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Why B&N Can’t Ever Catch Up to Amazon #2: Usability

5682457062_9616768d12[1]Barnes & Noble is probably going to share bad news tomorrow when they release their latest quarterly financial report. I am expecting to hear that Nook sales were poor, and given the general poor financial state and the recent news that B&N CEO Len Riggio has plans to sever the retail stores from the rump of the company, it seems likely that Nook is going to be dead soon.

Today I came across what could be another lesson in why and how Barnes & Noble ran this promising platform into the ground. Not only was B&N incapable of supporting the Nook with decent customer service, according to one librarian the Nook platform is generally difficult to use.

Daniel Messer is the Web Content Manager for the Maricopa County Library District, and for the past month and a half he has been running beginner’s ereader classes at the various branch libraries of the MCLD. He’s been teaching patrons how to get library ebooks on to their new ereader or tablet, and he has special feelings for the Nook. Those feelings would be loathing, disgust, and hatred:

In the last two months, I’ve spent close to 30 hours doing nothing but eReader instruction. I’ve seen them all. I’ve worked on tablets from Apple, Google, Amazon, Polaroid, and some unnamed manufacturer with offices in North Korea. After all, Android runs on everything. I’ve seen eInk devices from Amazon, B&N, Sony, Aluratek, and so on. I’ve helped people install OverDrive Media Console on their phones, computers, and tablets. Pretty soon, I could help people set up library eReading and digital download services on their refrigerators.

In all of that, one set of devices stood above the mad crowds of tech in terms of bad usability, lousy user experience, platform instability, and being generally harder to use than anything else.


Mr Messer goes on to point out that while the iPad, Kindle Fire, or your average Android tablet would require 5, maybe 10 minutes to install the Overdrive app and get ebooks, trying to get ebooks on to the Nook takes a minimum of half an hour.

His overall description of the B&N and their Nook customers is rather graphic, but not too dissimilar from the complaints I have heard about B&N’s customer service.

My Nook sessions displayed for me a relationship between Barnes & Noble and their customers that’s about as healthy as the one between Rihanna and Chris Brown. In both cases, I see someone getting abused and going back for more. In each case, each Nook suffered problems I never had with any other device.

The first problem that Mr Messer encounters with Nooks is that in spite of the fact that B&N has an automatic update, he often encounters Nooks that have never been updated.  This might not always be an issue but it can often throw a spanner in the works, In the case of the Nook tablet family he says it can also block the Overdrive app from installing correctly. He also faults the Nook Touch for having a poor browser.

One of his chief complaints is that the Nook and ADE integration works worse than with any other ereader that uses Adobe DE DRM:

Then there’s the interaction with Adobe Digital Editions. With all the other devices, ADE is handled somewhat gracefully in the background (as is the case with the OverDrive app on iOS or Android) or completely avoided (Kindles don’t use ADE). Meanwhile, over on the Nook side of things Nook arrives home early to find its wife in bed with ADE and, rather than being outraged, tries to make a threesome out of it.

Now, I will point out that he could be blaming the Nook platform for problems caused by Adobe DE, but he still has a point about the issues that B&N introduced when they went with their own mutant form of DRM.

And to be perfectly honest, B&N is the one major ereader hardware platform that did poorly this holiday season. Amazon and Kobo reported good news and great news, respectively, while B&N admitted several weeks ago that their sales were down.

Don’t you wonder if customers were buying and returning Nooks because they were too difficult to use, or maybe passing on the hardware because of complaints they heard from friends and relatives?

There has to be some explanation for why B&N Nook failed, and I think this could be one of them. Does anyone else have similar reports of the Nooks being uniquely more difficult to use?

Anyone who has used or supported more than one ereader at a time and can contrast the usability can probably tell me if the complaints described above are off base. I want to hear what you think – librarians, teachers, and owners of multiple ereaders especially.

What do you think?


image by lib-girl

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carmen webster buxton February 27, 2013 um 3:52 pm

I know avid readers who love their Nook e-ink models, but I confess I don’t think any of them try to read library books on them.

I have heard a few people with iPads say they never use the Nook app because the Kindle store is much better than the Nook store.

Razvan T. Coloja February 27, 2013 um 4:24 pm

I have a Nook classic and wouldn’t change it for any other reader. I have no complaints regarding it.

kindle owner February 27, 2013 um 4:33 pm

He’s probably right about most things he says about Nooks, but I don’t think you can fault the Nook Simple Touch for having a bad browser. If you’re buying an e-ink reader for it’s browser capabilities, you’re doing it wrong. I’d blame the library for requiring a browser to connect to wifi, which is just silly.

