The recent announcement by Barnes & Noble that it would discontinue its Nook tablets marked the exit of what once promised to be a strong rival to Amazon, at least among bibliophiles. Barnes & Noble's entry into the tablet market took place amidst an annual game of leapfrog with its internet-based rival. Surviving for three iterations, the color Nook devices were products that had a particular focus on media consumption -- especially reading -- and eschewed open access to apps.
What went right
Perhaps feeling burned by the head start that the e-paper Kindle had over the original Nook, Barnes & Noble released the first Nook Color well in advance of the Kindle Fire, although it stopped shy of calling it a tablet, a name reserved for the Nook Color's aesthetically similar, but sped-up successor.
Unlike the first Kindle with its oddly wedged design and the first Nook with its incoherent two-screened scheme, the first color Nook -- designed by Yves Behar -- was attractive and distinctive with its carabiner-like corner. Barnes & Noble also partnered with LG to deliver displays that had exceptional outdoor readability.
Featured with friends
While perhaps too late in the game, Barnes & Noble not only invested in the Nook by prominently featuring it in B&N stores, but also by featuring a wide range of cases and other accessories for the device -- the availability of which belied its small market share.
What went wrong
Even though the Nook Color and its successors were based on Android, Barnes & Noble turned its back on the Google Play store. Unlike Amazon, which launched a broad Android Appstore, Barnes & Noble handpicked apps that were designed specifically for the color Nooks, creating a degree of oversight that exceeded even Apple's.
Despite seeking to expand the app selection in later years, this closed system resulted in far fewer apps for the Nook tablets than for its competition. Barnes & Noble finally opened the door to Google Play, freeing its tablets from limited developer support, but it was too little, too late.
As recently as the introduction of the Nook HD tablets, Barnes & Noble defended its selective app store by saying it was designing an experience for the Barnes & Noble shopper, but apparently those who identified as such turned out to be too small a market or, in fact, wanted more software to choose from. The Nook needed to be more than a niche device.
Banking beyond books
The shift to LCD display technology from e-paper exposed the thinness of Barnes & Noble's content offerings beyond books. Whereas Amazon had tied the Kindle Fire to its Prime service that pairs the odd combination of free two-day shipping and a Netflix competitor, Barnes & Noble was stuck with offering only Netflix, broadly available on many other devices. It eventually responded with its own Nook video service, an a la carte, "buy or rent" service competing with iTunes, Vudu and Google Play.
The competitive threat
While Barnes & Noble might have been able to remain a strong second to Amazon for tablets catering to reading enthusiasts, its foray into broader multimedia made it more vulnerable to threats from dominant competitors like Apple as well as a host of other products. Apple's launch of the iBookstore and then the iPad mini made for a one-two punch that did more to knock out the Nook than Amazon's launch of the Kindle Fire HD.
The Nook Color and its successors were products that were designed well, merchandised well and represented a good value. Unfortunately, the curated experience that Barnes & Noble sought with its restrictive app policies became a liability as the attack of sub-$200 Android tablets from below and the iPad mini from above made the battle extend far beyond its old rivalry with Amazon.
What happens next?
The Nook name won't completely disappear from tablets; Barnes & Noble has said it will partner with other tablet makers to co-brand devices in what could be something like the Google Nexus program. Ironically, Kobo, which started life as a book service designed to be free of its own hardware, carries on for those who want a more bibliocentric tablet experience.
Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.