉

And considering Nook books are only readable with N00k hardware or apps and they make no effort to reach out to owners of other readers… well, that’s a walled garden business model.

flyingtoastr April 18, 2013 um 7:24 pm

Again (and again and again), BN Social DRM eBooks and be unlocked through ADE like any other ADEPT EPUB file.

Stop FUDing.

Logan Kennelly April 18, 2013 um 9:31 pm

flyingtoastr is right. To say they didn’t "reach out" is a flat-out lie. They took the technology they acquired from Fictionwise, gave it to Adobe, and, as far as I can tell, Adobe doesn’t charge separate fees for the different DRM mechanisms. That major manufacturers have often refused to support this new format isn’t the fault of B&N. Many applications support both the old server-based DRM and B&N’s server-less DRM (Aldiko works great).

There have, in fact, been eReader hardware releases that fully support the latest RMSDK, but I think Sony, the biggest competitor in the U.S., decided they didn’t like the competition.

That isn’t to say it’s all rosy. Applications, advanced eBooks (like their children’s books and Page Perfect), and possibly movies are pretty locked down. B&N also has (had? I haven’t checked lately) this annoying habit of storing eBooks outside user-accessible space. It was easy enough to download the book from the web site, but it seemed like a very unnecessary step. Nook for Windows 8 still doesn’t allow sideloading of any kind.

Nate Hoffelder April 18, 2013 um 10:00 pm

I think the newer DRM was a flub on the part of Adobe, not B&N.

Adobe gave it to B&N first and by the time that everyone else got it no one wanted to use it with their ebookstores. There were too many ereaders that didn’t have it. And since stores weren’t using it there was no reason to put it on new ereaders.

It resulted in a vicious cycle that isolated B&N DRM. Yes, there are a few apps that support the newer DRM: Bluefire, Aldiko, and others. But you will have to agree that there is a general conception of B&N DRM as mutant DRM. It doesn’t matter whether it is completely true.

Does anyone know if Kobo supports the newer DRM?

flyingtoastr April 18, 2013 um 10:23 pm

Kobo doesn’t support the on-device Social unlock like a NOOK does, but you can sideload a BN ebook through ADE and it will authorize just as it would with any other ADEPT EPUB.

fjtorres April 19, 2013 um 8:31 am

What I’m talking about is what B&N/Nook does and how *they* work, not what adobe or a hobbyist somewhere might do with their products.
B&N locks down their hardware and they fight rooting, their ebookstore makes no effort to sell to other ebook readers anymore than Apple or Amazon.
And tey have relied on their hardware and proprietary apps to drive adoption of their ebookstore.
That is a walled garden business model.
That is no lie, but observed fact.
The generic bookstores like BoB (RIP), Fictionwise, Google, Sony, and to a lesser extent Kobo are built around Adobe and ADEPT but B&N purposefully focused their ebook sales on their "mutant" DRM. That they did *themselves*.
They never tried to sell ebooks to anybody but Nook users.
That users of other devices might buy books from them is as relevant to the Nook operations as the fact that owners of epub readers buy ebooks from Kindle and then convert and sideload to their readers. That is *not* how their business is built.
I stand by the statement: B&N has never tried to sell their ebooks to non-Nook customers.
(except for early on when they licensed their app to PanDigital, which they promptly stopped doing. A statement of intent right there.)

Hacking and workarounds are not part of the business model; they are as relevant to the business model as rooting Nooks to install the Kindle android app. You might as well say that Nook reaches out to Kindle users!

If hacking and workarounds count, then *nobody* (except apple) has a walled garden business model because the Calibre plug-ins allow any format ebook to be sideloaded to anything.

flyingtoastr April 19, 2013 um 8:48 am

You do understand that sideloading through ADE is the only way you can use EPUB files with ADEPT DRM on most EPUB devices, right? If I have a NOOK and want to put a Kobo eBook on the device you need to do the exact same process as you would if you have a Kobo and want to put a BN eBook on it.

So if you consider that a "workaround", then every. single. vendor. has a walled garden. All of them – BN, Kobo, Sony, BOB, Fictionwise – if they sell a DRM’d copy of the ebook you’re going to have to use the same method to read it.

And again, all of this pales in comparison to Amazon’s legitimate walled garden, so your point is still moot.

