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Barnes & Noble mulls Android SDK for Nook reader

Blasts Kindle's 'clumsy' text-to-speech

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Barnes & Noble.com president William J. Lynch has hinted the American bookseller will one day open up its Android-based ebook reader to third-party developers.

But you have to wonder how far off such a move might be.

"We haven't announced anything regarding putting out an SDK or setting up a developer environment, but we do think Android offers some exciting opportunities in that way," Lynch said this morning during a conference call with reporters. "We do think - just because of all the excitement and all the development around Android - we do think that putting out an SDK and a developer environment would be something exciting for us and our users."

The company officially unveiled the Nook yesterday afternoon - yes, the Nook - calling it the world's first Android-based ebook reader. The $259 device is set to go on sale in the US at the end of November in the run-up to the all-important holiday shopping season. The company is taking pre-orders now at nook.com and across its network of more than 40,000 retail stores.

That's all Lynch offered on the possibility of a Nook SDK, but with Barnes & Noble scrambling to catch the Amazon Kindle, which has a two-year headstart in the fledgling ereader market, such an SDK is one means of making up lost ground. If Barnes & Noble taps that already percolating community of Android app developers, the Nook could offer a range of possibilities unavailable on the Kindle.

Of course, in opening the Nook to developers, Barnes & Noble could also force Amazon into a similar move. The difference is that the Kindle doesn't run Android.

Targeting mobile phones, Google released its Android OS last fall, and it has now been adopted by three of America's largest carriers and several others worldwide, giving developers an ever-expanding platform for their applications. Apple's iPhone is still the market behemoth - like the Kindle, it had a head start - but it's a single device limited to certain carriers. In the long-run, Android's openness may win the day. And even if it doesn't, we can safely say that it forced Apple into at least relaxing its famously closed attitudes.

That said, Android's openness has its own limits. And since hardware manufacturers are free to modify the OS however they like, there's some question about application compatibility across devices. What's more, all this Nook SDK talk is just that. Barnes & Noble has hardly gone whole hog on the idea of an open ereader.

Despite hints of a future Androidian developer program, the inaugural Nook is rather closed. But it's certainly more accommodating than the Amazon Kindle. In addition to handling titles in the Fictionwise eReader format - the format of choice in the Barnes & Noble online ebook store - the Nook reads the open ePub format and standard PDFs.

The latest Kindle - the large-format DX model - reads PDFs natively but not ePub docs. And the standard Kindles 1 and 2 are limited to Amazon's DRM-ified .AZW format, the unprotected mobipocket format on which AZW is based, and ordinary text files. If you want to read PDFs on the Kindle 2, you have no choice but to send them to Amazon over email and pay the company to convert them.

The Nook also offers a WiFi connection - augmenting free Kindle-like cellular network access - but these connections can only be used to tap the B&N online store. The Internet Archive and various others are pushing an open architecture that would put any ebook store on any reading device, but when The Reg asked Lynch if the company had plans to open the Nook to other stores, he said no.

"Why would you want to do that?" he said. "We have no plans to do that in the future." Meanwhile, Amazon sent a Kindle representative to this week's mini-conference dedicated to the Internet Archive's open BookServer architecture.

Today, the Kindle at least offers an "experimental" web browser for accessing webpages and downloading files directly onto the device. But if you're interested in moving non-B&N content onto B&N's ebook reader, you'll have to either connect the Nook to your PC or shuttle files onto an microSD card.

But Lynch indicated he wasn't necessarily opposed to the browser. "Could we have one in the future? Sure," he said. "We're looking at all kinds of different feature sets for our road-map and that's certainly one to consider.

"I think if you look at the book reader market and at our consumer research, what people want to do with these devices primarily is read...But if readers identify that [a browser] is something they want in their readers, we'll make sure to include it."

But the new B&N device breaks new ground by allowing users to lend certain copy-protected books to friends using iPhones, iPod Touches, PCs, Macs, and at least some BlackBerries and Motorola smartphones. "Just as our customers love to share books from their physical collections, now Barnes & Noble helps them share ebooks too," Lynch said. Books are lent for 14-days, after which they vanish from your friends' devices, and publishers decide which titles are lend-able.

Yes, the Nook lacks the Kindle 2's text-to-speech tool, but Lynch made no apologies. "We didn't include it because we don't think the technology works well today," he said. "I don't know if you've used the feature on other devices, but we think it's a fairly clumsy execution and we think the technology doesn't really deliver a great experience."

Indeed, Kindle's text-to-speech is far from perfect. The rhythm of its patchwork-of-syllables speech is jarring when you first turn it on - though after a few minutes of listening you get to the point when you can at least grin and bear it.

The B&N ebook store does not sell books outside the US. "We're put in several mechanisms to ensure we're adhering to international copyright laws," Lynch said. If the Nook does come to the UK, at least one Reg reader has said, the device will most likely need a name change. ®

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