Piggyback tech: Winning tack for Nook and Windows Phone?

Commentary: Microsoft and Barnes & Noble have both brought key software to alternative devices that have a solid footing. But just one has a clear-cut edge.

If you can't beat 'em join 'em. For years, companies that have found themselves in second or third place behind market leaders have pushed bravely to create their own versions of the Apple or Android models -- either by tightly integrating hardware and services, or by working with partners to develop a new spin.

htc-one-m8-for-windows-jason-mackenzie-033.jpg
HTC President of Americas Jason Mackenzie introduces the HTC One M8 for Windows in New York City in August 2014. CNET/Sarah Tew

But recent moves by Microsoft and Barnes & Noble have tried a new tack -- piggybacking on established hardware without requiring any modification. Microsoft did this by working with HTC and getting Windows Phone running on the flagship HTC One M8, five months after that smartphone debuted with Android on it. Hackers have a long history of getting Android running on Windows Phones. But the HTC One M8 for Windows, as it's called, is of course bona fide, offering full support of such features as HTC's BoomSound and its Duo camera.

Barnes & Noble, meanwhile, decided to stop butting its head against stronger competitors in the tablet hardware business. Instead, it has partnered with Samsung to produce the Galaxy Tab 4 Nook. As with Windows Phone on the HTC One M8, nothing differentiates the product from a standard Galaxy Tab 4 except software.

So. Two companies that have struggled in a gadget category have slid into a new skin. Who wears it better?

For Microsoft, getting onto the HTC One is all about diversification. The company did, of course, spend $7 billion to acquire the handset operations of Nokia, which has a near monopoly in Windows Phone devices. But much of that has been due to relatively weak competition. In putting Windows Phone on a leading Android smartphone with great design, Microsoft gets to offer an alternative to those who aren't enamored of the Lumia's bright color motif or who want HTC features such as BoomSound.

For Barnes & Noble, Nook on Samsung is less about differentiation and much more about distribution, branding, and a bit of promotion, as the longtime bookseller is offering an eclectic mix of content ranging from one-off TV episodes to a few bestsellers.

Still, between the two, the company that played the card better is Barnes & Noble. With the end of its own-brand Nook tablets, it lost out on the chance to own a software experience. But now it gets to prominently feature its online bookstore over alternatives such as Google Play Books and Amazon's app even as they are just a click away from users. It also gains the rich suite of other apps available from Google Play, trumping the selection of apps available on Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets.

Microsoft simply gains less. The HTC One with Windows so far is available on only one major US carrier -- Verizon -- which already has a Windows Phone flagship (or close to it) in the Lumia Icon.

Barnes & Noble would have done even better had it gained some concession from Samsung, perhaps an exclusive window on a new display technology or -- ideally -- making the Nook-friendly tablet the only 7-inch Galaxy Tab offering. But, for now, it's up to the company to prove the value of an uncompromised Android tablet to its readers and in its stores. That may lead to stronger collaboration in the future.

 

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