Mike Cane February 27, 2013 um 6:08 pm

>>>He also faults the Nook Touch for having a poor browser.

What he said above. They closed the damn browser off in a Touch update. So even trying to use it is going again the functionality of the device itself. His credibility was shot when he brought up that.

Frank Skornia February 28, 2013 um 1:36 am

The problem that comes up is when you try to connect the device to a wifi network that requires some form of authentication – even if it’s a click-thru page acknowledging terms of service or seeing an ad from the providers of the network. Think about how often you need to do those when connecting to a hotel wifi network. Without some form of interface (Kindle does it through its browser I know), you can’t properly connect to the network with the device.

Mike Cane February 28, 2013 um 9:21 am

Exactly so. That’s why it’s in there. But they’ve otherwise blocked it off as a browser qua browser.

fjtorres February 27, 2013 um 4:43 pm

Usability is one aspect of the elephant.
But I don’t think we can attribute all of Nook’s problems to it. If nothing else because, until recently, Nook was generally believed to be a solid second to Kindle in the US. Usabiliity wasn’t a barrier to them getting up to (a claimed) 26% of ebook sales back in 2011. And while Kindle has gotten significantly better since then, raising the bar and perhaps making Nook pale in comparison, Nook’s core problems seem to be primarily financial–their inability to break even on a quarter of the US market–rather than lack of sales in absolute terms.
I suspect usability is a big part of the problem but so is customer service, the quality of the shopping experience, their reliance on low-ball hardware pricing, and the timing of their new product releases among many other documented issues. And then there are the undocumented but suspected issues. 😉
My own experience with the Nook app for android is that it is adequate enough (barely) but far from my top choice for epub reading.
And it is most definitely inferior to Overdrive’s app, which has been steadily and dramatically improved over the last year or so. In fact, when it comes to reading, the recent Overdrive release is comparable to Aldiko and Bluefire. Where it needs a lot of work is in managing content. Admitedly a non-issue if you only use it for library ebooks but the reading experience is good enough that with a decent bookshelf module it could replace most of the third-party epub apps this side of Coolreader.

It may be that Nook is simply failing to keep up with the improving competition…

flyingtoastr February 27, 2013 um 4:45 pm

The procedure to transfer library books via ADE is EXACTLY the same between any EPUB reader. You still need that laptop with ADE configured to get your library books to a Kobo. Hell, you still need a computer to get library books on a damn Kindle. So his complaint that NOOKs somehow require more work ("Did you bring your computer with ADE installed on it? No? Then you’re hosed." – substitute for any EPUB reader) are completely without base.

Blame Adobe for their incredibly terrible DRM services that require you to run the files through an awful computer program.

And the NOOK tablet devices (from the aging NOOK color to the HD series) all have the capability to download and run the Overdrive Media Console and 3M Cloud Library apps that are identical to every other Android release. So if he can "get a refrigerator" to do it, it should be child’s play to set up.

And no, this isn’t why NOOK is having problems. But you gotta get your daily BN bashing in, right Nate? Especially when Amazon majorly fucked up this morning.

Nate Hoffelder February 27, 2013 um 4:57 pm

B&N is going to announce bad news tomorrow. Someone’s griping about how he finds the Nook difficult to use is topical, not Nook-bashing.

If you want to read some bashing, I could post my B&N drinking song. It’s based on 99 bottles of beer on the wall.

Ingo Lembcke February 28, 2013 um 3:43 am

> The procedure to transfer library books via ADE is EXACTLY the same between any EPUB reader. You still need that laptop with ADE configured to get your library books to a Kobo.

I can buy books with DRM from most shops on my Sony PRS-T1 without needing to configure a computer, with DRM – granted the Sony has the normal Adobe DRM (as does the Kobo imho), so where is difference in lending library books that you need a computer for the Non-Nook-ePub-Reader?

That being said, I rate the browser on the Sony very usable, so maybe that is the main difference.

flyingtoastr February 27, 2013 um 5:14 pm

Your reply button still isn’t working correctly.

The author goes at length to whine about having to configure ADE, and somehow concludes that the NST is the only device that you have to go through it with ("With ALL the other devices, ADE is handled somewhat gracefully in the background"). This is patently and provably false, and you yourself know better.

It is entirely a result of Adobe’s ancient DRM schema that requires authorization through a computer program, and has nothing at all to do with BN. The NOOK devices connect to ADE just as well as any other, and the procedures are the same for NOOKs and any other EPUB reader. I’m not sure if the author is just ignorant and hasn’t had any readers outside of Kindles and NOOKs, but it is something that is completely out of BN’s hands.

