Is Barnes and Noble about to steal the low-end tablet market with the NOOKcolor?

The new NOOKcolor offers more than just e-reading - it may be the lowest cost tablet to hit the market.

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Despite my extolling the virtues of smartphones as e-readers yesterday morning, Barnes and Noble upped the ante for those who want a more book-sized devices today when it announced the NOOKcolor. As my colleague Peter Smith already noted here on ItWorld.com, the device brings advantages over the original Nook models including a full-device touchscreen display based on IPS technology and support for 16 million colors (a welcome upgrade from the previous dual-screen display that included a small ribbon of color touchscreen for navigation and a larger eInk display for reading).

While a low-cost ($249) color e-reader is a big news in itself (particularly alongside of Nook Kids titles – can we really expect small children to want books with black and white pictures?), some of the biggest news about the NOOKcolor has nothing to do with reading e-books at all.

The bigger news is that Barnes and Noble is equipping the NOOKcolor with a web browser, free games (something the original Nook also offered), access to Pandora for streaming music, the Quickoffice suite, and an SDK for developers. This clearly takes the nook beyond being just an e-reader. It makes into a basic tablet device at a price point lower than the other major tables on the market including the iPad and Samsung's Galaxy Tab.

The NOOK color isn't going to be the ideal tablet for everyone. Despite being based on Android, it won't have access to the Android Market. Even the press release about the SDK stops short of mentioning that developers will be able to create a broad array of apps, focusing on phrases like word games, puzzles, and enriched/extended book content (though the guidelines for developers do show that developers will need to Google's Android SDK). Clearly Barnes and Noble isn't trying to grab the overall tablet market away from Apple, Android manufacturers, or RIM.

That doesn't mean that the NOOKcolor can't offer a powerful set of features for users looking for just a basic tablet. Quickoffice is a major coup because it is one of the better Office-style suites for smartphones and tablets – having been installed on all manner of devices over the years. In fact, the ability to create, edit, and view Office documents is one of the biggest business (not to mention home and student) needs on any tablet.

Offering that feature up (along with e-reading and access to PDF and other public domain ePub files) for just $249 on a color and Wi-Fi equipped device means that the NOOKcolor could gave any tablet device a run for its money. The 7" screen may be smaller than Steve Jobs thinks appropriate, there may be a limited number of apps, and the overall flexibility and feature set may not be as great as an iPad, Galaxy Tab, RIM's PlayBook, or any other tablets – but the sheer cost combined with meeting the basic need for content creation and editing (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files) may bring the NOOKcolor into more schools and businesses than any tablet that has come before.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfass.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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