Here’s the secret to Amazon’s, B&N’s tablet strategy

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Barnes & Noble is holding a press event on Nov. 7, where it’s expected to launch a successor to its popular Nook Color. Details and specifications of the new Nook Tablet have already leaked to the web: The 7-inch slate gains performance, loses weight, and holds the same $249 price point as the prior model. It’s too bad other tablet-makers aren’t taking a cue from Barnes & Noble as well as from Amazon and its Kindle Fire tablet: Simplicity and reasonable prices, not specs, will win the tablet wars.

Sometimes, less is more

Both Amazon’s and Barnes & Noble’s tablets share this idea of simplicity and relatively low cost, with each priced far below the typical $499 entry point for a larger tablet. But neither is meant to handle some of the heavier computer-like tasks of their bigger brethren. While some people have used an iPad or Android tablet to replace some — or in a few extreme cases, all — of the functions of a laptop, neither the Fire nor the Nook are computer replacements.

And that allows both companies to focus on providing a great experience for the functions that consumers most want: reading digital media, browsing the web, consuming video content, checking email and running a handful of popular applications found in curated application stores. Think of the controlled Apple iPad experience in a cheaper, smaller form factor.

I say “controlled” because although both the Fire and Nook are built on Google’s Android platform, each has a custom interface that completely hides any of Android’s warts. Both also have their own third-party app stores filled with compatible Android apps, but those apps are chosen by Amazon and Barnes & Noble; the approach eliminates tens of thousands of marginal software titles. Also eliminated is a lengthy carrier contract. Since both devices are Wi-Fi only and have no mobile-broadband radio, there’s no contract, nor a monthly fee for 3G or 4G service.

Other times, more is too much

Contrast the approach of these two tablets with the array of iPad-competitors from Samsung, Motorola, HTC and others. Most of these cost far more. Yes, many Android tablets are similar in size to the iPad, if not larger, but Samsung and HTC both offer a 7-inch slate as well. I bought a 7-inch Galaxy Tab last December for $300 — $100 more than the Fire and $50 more than the new Nook — but it came with a contract for the 3G radio, which costs me an additional $40 per month. I gain more mobility since the device has connectivity anywhere, but it’s not always $40 worth of additional mobility on a monthly basis.

The real problem is that traditional computing companies making tablets have used a computing-centric approach to their tablets. The devices are often marketed more though the specifications and not on the experience the devices can provide. Throwing more hardware inside the tablet doesn’t guarantee a best seller. Instead, a focused ecosystem with digital content, paired with inexpensive but capable hardware is a likely better recipe for success. Both newcomers to the tablet market have content; the computer-makers don’t.

Even from a strict hardware perspective, Barnes & Noble has out-maneuvered the traditional computer makers when it comes to tablets. If the leaked Nook Tablet specs are accurate, the $249 device has a dual-core processor, 16 GB of memory with an SD card expansion port, a 7-inch display with 1024 x 600 resolution and an expected battery life of 8 hours. Compared to Samsung’s new Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, now available on Amazon for $399, it’s nearly a mirror image of specifications, yet costs $150 less.

Another lesson learned for the traditional hardware makers: You can sell your hardware at cost, or a loss, if you can sell content to make up the difference.

One tablet market is suddenly two

Barnes & Noble essentially created the beginnings of a second tablet market by releasing the original Nook Color last year. This holiday season, the market expands with a $199 Kindle Fire and a new $249 Nook Tablet. And the original, and still capable Nook Color from last year is expected to see a price drop to $199. At this price range, these smaller slates get closer to becoming an impulse purchase and are surely good candidates for top sellers as holiday gifts. The same can’t be said of larger tablets that cost twice as much or more.

Surprisingly, it took two booksellers / digital content companies to figure out there’s a market for smaller, less expensive tablets that focus on key consumer activities. The Fire and Nook may not be computer replacements, but for most people, neither is the iPad, yet it’s easily outselling comparable Android tablets by a large margin according to the limited data available.

It’s almost a shame that the computer makers didn’t see what we saw more than a year ago: Building a solid, but inexpensive tablet that does a few desirable things very well may be the better strategy for selling a tablet that isn’t called the iPad.

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