DavidB April 24, 2013 um 6:46 pm

Hmmm… I find the Kobo units be be equally if not more permissive (standard Adobe epub and Adobe DRM epubs) plus pdf, mobi, cbz/cbr, etc. Their newer ereaders also have their updated rendering engine which supports many ePub3 features including text direction. This was probably pushed by their move into the Japanese market and purchase by Rakuten. If you are happy with multiple flavours of DRM, Kobo does support their own DRM for .kepub.epub books purchased from their bookstore. On another hand, that bookstore is happy to sell you a standard Adobe DRM .epub version that can used with any device supporting Adobe DRM.

However, I will admit that as a Canadian, I am prejudiced against B&N. A few years back, their support for customers outside the USA was, at best, non-existent and, at worst, actively hostile. One of my collection of brothers-in-law learned this when he moved back to Canada after spending a couple of years in San Jose and attempted to change his billing address for his account to a Canadian address. I don’t know if this has changed for the better but nothing I’ve heard about B&N makes me optimistic about such a change.

fjtorres April 18, 2013 um 7:24 pm

That rumor is interesting and it kinda smacks of truth.
The number of screens and the timing of the intro suggests eink was counting on Nook (the only player that does spring introductions) to do yet another spring intro and had to scramble to find a taker for the screens instead of letting them accumulate in a warehouse.
And it explains the "limited edition" aspect since Kobo does fall intros, so they are most likely to do a re-launch with a tweaked design for a proper fall intro *if* they choose to keep such a product in their fall line-up.

The one thing I have to wonder is whether eink was building those screen purely on spec or if maybe they had an order from Nook that got cancelled. 300K units is a bit too big a batch to be cranking out purely on spec…

As I said: interesting rumor.

Nate Hoffelder April 18, 2013 um 9:13 pm

Oh, were you surprised by the timing of the Aura launch as well? I wasn’t expecting anything from Kobo until this Fall. I had been keeping my eyes peeled for info about new Nook devices, not Kobo.

fjtorres April 18, 2013 um 10:58 pm

I don’t think anybody expected anything from any of the big boys during the low season; the industry isn’t shaping that way. That is why the rumor rings true, it makes the Aura a target of opportunity. For all we know Kobo got the screens on consignment… 🙂

Phil Olynyk April 18, 2013 um 8:24 pm

As a Canadian, I’m just as happy that B&N passed on this screen and Kobo picked it up. I was seriously considering a Kobo Glo, but now I think I’ll get this one.

@FlyingToasr: As long as B&N only sells in the USA, it’s a walled garden.

yuzutea April 18, 2013 um 9:40 pm

Interesting rumor. If it’s true, maybe B&N will not introduce any new e-ink readers this year. I think it’s unlikely they’ll introduce new tablets, because of how badly the current ones appear to be doing.

What I’m really curious about is what Amazon will do. I don’t think high res will attract many in the USA outside of the enthusiasts.

Jeff April 18, 2013 um 9:41 pm

I’m ditching Amazon for the Aura. I had a nightmare of a time with the KPW going thru 9 of them before I have a screen that was just "acceptable" to me. To the point where even there great CS basically told me "no more returns". I originally had the Nook glowlight and have always liked B&N and its B&M stores. I think with little hope in a future for B&N, I like the idea of Kobo coming out with this, what I’d call, perfect spec e-reader. What I find interesting is that the review’s that Kobo uses on their site are from GoodReads, and didn’t Amazon just buy GoodReads?

carmen webster buxton April 18, 2013 um 9:55 pm

Maybe they’re just disillusioned about hardware? Giving away e-ink Nooks to folks who buy Nook tablets doesn’t suggest they’re seeing a lot of e-ink sales.

fjtorres April 18, 2013 um 11:24 pm

At least not the STRs.
The Glo seems to have sold well enough.

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Void April 19, 2013 um 2:30 pm

I still wish that Kobo would get the file table in reasonable order so you could use Calibre without the hoops. It’s better than B&N (no file table access at all) or Amazon (hard reset every time to update filetable), but still not as simple as Sony. Sony, however, hasn’t really put out anything good recently (the cuniform buttons on the T2 are abominable).

I also want page turn buttons for when my hands are too dirty to touch the screen, or I would consider the kobo. I’ll stick with my PRS350, it’s the best of both worlds for now.

Anonymous (e-)Reader April 19, 2013 um 11:20 pm

Ah, but you missed out on asking your source the most important question: is the substrate used for this run of screens glass or plastic? Given the propensity of large format e-readers with glass screens to crack, I’d think that this is far more critical for the world to know.

Nate Hoffelder April 20, 2013 um 12:10 am

Good point. I will follow up.

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