Kobo On the Future of Ebook Readers, and Sony Reader Failures

Kobo is one of the few names in gadgets to make it on the strength of ebook readers alone. It makes three of the things, most notably the rather lovely Kobo Touch and the rather lowly Kobo Vox. To find out a little more about the Canadian newbie standing up to giants like Amazon and Sony, we talked to executive vice president of business development at Kobo Todd Humphrey.

The Kobo way
Kobo’s strategy in the UK has been pretty simple. It did a deal with WH Smith to win its ebook readers a great spot on the high street and then ensured they sold at a very aggressive price.

Head down to WH Smith and you can grab a Kobo Touch for £79.99. That may not seem dramatically cheap when the Amazon Kindle is just £89.99 – but let’s not forget that the touchscreen Kindle starts at £109. And you can’t even get one in the UK, yet.
Kobo Touch 2
Kobo eReader Touch

Of course, teaming-up with a major bookseller is nothing new. Most memorably, Sony partnered with Waterstones in 2008 to flog its Reader line, and yet in spite of significant backing in-store, the partnership never seemed all that successful.

We asked Kobo’s Todd Humphrey why he thought this was, when Kobo seems to have made an at least modest success of it. Humphreys said that in theory Sony “should own” the ebook reader market, having had a “two year head start” on its rivals. Sony’s PRS-500 launched in 2006. The first Kindle launched in late 2007. Kobo didn’t even exist until 2008 – and wasn’t known as Kobo until December 2009 (it was part of Indigo books beforehand).
Kobo Touch 1
Kobo’s Todd Humphrey

How did Sony squander such a head start?

It wasn’t a problem of hardware – it may not be pretty but the PRS-500 was a good ereader – but infrastructure. Humphrey says simply that its “library isn’t good enough”.

It’s hard not to agree. The Sony Reader Store – its book portal – only launched today, April 16, in the UK. The Sony PRS-T1, the first Wi-Fi-enabled Sony Reader has been around for six months. And in that time, clicking on the built-in link to the Reader Store resulted in a banner telling you it’d be there one day. Technology facepalm moments don’t get much more obvious than that.

Humphrey says Kobo’s strategy has three main elements. There’s the hardware, the library and there’s the wider app ecosystem. Like Amazon’s Kindle platform, the Kobo library is available on Android phones and iPhones in app form, as well as Kobo’s ereaders.

All three of these elements are important. To date eight million people have used the Kobo Store – and we’d guess that a lot of those aren’t using a Kobo ereader.

Speaking up for the Vox – E ink for the rubbish tip?
After saying Kobo puts a big focus on hardware, we couldn’t help but ask about the Kobo Vox’s poor critical reception. It’s Kobo’s colour, LCD-screen ereader – taking cues from the Amazon Kindle Fire. We gave it 3/10, if you haven’t already read our full review.

Kobo Touch
Kobo Vox

Humphrey says that the company looking at improvements that could be made to the Vox – although by no means a confirmation of the Vox 2 (or similar), it’s a suggestion that one may be on the cards. However, he also defended the tablet-ereader, citing Mums as particular fans of the tablet.

He also rather wittily summed up the problem with the tablet market – one that ensured the Vox a pasting by more tech-savvy crowd. As the iPad introduced such high standards in 2010, it’s like tablet buyers “drove a Ferrari out of the garage at age 16.” We’re spoilt, basically, and aren’t happy with screen’s we’d have lapped up a few years ago.

The future of ebook readers
The Vox is flawed, but as the latest Kobo product to hit shelves, it could be taken as a suggestion that Kobo is heading in a new direction – away from E Ink. Humphrey didn’t take this view, seeing it as “responding to customers”. That is, customers that want to play Angry Birds and read Tolstoy on the same device.

Is there a long-term future for E Ink, though? Humphrey isn’t so sure. He says that while it’s likely the dedicated E Ink reader will be around for “2-3 years” at least, skip forward five years and the same may not be true.

In recent months, there has been a trend for analysts to predict doom and gloom for the ereader market, following a cut in Amazon’s component orders for the E Ink Kindle. However, Humphrey brushes off these predictions, forecasting a “sales spike” this year that will ereader see units sold increase steadily. While he didn’t have any particularly concrete reasoning for this, we hope he’s right – we’re not keen to wave goodbye to the E Ink ereader any time soon.

Do you have a Kobo ereader? Drop us a line with your thoughts in the comments.

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