When I covered Barnes & Noble’s impending Fire-clone Android tablet a few days ago, I honestly expected that the device would be in the same range as the $50 Fire, but cost $10 or $20 higher to cover expenses. But as I noticed first on The Digital Reader today, and later in places like TechCrunch (via The Passive Voice), Barnes & Noble has announced that its new Nook Tablet 7″ will ship on Black Friday, November 25, at the same $50 price as Amazon’s most popular Fire.
The tablet is a plain-vanilla Android Marshmallow device that will come pre-loaded with Android Nook software and the usual suite of Google Play apps, including the Play Store. Specs are mostly comparable to the 7″ Fire: a 7″ 171 DPI 1024 x 600 IPS LCD screen, 8 GB internal storage, 128 GB capable SD card slot, and so on. The only major differences in the hardware specs are that it has 2 MP front and 5 MP rear cameras (rather than the Fire’s VGA and 2 MP cameras) and it uses the same 64-bit system-on-a-chip as the one-year-newer Fire HD 8.
So, just as the original Nook was a copycat of the original Kindle, here we have Barnes & Noble trying to hitch its wagon to the same star all over again with a $50 copycat tablet of the Amazon $50 Fire. This poses some immediate questions, obviously.
For starters, how is the build quality going to be? Amazon has scads of money coming in, can afford to cut its hardware margins razor-thin, and is well-placed to capitalize on all the content needs of Fire owners–be they ebooks, audiobooks, streaming video, or apps and games. Barnes & Noble, not to put too fine a point on it, doesn’t, can’t, and isn’t–for one thing, it closed down both its app store and its streaming video store in March of this year. That just leaves ebooks and audiobooks. So if it does slice its hardware margins as thin as Amazon, how does it expect to make that money back? (Especially given that Amazon partly subsidizes its cheap Fires through built-in pay-to-remove advertising, and I’m not seeing any indication Barnes & Noble will do the same.)
One possible answer is that it’s been a year since the original Fire, and hardware prices have presumably fallen–possibly thanks in part to the economies of scale provoked by building millions upon millions of $50 Fires. Amazon sold enough of those $50 tablets to cause a noticeable drop in consumer tablet spending even as the quantity of tablets sold rose, and all those parts had to come from somewhere. So perhaps it doesn’t cost as much to build the Nook Tablet 7″ as it did to build the Fire 7. And perhaps the Nook Tablet 7″ will, like the RCA Voyager II, feel somewhat more cheaply made than the comfortably heavy Fire. Either way, it could be cheaper for B&N (or, rather, the Chinese OEM B&N contracted) to build now than the Fire was for Amazon last year. So, B&N’s margins might not have to be so thin after all.
But when you get right down to it, this is effectively “just another cheap Chinese Android tablet.” You can find $50 Android tablets in any Fry’s or other big-box electronics retailer, after all. What makes this one a better deal? And why is it necessarily any better than the Fire, which at least has Amazon’s genius for consumer electronics behind it?
When you think about it, the answer could come down to two simple words: support and openness.
Unlike most Chinese tablets, made by no-name manufacturers and ordered from anonymous overseas retailers or faceless big-box stores that will take them back but not do much else for you, the Nook Tablet 7″ will be offered by Barnes & Noble–which should mean that every one of Barnes & Noble’s remaining stores should (at least theoretically) be able to provide service and help customers figure out how to use them. (Though, granted, B&N isn’t exactly known for stellar customer service in any case, nor has it managed the Nook brand especially well to date.) This is also an advantage over Amazon, which has considerably fewer physical locations to provide in-person support for its Fire.
And unlike the Fire, or Barnes & Noble’s former non-Samsung Nook tablets, this one runs standard, plain-vanilla Android, with Google’s own Play Store built right in.
I can’t overstate the importance of that. My article on installing Cyanogenmod onto the Nook HD was one of the old site’s most popular articles, frequently appearing in the daily-top-views list even months after its most recent revision–and one of the most commonly-heard complaints about the Fire is that its version of Android is limited to only those apps available from Amazon.
Amazon’s apps don’t include any of Google’s, such as YouTube, or a considerable amount of popular third-party software such as basically any other ebook reader. If you should want to add those programs, you either have to go through the laborious process of downloading and sideloading them, or else use one of the available hacks to finagle the Play Store onto the Fire. But the Nook Tablet 7″ will be wide open from the very beginning.
I’d like to think Barnes & Noble would be fully aware of the importance of that openness, and would make it one of the tablet’s chief selling points. They could do a Miracle on 34th Street-style campaign explicitly mentioning the competition: “Not only will it read your Nook books, but you can install readers for ebooks from any other ebook store: Google, Kobo, Smashwords, even Kindle!” But perhaps that would be a bridge too far.
In any event, as I already mentioned, the $50 Fire sold well enough to skew industry-wide statistics, even with its closed operating system and relatively low-resolution screen. Whether it’s a “Hail Mary play” or not, a $50 Nook Android Marshmallow tablet has the potential to do even better, if only because there will be hundreds of stores a customer could walk into, see the tablet, and walk right out the door with it a few minutes later. But Barnes & Noble needs to make potential customers understand they don’t have to be limited to B&N products with it–they can use it with the Kindle, Kobo, or other ebooks they already have. (Then, once the customers have it, they could rely on the built-in Nook software to sell them on ebooks and audiobooks from Barnes & Noble.)
The $50 Fire isn’t exactly a great tablet, but it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be good enough to be worth $50. A $50 Barnes & Noble Nook could very well be likewise, with the added benefits of openness and easier availability. But it remains to be seen whether Barnes & Noble will be savvy enough to capitalize on these potential advantages.