And none of this has to do with "BN’s mutant DRM". In fact, if Overdrive used a social DRM like BN’s there wouldn’t be any of this problem – the DRM encoded on the ebook file would already be set up for the device and ready to go with a simple sideload (or OTA transfer, at that point).

Mike Cane February 27, 2013 um 6:10 pm

>>>“BN’s mutant DRM”

I’m sending Nate a DMCA Notice to take down your comment for using my trademark without permission. Ha!

fjtorres February 27, 2013 um 5:16 pm

Uh, the guy expicitly stated that ADE (for libraries) with Nook was worse than ADE with anything else. With a disturbing metaphor, too. 😉
Hard to blame Adobe for that.

fjtorres February 27, 2013 um 5:18 pm

…make that "explicitly".
BTW, the drinking song might come in handy tomorrow night.

flyingtoastr February 27, 2013 um 5:20 pm

Read the list again:

"With all the other devices, ADE is handled somewhat gracefully in the background (as is the case with the OverDrive app on iOS or Android) or completely avoided (Kindles don’t use ADE)."

ADE does not run in the background of a Kobo or a Sony or a Onyx or what have you. All of them still require you to run the book through ADE on a computer to authorize a library loan book. In the exact same method a NOOK requires.

So either he’s never used anything but a NOOK, Kindle, or LCD tablet – or he has no idea what he’s talking about.

Mike Cane February 27, 2013 um 6:11 pm

>>>or he has no idea what he’s talking about.

Given that he brought up the damn browser that’s been walled off, I tend to believe that choice.

flyingtoastr February 27, 2013 um 6:14 pm

When you try to connect to a WiFi hotspot that has an authorization page the web browser automatically pulls up.

Swing and a miss!

fjtorres February 27, 2013 um 6:25 pm

You do realize Mr Cane is on you side on this one, right? 😀

Nate Hoffelder February 27, 2013 um 6:41 pm

Are you sure the web browser is completely gone?

A search for "Nook touch web browser" brings up results that show it is still accessible on the Nook Touch. The Nook Glow seems to have one as well.

Mike Cane February 27, 2013 um 9:35 pm

Nope. Having a damn page come up for WiFi access is NOT browsing.

Tim Wilhoit February 27, 2013 um 5:26 pm

I have a Sony T1 and ADE is integrated with Sony’s software. You can download library books to the device without ever touching a USB cable.

The Rodent February 27, 2013 um 5:29 pm

Sounds a bit too harsh on the Nook, to me. I use one e-ink and one color, and have no problems loading books from Amazon, B&N, Gutenberg. Oh, right, I’m not trying to borrow e-books from a library or labor under draconian DRM… My biggest complaint about the Nook is that highlighting is sort of broken. (I.e., it doesn’t actually highlight what you think it will highlight, based on your selection.) And you apparently can’t add fonts to it, but the built-in fonts have inexcusably weak support for other languages. Kobo does much better.

Tyler February 27, 2013 um 5:51 pm

I think that the Nook HD is a fantastic ereader but that is all it is an ereader. No one is buying them to be just an ereader. The Kindle Fire and HD has come along and taken a huge chunk of the market that the Nook Color started. With all of Amazon’s extras right out of the shoot, it is a better buy. Barnes and Noble messed up when they did not have a media division last year to stream movies. When they introduced the Nook HD this year, they only had a handful of movies which paled significantly next to the Kindle Fire HD.

If you factor that in and the higher price that it probably cost Barnes and Noble to manufacture the Nook HD they certainly were not going to sell as many.

Next is the Paperwhite which probably destroyed the Nook Glowlight sales. The two do not even compare. The Paperwhite has such a better display. The Nook with the light on is just annoying to look at.

Best Buy while having both were obviously pushing Kindles over Nooks. I saw that every time I went into Best Buy last Christmas. Who knows how many Nooks that Target or Walmart could have sold but it is not like the stacks and stacks of Kindle Fires I saw at Best Buy.

Mike Cane February 27, 2013 um 6:12 pm

>>>I think that the Nook HD is a fantastic ereader but that is all it is an ereader.

Um, maybe that’s because B&N is, you know, a bookstore?

fjtorres February 27, 2013 um 6:22 pm

The sad thing is Nook has access to an excellent music and video streaming/download service through their partnership with Microsoft. All they had to do is offer to share some of the revenue from "my precious".

pidgeon92 February 27, 2013 um 7:10 pm

I bought a book from B&N a year or so back that I attempted to read on their app for iPad. The chapters were *in the wrong order*. I kid you not. When I opened it on my actual Nook (long since sold) the chapters were in the correct order.

