Barnes & Noble (BKS) may be lagging behind Amazon.com (AMZN) in the market for electronic readers, but lately there are reasons for the bookseller to brag. The company believes it has a 27 percent share of the U.S. market for e-books—a market that the Pew Research Center reports has exploded, with 12 percent of all U.S. households now owning e-readers, up from 6 percent in November. And while the original Nook and its tablet-like successor the Nook Color received mixed reviews, the company’s newest black-and-white e-reader, the All-New Nook, appears to be a critical hit. On June 17, Consumer Reports ranked the Nook ahead of the Kindle for the first time, praising its long battery life, $139 price tag, and minimalist design that focuses a user’s attention on reading.
At the center of Barnes & Noble’s efforts to keep up with the likes of Amazon and Apple (AAPL) is Robert Brunner, founder of the San Francisco-based industrial design firm Ammunition and a father, of sorts, to the portable computer. As director of industrial design at Apple in the late ’80s and early ’90s (before Steve Jobs’s return), Brunner helped develop the PowerBook, one of the first mainstream laptops, and the Newton, Apple’s influential but unsuccessful pen-based handheld device. As a partner at Pentagram Design from 1996 to 2007, he helped Amazon conceptualize and design the first Kindle—before the e-commerce giant brought all its hardware efforts in house. Now Brunner is playing the same role for the competition, helping an analog bookseller remake its business so it can compete with the big boys of digital. “We think Robert is truly one of the unique designers of consumer-electronic gadgets,” says William J. Lynch Jr., Barnes & Noble’s chief executive officer. “He pushes the team to ask, what do we want this product to do at its core?”
Brunner, 53, seems a trifle out of place in Silicon Valley, the land of khakis and cell-phone holsters. He sports designer sneakers and an Alessi watch from Italian architect Andrea Branzi and hobnobs with celebrities like Lady Gaga. He’s collaborating with the singer to recharge Polaroid’s moribund product line with tricked-out gadgets, including sunglasses that hold an embedded camera.
Nudging Barnes & Noble into the e-reading age, however, remains Brunner’s No. 1 priority. The bookseller approached him in 2008, when it saw, almost too late, that the book business was going the way of music and movies. The company knew “nothing” about digital media, Brunner says, “and wanted to know about how you would create a product and bring it to market.” Brunner and his new client settled on the goal of simplicity, removing as many buttons as possible and trying to put the actual reading experience front and center. “Books don’t have buttons,” he says, “so we felt that was not only an authentic place to be but also great competitively against the Kindle”—which has a keyboard, at the insistence of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Users still needed to control their device, though. Brunner believed that overlaying a touchscreen on top of a black-and-white eInk display would have made the device too difficult to read. His solution, used in the first Nook introduced during the 2009 holidays, was to include a large eInk screen for reading and a smaller color touchscreen to allow users to select books and turn pages. He now acknowledges that there were drawbacks to that approach. “Two displays doing different, related things created challenges for the user,” he says.
The All-New Nook is free of such design compromises: There’s only a 6-inch screen, surrounded by a black bezel, with just one obvious button. There’s no traditional touchscreen; instead, optical infrared sensors from a Swedish company, Neonode, surround the display and locate the position of a user’s finger. The device weighs all of 7.48 ounces. The soft contours of its back, covered in a synthetic rubber coating, allow it to fit snugly in a reader’s hands. “We probably could have reduced the thickness of the bezel, but then you don’t have anything to hold onto,” Brunner says. Shrinking down e-readers “has now become an ergonomic issue, not a hardware issue.”
“I don’t know what more possibly could be done to black-and-white e-readers,” says Allen Weiner, an analyst at Gartner (IT), who calls the All-New Nook “truly as good as it gets.” Nevertheless, analysts expect Amazon to release a new Kindle and an IPad-like tablet this fall. One new frontier will be cost: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the rest are all trying to drive the price tag for e-readers under $99. Brunner also wants to add more social features, allowing people to meet others who are reading the same book—and even the same passages—at the same time. He also can’t quite accept that every tablet and e-reader has to be so boringly … rectangular. “I have a hard time believing this is the only solution,” he says, waving to all the similarly shaped devices arranged in front of him, including the original Newton and the two black-and-white Nooks. “Human beings don’t have any 90-degree corners on them.”