In a decade from now, the physical book could be a quaint, archaic remnant of a by-gone past akin to wax records and black & white tube TVs, thanks to devices like the All-New Nook and the new Kobo Touch, essentially ereaders for the rest of us, especially the least tech savvy readers.

I got a chance to see the next-generation Nook in action at this morning’s introductory event. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let me touch it (other than a few sample pokes), but I got enough of a feel to make some observations about it’s impending popularity with gray-haired old ladies everywhere.

Both B&N and Kobo are smart – they’re expanding the market for ebooks beyond us tweaks and geeks to mom and grandma. B&N is marketing the All-New Nook – which is what they kept calling it – as The Simple Touch Reader. And they’re right.

Like the iPad, the All-New Nook (just Nook from now on) has ONE button, the familiar upside-down “U” on the bezel beneath the screen, unlike Kindle 3’s obtrusive and, maybe intimidating keyboard (to the novice). Nook has a pop-up keyboard when a keyboard is necessary (which isn’t often).

Touch simplifies navigation, as you can see in the (upcoming) video. Touching the pyramid/carat/page number at the bottom of the screen (the screen seems forgiving for elderly shaky or pudgy fingers) results in a simple pop-up array of options, including for changing font size, type and line spacing.

Grandma/Grandpa can swipe through pages or simply touch the side of a page to turn it, or can super speed scroll up-and-down through text. She can tap a word to highlight it for a dictionary search or drag the shading over a phrase or paragraph to underline or even share the thought with her friends.

B&N kept touting Nook’s non-flash capabilities – ebook readers “flash” when you turn a page (the screen becomes all black, for a moment), and often leave ghost letters behind. B&N claims to have eliminated 80 percent of this page-turn flashing and ghosting, but in the demos I was given I saw plenty of both. We weren’t allowed to touch because the OS wasn’t quite finished so perhaps this flashing/ghosting is part of the unfinished bit.

Nook doesn’t run Android like the Nook Color, and doesn’t have to. It doesn’t play music, it doesn’t play games. It’s an ebook reader, period, sort of a throwback to the original ebook readers, but much easier to use thanks to touch and much less expensive. I still think $99 is the magic figure, but at rate competition is heating up and prices are coming down, I’ll bet we get the next round of ereaders like this Nook for sub-$100 next year.

Like the Nook Color, users will have access to all the magazines and newspapers B&N offers, as well  a wide variety of book lending options the company has made available (also explained in the video). Maybe grand-parents will have a reason to get on Facebook now.

Physically, Nook does have the usual 6-inch Pearl E-Ink screen. But, at just 6.5 inches tall, Nook looks Danny DeVito-like squat when compared to the Kindles. Its high-contrast screen (16 levels of grey) didn’t seem to be bothered by the bright lights in the demonstration area, and I assume it’ll do fine in bright sunlight as all eReaders do.

Nook’s touchscreen uses the same Neonode infrared touchscreen technology the Sony and Kobo ereaders use, and it seems surprisingly reactive, especially the keyboard. I got to poke it a couple of times, and even though I came at links from an odd angle, Nook had no trouble translating my touch into the correct action. Even the shakiest arthritic fingers should have no trouble moving around Nook.

Perhaps Nook’s most important breakthrough is battery life. B&N says Nook will last two months on a single charge, more than twice as much as Kindle 3. Bear in mind, however, that time is an inaccurate measurement of battery life for an e-ink ereaders. E-ink displays requires power only when the ink gets re-arranged – when a page is turned. B&N (and I assume everyone else in the ebook reader biz) came up with the two months based on 30 minutes of speedy reading a day. If a person is a less regular slower reader, and doesn’t use the Wi-Fi much, Nook could conceivably last a year. If he/she spends most of the day reading, Nook may last only a couple of weeks before it needs recharging.

Nook’s operating system seems simpler than Kindle’s. In one example, the demonstrator needed only two taps to get to the “Biography” section of the B&N online store, but needed nine taps on the Kindle. Obviously, this demo was optimized to accentuate differences between the two, so I’ll reserve judgement on OS efficiency until I get my fingers on one.

Nook is shockingly light but doesn’t feel cheap (they let me hold it in my hand to gauge this). It’s got a contoured/concaved rubberized rear that does make it easier to hold and hold on to with one hand.
Other than the home key, Nook’s only other physical attribute is the covered microSD card slot on the right spine. But I doubt most users will even need to expand the memory – Nook holds a thousand books, and I somehow doubt that many people have read 1,000 books in their whole life.

As with most ereaders, Nook includes Wi-Fi, which may require some setup help for low-tech users, especially since many elderly people don’t have a router at home. But Nook, like the Color, will automatically connect when users wanders into a B&N store, where they’ll also be able to get free operating assistance.

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