February 23, 2011, 10:44 PM —
Computer user groups sometimes seem like a product of a bygone era. The meetings of enthusiasts helped start the modern computer revolution. It was, after all, meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club in what is today Silicon Valley that helped inspire and promote the very first Apple computers. Without such gatherings the history of the technology that we take for granted could have been very different.
User groups devoted to specific platforms, devices, and technologies proliferated during the 80s and 90s. Before the advent of the Internet, they were one of the easiest ways to learn more about computing, connect with other users, and build a community. Even today, many user groups still exist across the U.S. and around the world.
Barnes and Noble has taken to bringing the user group concept to its Nook platform. The chain sponsors monthly Nook Nights in most of its stores. Like many user group meetings, Nook Nights are designed to be a combination of user education, moderated discussion, and general socializing. The events tend to be a bit more corporate and structured in nature – not surprising since they are planned and hosted by a retail chain – but they still evoke that sense of community that characterizes more organic user groups. Even though the Nook Nights are product-centric, they offer a unique chance for people from different walks of life to meet, talk, and share their opinions of what they're reading (and even to lend each other ebook, something Barnes and Noble pioneered with the Nook). That has always been one of the most endearing of user group attributes.
The move is part of Barnes and Noble's aggressive in-store marketing of its e-reader. Other parts of that strategy include in-store demo and information kiosks that often resemble the Genius Bar in Apple's retail outlets as well as free access to Nook titles for up to an hour each day while connected to in-store Wi-Fi.
The entire effort, which seems pretty successful if you visit most Barnes and Noble stores, actually has a very Apple Retail style feel to it. Nook experts are on hand to offer demos, answer questions, and serve up friendly conversation. Although devices are on hand for purchase, I've yet to witness anything resembling a hard sell.
Ultimately, this is another sign of a brilliant platform strategy on the part of the nation's largest brick and mortar bookseller. It makes people more comfortable with technology, builds a community, and brings them to a space where they can buy books not available in electronic form. The same can be said of the in-store reading feature.
That, combined with the foresight to make the Nook Color an entry-level tablet out of the box (not to mention the fact that is can be rooted, which turns it into a very capable Android device) and the foresight to build the Nook as a platform on other devices like Apple's iPad via a free app, creates a powerful combination – one that is likely to grow in the coming months when the bookseller opens an electronic storefront for Nook-specific apps.