Two months after announcing plans to deliver a new Nook tablet based on the Galaxy Tab 4, Samsung and Barnes & Noble are now selling the device. The awkwardly named Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 Nook looks like a solid and affordable entry in already-crowded mini-tablet market. But looking at this product through a Microsoft lens, it's hard not to wonder about an alternate reality in which this device was a Nook-branded Surface Mini.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 Nook is a 7-inch mini-tablet with mainstream specs, like the 1280 x 800 screen resolution, though that should serve Barnes & Noble's customer base well. (The bookseller doesn't even list the CPU type on its specs page, but Samsung reports it's a 1.2 GHz quad-core processor.) The device has a piddling 8 GB of internal storage, but can be expanded via microSD. It comes in white or black cases, both attractive looking.
And it does run the latest version of Android (4.4 KitKat), though it's not yet clear whether you can get Google's Play Store on there, which I consider crucial. You could with previous Nook tablets.
Barnes & Noble and Samsung announced the Galaxy Tab 4 Nook in June as a replacement for the bookseller's previous generation tablets, which were out of date and getting a bit long in the tooth. At $179 (normally $199), the Galaxy Tab 4 Nook is a good, but not exceptional deal. For example, the Google Nexus 7 costs $229 and up, but it offers twice the storage (16 GB vs. 8 GB). And a non-Nook Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 is the same price as the Nook version at Amazon right now: $179, though it is normally $199 too. (Previous generation Nook tablets were even cheaper; the 7-inch model was just $129.)
The tablet also joins an already over-crowded and complex selection of Samsung tablets, which range in sizes from 7-inches all the way up to 12.2-inches. Looking just at the 7-inch tablets, Samsung sells six distinct models not including a few aimed specifically at small children. It's a bit tedious, but that's Samsung. And the device is most likely a good match for Barnes & Noble, which was hurting and could use a recognizable brand to help out Nook.
So yet another low-end Android tablet isn't necessarily all that interesting. But as noted, I look at this thing and I think: What if?
You may recall that Microsoft and Barnes & Noble have had a very strange on-again-off-again relationship that could have—but didn't—culminated in Microsoft buying Nook and adopting the platform as part of its overall entertainment strategy. Instead of a Samsung Nook, we'd have gotten a Surface Nook. Or what Mary Jo Foley calls a "Wook" (as in Windows Nook).
The history here is a bit convoluted. But it began when Microsoft approached Barnes & Nobles, as it did all major Android licensees, to get it to agree to broad patent cross-licensing. Unlike most companies, Barnes & Noble declined, was sued by Microsoft, and was facing an epic court battle at which Microsoft's Android-related patents would finally be put to the test.
Then, at the last minute, sanity prevailed: On the eve of the trial, Microsoft and Barnes & Noble agreed to a settlement, with Barnes & Noble licensing Microsoft's patents and the two firms collaborating to spinoff the Nook business. Microsoft was to own 17.6 percent of Nook, thanks to a $300 million investment, and Barnes & Noble agreed to release a Windows 8 Nook app.
Why would Microsoft invest in an Android hardware business? Turns out, Microsoft wanted to buy Nook for $1 billion, switch the hardware over to Windows, and add Nook to its stable of Xbox-branded entertainment services. And if it couldn't get the whole business, it sought to at least get the hardware switched over to Windows.
Last August, however, Barnes & Noble reversed course again. It decided to not sell off Nook, to Microsoft or anyone else. Microsoft actually tried to expand its Nook investment, another bit of Ballmer-era craziness, but the bookseller was walking away from Microsoft, and Windows, for good. It stopped development of the Windows 8 Nook app (though it is still available and is quite good) and canceled the Windows Phone version. And then it signed up with Samsung to develop a new Nook tablet.
So that's where we're at today. No Wook.
It's too bad: I think Nook would have been a nice addition to Microsoft's ecosystem, and that a Surface Nook e-reader tablet would have been a great little device. In fact, I'm pretty sure Surface Mini happened specifically because the Nook deals never came to fruition.