Karl Green February 27, 2013 um 7:29 pm

I think Mike Cane made a very valid point when he said" Um, maybe that’s because B&N is, you know, a bookstore?" I have owned a number of ereaders over the years. Currently I have a Sony T1, Kobo Glow, Kindle HD, Nook HD+, and Nook HD. If you look past the differences between eink and LCD they all work about the same for reading books. As tablets the Kindle can side load apps but the Nook can run full Android on an SD card. And if you remain in the world of DRM they all have various issues of device limits, software compatibility, and book portability. So where is the biggest difference? Only the Amazon Kindle serves as access to a complete online retail store that also happens to sell books. For B&N, Sony, Kobo, and others to sell readers and/or tablets at near loss prices and try to make a profit off just books is going to be very difficult when Amazon and its Kindle offers so much more to buy.

Nate Hoffelder February 27, 2013 um 7:44 pm

The Nook HD might be able to run full Android off of an SD card but how many people care? Looking at the sales this past Christmas, not too damn many.

And I agree that B&N is just an ebookstore. That’s why they should not have tried to control the apps bought by their customers.

B&N’s devices cannot run all Android apps – just the ones that B&N approves of. That makes it a far less capable device than the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD, or anything else on the market. It’s more of an enhanced ebook reader than it is an Android tablet.

The Nook HD is a $200 ereader that competes with $200 Android tablets. IMO that the first and biggest reason why B&N failed.

fjtorres February 27, 2013 um 8:03 pm

Nooks can run generic android off a card… at which point they lose access to onboard memory, data, and apps. The Kindle Fire lets you run your choice of apps side by side the Amazon added value apps. It’s a small thing but it’s a sign of the difference in philosophy between the two outfits.

flyingtoastr February 27, 2013 um 8:39 pm

The Kindle Fire lets you run *some* apps of your choice. Notably, it’s very difficult to get anything that interferes with Amazon’s advertisements.

And, given how Amazon is with every other piece of content they sell (books, movies, audiobooks, etc. all in proprietary wrappers or formats) do you really want to argue that Amazon is some sort of philanthropic open buddy to the consumer?

fjtorres February 27, 2013 um 10:25 pm

I never said it was.
And I’m on record here and elsewhere that I think the way they hide ebook and browser apps in their own appstore (even paid ones) from FiRE users is petty.
The ads? That is part of the price and they make no bones about it.
There is a line they don’t cross and that is keeping you from *installing* any app you can get onboard. I was able to even install a competing app store, 1mobile, on the Fire straight from the website, via Silk.
No company is in business for philantropic purposes.
But when it comes to walled garden lockdowns, Amazon is far from the worst offender.
Apple is king there, followed by the gaming consoles and Nook.
Amazon is a bit down the list after that.
They’re no angels but they don’t outright cripple their products to squeeze the last drop of blood from their customers, either. And you don’t have to wage a hacker war to get full use out of their tablets. Considering it took me less than five minutes to get Nook installed on a Fire straight out of the box, I suspect you might actually get to your Nook books faster with a new Kindle than with a Nook tablet.

Andrys February 28, 2013 um 4:46 am

You said — "The Kindle Fire lets you run *some* apps of your choice. Notably, it’s very difficult to get anything that interferes with Amazon’s advertisements."

You mean that doesn’t interfere with Amazon’s ads? What apps have given you or whomever problems w/ Amazon’s advertisements ?

I like that I can run Google Maps, Street View and Google Earth on the Kindle Fire HD 7″ without any problems. Is it maybe games that somehow interfere with the ads — but that’s odd since I’ve seen the ads only on the lock screen.

If you mean individual recommendations, the latter don’t come up in landscape mode (which most games are in). We have the option to turn them Off anyway (no charge).

All apps I’ve gotten from other sources are straight-downloaded to the tablet too, and it’s seamless. So far I’ve had just one app that didn’t work (a cheap one that showed some historic sites around the world but with graphics too small to be meaningful).

willem February 27, 2013 um 7:47 pm

The very first ereader Nook was – from what I’ve read – the very worst of the lot, yet they appeared to have been the kickstart to get B&N into 2nd place in the ebook market.

The real reason seems more fundamental. B&N’s customerbase has been shrinking for probably at least 2 years now. Their store count has gone down and by their own acknowledgement sales of physical books have been shrinking. Lately even foot traffic in the remaining stores have suffered. They have moved about all their former heavy print buyers that were interested in digital to the Nook. This could explain why they rather rapidly hit over 20% ebook marketshare and then seemed to hit a wall. The pool of potential digital recruits simply dried up.

