By Mark Long / Mobile Tech Today. Updated July 29, 2009.
Barnes & Noble has inked a strategic agreement with AT&T under which the wireless carrier will provide free in-store Wi-Fi access to customers visiting any of the book retailer's outlets nationwide.
Customers opting in to a new Barnes & Noble program will be able to receive discount coupons and personalized messages over Wi-Fi as they enter the retailer's stores, the company said. However, the primary goal behind the offering of free Wi-Fi is to encourage customers to download and preview any of the 700,000 e-book titles that Barnes & Noble began offering online last week.
"This is a natural progression of our digital strategy to provide customers with more choices in how, when and where they want to read," said Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio.
Wi-Fi Good, But 3G Is Key
Customers visiting Barnes & Noble stores initially will be able to wirelessly access e-book content via free apps for the iPhone and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices such as smartphones, laptops and even the iPod touch. The book retailer's big move into the e-book space won't come until next year, when partner Plastic Logic releases a dedicated e-reader device.
Like Amazon's Kindle lineup, the Plastic Logic eReader will feature 3G wireless capabilities. Forrester Research Analyst Sarah Rotman Epps thinks that cellular connectivity -- not just Wi-Fi, which isn't available everywhere -- is a key element for Plastic Logic and Barnes & Noble to have any hope of competing with Amazon.
"Consumers value the seamless connectivity of the Kindle's Whispernet service, which lets them download a book in 60 seconds using Sprint's network," Rotman Epps said. "Especially since Plastic Logic will be focused on newspapers -- USA Today and the Financial Times are also partners -- having the device be able to connect and refresh content anytime, anywhere, will be crucial for its success."
With Amazon's Kindle running on Sprint and Plastic Logic planning to run its device on AT&T's wireless network, Rotman Epps thinks that Verizon will "not stay on the e-reader sidelines for long." She predicts Verizon will partner with Sony and/or another e-book provider "before the end of the year."
Rotman Epps also notes that the number of public-domain publications which Sony now says it offers via Google has reached one million volumes.
"E-reader device manufacturers realize that without content, their products are doorstops," Rotman Epps observed. "If CE manufacturers have learned anything from Apple, it's that no matter how sexy your hardware is, content sells a device."
More Choice of Content
Both Barnes and Noble and Sony have now effectively countered Amazon's closed platform by integrating Google's content more seamlessly into their e-bookstores, Rotman Epps said. "Giving consumers more choice of content -- including free content -- is good marketing, even if consumers end up just buying best sellers anyway," she explained.
Though Barnes & Noble's push into the e-reader market is notable, the retailer is not the 300-pound gorilla in the room that Amazon should fear the most, some analysts say.
"If, as rampant speculation implies, Apple comes out with some sort of tablet -- actually a super-sized iPod touch -- and opens its iTunes Store to books, newspapers and magazines, Amazon may be forced to take some drastic steps to remain a market leader," observed Gartner Research Vice President Allen Weiner.
He thinks the e-book market balance could tip in Apple's favor if the Mac maker decides to support Adobe's .epub file format if and when it rolls out its rumored Web tablet.
"Many developers are working on extensions to .epub that would allow publishers to create value-added goodies for e-book publishers such as interviews, games, videos, and so on," Weiner noted. "Such value-added books, sold on iTunes, are a market winner for everyone except Amazon."