Turns out the mysterious photos released last week of a rumored Barnes & Noble-sponsored digital reader were the real deal. B&N CEO Steve Riggio along with B&N.com president William Lynch were on hand to show off the new device—called the Nook—at a packed press conference on the west side of Manhattan Tuesday afternoon. The Nook is an unusual dual screen digital reader—it has a six-inch grayscale E-Ink display with a full-color backlit touch-control screen situated just below—that raises the ante on E-Ink devices. The Nook offers a virtual keyboard, two GB of internal memory with expandable (16 gig) SD card and five different fonts.

The device will go on sale exclusively in B&N stores and through B&N.com at the end of November, and the nook.com site has already gone live. Priced, unsurprisingly, at $259, the same price as the Amazon Kindle 2, the Nook not only offers wireless connectivity over a 3G network (AT&T) but also Wi-Fi connectivity as well—although Lynch originally said the Wi-fi would be limited to in-store access, a B&N spokesperson issued a correction. The device will connect with any Wi-Fi network. In addition Nook owners can wirelessly lend/transmit titles for up to 14 days (although once lent, the book’s owner cannot access it) to anyone else with a Nook, iPhone or other selected smartphone OS that has the B&N eReader software installed.

The device supports EPub and PDF as well as the Fictionwise eReader format (the e-tailer was acquired by B&N last year), and consumers can purchase titles directly through the machine. Indeed, B&N is going all out to highlight its e-book flexibility—Nook owners will be able to move their e-books from device to device and read their B&N e-books on their iPhone, Blackberry or what have you. Lynch claimed the Nook will synch with more than 100 mobile devices. In addition to the LendMe function, B&N plans to step up its in-store Wi-Fi broadcasting to allow Nook owners to browse freely through any e-book B&N has for sale while in the store—no downloading; content will be streamed.

BN.com president Bill Lynch (l.) and the Nook design team (l. to r.) of
Douglas Gottlieb and
Tony Astarita at the press conference

In fact, B&N plans to offer all manner of exclusive wireless content and promotions—including free e-book downloads—only in its stores. In promotion for the device, the first 10,000 customers to buy a Nook will get a free copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point—and to prove it, Gladwell was on hand at the press conference and walked across the stage, Nook in hand, reading from his book.

Looking to leverage its bookstore network, B&N will roll out a specially designed in-store nook, well, display nook for the device. Yes, there’s more. Lynch expects to offer Nook apps, although he declined to specify whether the apps would be B&N-developed or if third-party software developers would be invited. Oh, no Web browsing; “Web browsing is clumsy on E-Ink devices,” he said. Lynch also said to look for bundling of e-books and print books; perhaps a larger format Nook for the educational market and maybe library sales. Asked about exclusive releases through the Nook—in other words, original e-publishing—Lynch gave a kind of nonaffirmative affirmation along the lines of “we’re working with our publishing partners.” Of course, Amazon is publishing exclusively to the Kindle right now, and no doubt B&N will as well. The reader is launching with more than one million books available for download, a figure that includes over 500,000 public domain titles. The price for bestsellers is $9.99, and Lynch said B&N will remain competitive on price—no matter what the eventual price points turn out to be.

The Nook is certainly another step forward in the evolution of E-Ink digital reading devices. While B&N will continue to sell e-books with DRM, it is offering consumers a much more open and flexible digital reading system than the Kindle or even the now-open Sony Reader. The Nook’s price is attractive, and while the color touch-screen controls seem more about being cool than being necessary, the LendMe function, the synching with other mobile devices and B&N’s planned in-store wireless broadcasting/promotions have a very good chance of offering Amazon and the Kindle 2 some stiff competition over the holiday sales season.