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The Winner of Battle HoHo 09 May Lose The War

It looks like the Kindle will win the Christmas, 2009 E-War amongst the readers.  

From all reports, B&N's Nook has been selling well, but it looks like the company rushed the device to market before it had a good supply of the devices.  Nooks ordered now for Christmas gifts will arrive long after Santa's sleigh has returned to the North Pole.   Holiday sales do account for a large percentage of a retailer's sales.  Additionally, B&N likely felt that not getting its device out for the Yule season would mean the company surrendered the battle without fielding an army.  B&N didn't want to give Amazon more of an advantage than the company already had.

I haven't held a Nook, but I've held a Kindle.  The device is amazing.  It's like the keys to the kingdom for a life-long bookworm (like me).  The 3G wireless connection means a reader can order a new book anytime, anywhere.  No bookstore required.  And Amazon has had the device out for a couple of generations so it has had some time to work out those kinks.  My computer programmer hubby would, I think, always hesitate a couple of years before buying a Nook.  Hubby says that the first generation of a program is bound to have bugs that will get worked out later, and he doesn't like to play guinea pig.  (He also feels that if he writes a computer program that compiles on the first try that disaster looms ahead, but that's another story.) 

So Amazon enters Battle HoHo 09 with experience in its corner.  No matter how formidable the weapons in the Nook arsenal may be, an experienced soldier is more likely to hit where he's aiming.  When you add availability to experience, it looks like the Kindle will best the Nook this time around.  Come on, no one wants to give their spouse a box bearing a note that their gift is on back order.  You want to give your loved one the loaded box, to see the happy expression when they remove the new gadget, to watch them play with it right then and right there because they can't wait.  A delayed gift is delayed gratification and most Americans,  especially including me, aren't good at patience. 

The other team that's fielded an army is Sony.  Like Amazon, Sony has the big benefit of experience.  Its reader has been out for a while.  But the Sony Reader didn't excite much interest until the Kindle entered the fray.  One problem Sony has is the name. "Reader" is generic, but at the time Sony introduced the device, it didn't have much in the way of competition.  Now that others are competing for consumer interest, the Sony name for its device fizzles.  The word "reader" will never immediately bring to mind Sony's device.

What should Sony name its device?  It could have gone for a play on the brand name, alluding to its potential to explode the market - the Sony Super Sonic.  It could have expressed the way the device puts the world in the user's hands - Sony's Globe or Sony's Fingertips.  My favorite would have been an expression of the places a reader can explore from a device that travels in their backpack, purse or jacket - Sony's Magic Carpet or Sony's Abracadabra.  

Although Sony's Reader has been out for a while and the standard versions should be fairly bug free, it is just now introducing a 3G wireless version to compete with Nook and Kindle.  The wireless capability is what allows a reader on a train or miles from home to click a button, buy a book and have it appear on their device almost instantly.  Sony's 3G Reader won't meet Santa's sleigh loading deadline. The wireless buy button is a neat feature, but is it a deal-breaker?

The fundamental purpose of all of the devices is to allow readers to carry their entire library with them in one small, portable package.  After all, a buyer can plug the Reader into a USB port on their computer at home and load it up in one session with all of the books they'll want to read over a vacation, or plan to get to over the next few weeks.   The lack of a buy button decreases the risk of an impulse purchase and in today's economy that seems to be a big selling virtue for Sony's current batch of Readers.  The company may even be on the money with its timing for the 3G device.  By the time it's out and in wide circulation, the economy may be better, allowing consumers latitude for more impulse buys.  

Sony is NOT in a position to win Battle HoHo 09 but it may be in the best position to win the war.  Why so?  The Store That Sam Built - Walmart. 

Yes, Virginia, WALMART SELLS SONY'S READER.  And if you don't see that as a potential war-winning strategy, you haven't lived on Planet Earth for very long.  B&N and Amazon have positioned their devices to be sold only in their stores.  Lots of folks may do actual or virtual shopping in those places, but almost every pair of feet in America walk through a Walmart with some regularity.  In today's economy, Walmart is increasing its market share and that means that more shoppers are being exposed to Sony.  And the Store That Sam Built has an online presence with a killer feature - you can order it online, and pick it up the next time you're in a Walmart. 

Walmart is currently carrying the pocket edition of the Reader for less than $200 - Sam sells it for $198.  It has a 5 inch screen and fits easily into a pocket.  It has a long battery life and is easily recharged. The basic device will carry about 350 books.  It doesn't have memory expansion, so you would keep your permanent library on your PC and move books back and forth to the reader.  Frankly, 350 books is a lot of books and for those who own more ebooks than that, moving them back and forth from a PC isn't that difficult.  This device seems like the perfect way to introduce a bookworm buyer to a Reader for a fairly reasonable price.

The touch edition is priced higher - Walmart sells it for $298.00.  It has touch screen functionality, and dual memory card slots to allow a buyer to carry his entire library, organized and categorized on memory sticks.  It ALSO FUNCTIONS AS AN MP3 PLAYER, which is a big deal, especially for younger, college-aged purchasers.  It even has a stylus for taking hand-written notes.  Still, it is priced higher than the base model Kindle or the current Nook and, from my limited hands-on experience, the Kindle has an "experimental" basic web-browsing capability. 

New users typically don't jump into a platform at the highest-priced level.  The Pocket Reader is a good option for exploring the device and - I can't emphasize this enough - you can pick one up at Walmart.  Americans tend to be loyal to brands that work for them, and a buyer who picks up a Sony Pocket Reader this year and enjoys it, is more likely to get a 3G wireless model as a Christmas gift for HoHo 2010.  They'll likely buy that one at Walmart too.

Sony isn't positioned to win Batle HoHo 2009 as this goes to press.  However, if the company would drop the price on the Touch edition, buy a whole lotta ad time to trumpet the MP3 feature, advertise availability at Walmart and mass ship the devices, a last minute surge could put the brand over the top.   Absent that, with Nook not having devices available to ship in time to be under the tree, it looks like an Kindle kind of Christmas. 

But Christmas tells the tale of only one season.  The war is about overall device supremacy and nobody has yet won the war.  All of the brands likely have more tricks to pull out of their hats and some of those may shade the ultimate outcome. 

Still, if I have to pick an ultimate winner right now, my money is on Sony.  Going into partnership with the Store That Sam Built is likely the single most important strategic decision the brand made. 

It's tough to go broke betting on Walmart.