To appeal to outsiders they would not only have to catch up to market leader Amazon, but better them. Was B&N’s online operations ever as good as Amazon, much less better? No.

Not much they can do now. One of the critics of the hardware approach suggests a few ideas:

More likely Riggio will shrug his shoulders and offload it to womever gives him the best deal. A cynic might even suggest the heavy losses have done their bit in making it much easier for him to take B&N private given its depressed stock.

"This is all part of the plan by Riggio and Co., don’t you get it? Everyone understands that when company spends heavily on some thing that Wall Street deems risky and unproven ( like Nook) and gets in debts because of this, the stock price will fall. Just in time – when it falls low enough – for Riggio to take the company private. Funny that nobody else sees it."

A comment left at seeking alpha, at an interesting article written in March 2011.

yuzutea February 27, 2013 um 9:49 pm

The Bjarnarson post is very interesting, especially his radical idea that B&N should exit the reading app business. But from what I hear, people aren’t super-dissatisfied with B&N’s apps, no matter what their quality?

This piece he links to is also worth reading. Subscriptions in verticals is an idea that has possibilities.

fjtorres February 27, 2013 um 10:31 pm

Subscriptions, book clubs, bundles…
Once you stop thinking like a pbookstore ("stock it and they will come") and start thinking outreach and marketting there’s all sorts of creative ways to draw in customers.
The problem is most require putting the customer ahead of the publisher B&N is too much the BPH lapdog to dare cross the owners of their stock.
Those are good links with interesting ideas but, frankly, I would expect Amazon to do those things before B&N’s current management mustered the courage to even suggest it to their overlords.

Nate Hoffelder February 27, 2013 um 10:54 pm

The problem with competing with Amazon on selling content is that Amazon has been doing that online since 1995 while B&N has not. Amazon has online retail down to an art – B&N not so much.

Ben February 27, 2013 um 9:43 pm

Nook HD and HD+ are actually very good Android tablets for the price range. They failed on having a lock-down ecosystem and hence failed to grow beyond it’s existing customer base. They can keep renewing the hardware every year but they will never grow…hence the failure. Had they kept an open system, they would have been a lot more appealing to users looking for a simple and cheap Android tablet. Once Google Nexus came onto the scene, it was game over.

The only reason Amazon doesn’t suffer the same poor result is because they customer base is much larger than just book readers. That said, I think even Amazon at some point will never expand beyond it’s current customer base as well. It still has a small app store compare to Google and Apple. It still lacks the brand tech companies are bringing to the table.

Frankly, I think B&N’s biggest mistake is to target Amazon as their rival or enemy. Amazon is more than just a bookseller. Targeting your Nook devices to compete against them is DOA to start. All the money they spent on Nook could have been use to improve their existing stores, web and customer services instead. B&N still has a chance to save face if this breakup is handle correctly and getting back to it’s roots.

Mike Cane February 28, 2013 um 9:26 am

>>>All the money they spent on Nook could have been use to improve their existing stores, web and customer services instead.

To improve their existing stores, all they did was ad games and non-book crap. That doesn’t really help book sales, does it?

As for improving web and CS — neither of those really take much money, just good design and a clear mission ("Make the customer HAPPY.").

Is Amazon Killing the Free Ebook? | Digital Book World February 28, 2013 um 7:57 am

[…] Another Reason Barnes & Noble Will Never Catch up to Amazon (The Digital Reader) In short, the usability of the Nook products is inferior to the competition. This morning as this newsletter was being sent out, Barnes & Noble announced its latest quarterly results. We’ll keep you posted. […]

Steve M February 28, 2013 um 10:06 am

I have been more than happy with my NOOK Color ever since I dumped B&N’s software and turned it into a pure Android tablet. I now use it to read Kindle, NOOK, Kobo and Overdrive ebooks using the appropriate Android apps.

Why B&N Can’t Ever Catch Up to Amazon #2: Usability | The Passive Voice | Writers, Writing, Self-Publishing, Disruptive Innovation and the Universe February 28, 2013 um 2:00 pm

[…] Link to the rest at The Digital Reader […]

oj829 February 28, 2013 um 3:46 pm

It’s sad, IMHO. The Nook HD was SO CLOSE to killing everything else. So light and easy to handle, so easy on the reading eyes, good for video, entree into college bookstores… If it weren’t for the crippled B&N app store, it’d be a dream. Dumb decision #1, dumb decision #100.

(And no, I’m not supporting any mods of a Nook HD for my husband. He has enough tech support problems just being who he is…)

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