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Plastic Logic, Barnes & Noble Gang Up on Amazon

I’m kind of surprised it took so long for a major retailer to chase after Amazon and its unique Kindle. Up until now, the only real competition so far has come from Sony’s incredibly lame Readers, which have neither the ease of use, nor the available library of books to have any fighting chance against the Kindle.

But Barnes & Noble is a credible book retailer, and even though it entered and exited the eBook market earlier this decade, now that Amazon has shown that a market for these devices actually does exist, the company is now apparently going after it with a vengeance. While books will be available on the MacOS, Windows, RIM Blackberry, and the iPhone, it is the Plastic Logic’s B&N-backed eReader will probably get the attention.

Let’s look at the chinks in the Kindle’s armor, what this new Plastic Logic product (due in 2010) will look like, and assess the chances it will be a Kindle killer.

Amazon Kindle DXKindle Strengths and Weaknesses

The Kindle is the easiest to use reader that has ever been on the market. Amazon’s Whispernet service lies at the core of its ease of use. It allows you to shop on Amazon from any browser, and get the book in a few minutes without physically connecting it to anything, via Sprint’s wireless network. It has the largest library of books you might want to read of any of the existing reader products, and it will read a variety of other formats, allowing you to e-mail things to the device instead of printing them on paper. I have three of them, and have come to love my DX, but they aren’t perfect.

First, there are still plenty of publishers who won’t publish to the Kindle. For instance, if you want to the last Harry Potter book, Deathly Hollows, which I desperately do after watching the latest depressing movie, you can’t do it on the Kindle. The DX, which is the best of the set in my view, costs $489 at the moment. That makes it too pricey for most people, and it has a fragile screen (though I haven’t broken mine yet). There is no built-in book light, and aftermarket products have been rather pathetic to date. You can have any color as long as it is white, and you can’t find it in brick and mortar retail stores – only online at Amazon. If you love books, I maintain the Kindle is still a good deal, but for most people, there are simply too many negatives to overcome the positives, and products like the iPod overwhelmingly outsell it.

Plastic LogicPlastic Logic

Plastic Logic has created a really interesting platform, and it will match Kindle’s US-only Sprint service with one that is potentially international from AT&T (though I bet International connections will have an extra cost). This would provide vastly broader coverage than the Kindle currently has, and be another feather in AT&T’s hat to keep the iPhone company. However, the device that has been showcased is actually closer to $500, and if folks were unhappy with the Kindle’s high price, higher probably isn’t the direction a vendor should go.

On top of matching the Kindle’s amazing use mode, Plastic Logic has added a touch-based interface, which will likely seem more natural than the button-based interface the Kindle uses. It appears button-free, following the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch model. However, we’ll see how page changes go: If they require a big swipe, there will likely be a speed or fatigue issue if you are, like I am, a power reader. The last demo on record shows a four-second page turn time, which is much longer than the Kindle’s. It is believed this will be dramatically improved by launch. I haven’t seen a prototype with a book light, though, making me wonder if folks don’t realize that a lot of us read at night.

Plastic LogicThe device being showcased has an 8.5-inch by 11-inch flexible screen, which is actually larger, and potentially less fragile than Kindle DX with a similar weight. Since I think large is the best size for the Kindle, going larger is interesting, but I know many reviewers initially complained that the DX was too big and heavy, suggesting the Plastic Logic device (it needs a device name badly) might initially review poorly. The library Barnes & Noble will have should be similar to the Kindle, (the company is implying better, but it is hard to believe that Barnes & Noble can get access to anything Amazon can’t for long).

In short, the product is differentiated and improved in key areas like size (though the wrong way on price), retail presence, and gives up very little to the Kindle. Granted, Amazon will likely refresh the line to compete, and it does have an existing line of products now.

Freezing the Market with a Vapor Attack

Plastic Logic’s offering doesn’t come out until early 2010, and I know a number of folks who were considering Kindles who are now planning to wait until they see this reader. Barnes & Noble may have effectively frozen the market until this device can ship, but products like this tend to move most effectively during the holidays, and the store would have been better off getting the reader on the shelf before the end of the year. The risk is that people will also probably buy fewer books because of this, which may upset content owners.

This is called a vaporware attack, when one vendor who doesn’t yet have a product on market effectively freezes sales for a competitor by talking about that yet-to-be-released offering.

Wrapping Up

I love my Kindle, but man, this thing looks really interesting. However, I do think we are still waiting for a company like Sony to get this class of product right, working with someone like a Barnes & Noble. It seems like the retailers are having trouble creating a book that can compare, in terms of lust factor, with something like an iPod Touch, and folks like Sony can’t figure out the retail side. Until we get that very sexy product designed with a fabulous service (or until Apple enters this segment), this Plastic Logic product, while it may not be a Kindle killer, could put the hurt on the Kindle in spades.

Then again with the Democratic Leadership Council in the US proposing that every child get a Kindle, maybe this fight is over before it started. Regardless, 2010 should be an interesting year for eBooks.

Rob Enderle
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Rob is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. Before…
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