Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch has called Amazon's Kindle Fire a "deficient" media tablet . He referred to it as a "vending machine for Amazon's services," a device aimed to "lock consumers into [Amazon's] ecosystem." Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet, on the other hand, gives users choice and provides a much more "open" experience.
That may be one of the Nook Tablet's most significant selling points, according to Lynch, but it remains to be seen if consumers will buy into it this holiday season. Barnes & Noble has tried to paint Amazon's ecosystem as a walled garden, selfishly designed to sell only Amazon content and media. Yet in comparing the two devices, it's difficult to understand why the Nook Tablet is all about choice, whereas the Kindle Fire is all about Amazon.
"I think it's really all about giving consumers choice rather than specific apps," says Claudia Romanini, director of developer relations at Barnes & Noble, when asked what apps would attract consumers to the Nook Tablet over the Kindle Fire. "We have checked all the boxes of all the apps [users] have told us they want. It's about giving them choice and range. What we mean in terms of choice is that we don't lock a customer into a service and say, 'This is the way you're going to get to your media.'"
The implication here is that Amazon does not give users "choice," a word Romanini repeated a half-dozen times during our interview; rather, it aims to "lock consumers into Amazon's ecosystem," as Lynch said. What's the difference? As Romanini pointed out to me, it means that, "We give [consumers] Netflix and Hulu and let them choose."
The idea is that Amazon, on the other hand, wouldn't let users choose between Netflix and Hulu because it wants its customers streaming movies and TV shows through Amazon's services, whether via a Prime subscription or Instant Video. It's an example Lynch echoed on stage when he boasted the Nook Tablet would have Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora, giving users a wide range of choices for media services. "We…[have] said we're going to be much more open [than Amazon], and partner with the world's most popular media services like Netflix," Lynch said.
There's just one problem: Kindle Fire users have access to Netflix. And Hulu Plus. And Pandora. In fact, I've been playing with the Kindle Fire since it came out, and it's hard to determine what apps the Nook Tablet has that the Kindle Fire doesn't. Romanini says Nook Tablet users would especially appreciate gaming on the device--it's why she said the company made sure to have Angry Birds and Scrabble ready at launch of the Nook Tablet. But punch open the Kindle Fire's app store, and you'll find both apps available in the gaming section.
Why is it then that Barnes & Noble's app ecosystem is all about choice, and Amazon's isn't? That's the question I pressed to Romanini:
Fast Company: William Lynch said Barnes & Noble's ecosystem is built on choice. What about Amazon's ecosystem does not offer choice?
Romanini: What we mean in terms of choice is that we don't lock a customer into a service and say, "This is the way you're going to get to your media." We give them Netflix and Hulu and let them choose. Most people have accounts with these services already. With Netflix, it goes beyond that--it's the integration that we've done. Using Netflix, you can really get a good experience. You don't have to exit our experience to enter another experience to access the content. You don't have to download the apps either--they're preloaded on the device. They're right there on the home screen for you to launch. The Kindle Fire I believe--I haven't seen one--from what I understand, the apps are in their store to download. They are not actually preloaded on the device.
Why does that mean the Kindle Fire doesn't offer choice? Because apps aren't preloaded? If Netflix is preloaded, as it is on the Nook Tablet, aren't you almost making the choice for the consumer by building integration into the device?
Well, the preloading is really a customer experience thing in terms of having an opportunity to access it right there if you want it. We're not forcing you to use it. If you never want to use Netflix, you never will. It's there for you for convenience sake. Again, I haven't seen a Kindle Fire. My understanding is that it comes configured so you're signed up for their Prime service in order to access video.
They give you Prime for one month free, but you do not need it for Netflix.
You don't need to sign up for Prime to access Netflix, correct. You have to decide you want Netflix, you download it, and you use it.
And if you decide, then you have choice?
Yes, I guess you do have a choice in that sense, from that standpoint. Perhaps it's more about the convenience. We're saying, "If you have a Netflix account, it's right here." You can just open the app.
"Choice" clearly isn't a legitimate selling point. And if you had any doubt about whether Amazon offered a less open ecosystem, just look to what Engadget reported yesterday : The Nook Tablet limits internal storage for non-Barnes & Noble purchased content to 1GB--quite a bizarre cap for a company marketing choice and openness.
What other competitive advantages does Barnes & Noble have? Two that are significant. First, when Lynch showed off the Nook Tablet last week, he spent much of his presentation trashing the Kindle Fire's hardware while lauding the Nook Tablet's lighter weight, its better display, better design, better battery life, and its superior RAM and storage capacity. But for many consumers, it's not the tech specs but the price tag that is likely to catch their attention: The Kindle Fire is just $199, compared to Nook's $249. According to a range of analysts , that's the most significant competitive advantage.
Which leaves one last advantage: Barnes & Noble's store. Not the digital competitor to Amazon. The physical outlets. Lynch has hailed the stores as a major leg up against competitors that will enable the company to market the devices in-person while offering "always-free" in-store support. "If you bought a Kindle Fire, had a question, wanted to talk an expert in person for help, where would you go? Amazon's headquarters in Seattle?" Lynch has quipped.
Will that be enough to move Nook Tablets this holiday season? We'll have to wait and see. Reviews of the Kindle Fire  have been so-so, mainly praising the device's low cost while criticizing its sluggish performance, heavy weight, and overall lack of polish. Perhaps Lynch is right and the tech specs and improved performance will outshine the $199 price tag. Maybe the reviews are likely to push the Nook Tablet ahead in the rankings. Regardless, both devices are likely to become hot holiday purchases.
But two things are for certain. First, the Nook Tablet does not offer much more by way of choice and openness than Amazon's Kindle Fire.
Second, and most significantly, without a competitive advantage in apps or price, Barnes & Noble's biggest asset becomes its brick-and-mortar stores. For a company pinning its future on digital success, it's an odd idea of progress.
[Image: Flickr user Nouspique ]