Kobo fights Amazon with the one thing it has that the giant doesn't: friends

The Aura HD is a great bit of hardware, but that's not where the battle of ereaders is being fought.

The 2003 film The Corporation assess the idea of corporate personhood, the legal fiction that allows companies to exist, and argues that the structures that keep them in place compel them to act in a way that, it claims, is psychopathic. But the partnerships displayed at the launch last night of e-reading company Kobo's new Aura HD device will hopefully end up disproving the claim. That, or there are a lot more sheep signing strategic deals with wolves than I thought.

Kobo is in town for the London Book Fair, and used the opportunity to launch its new ereader. The tech itself is fancy as hell: described by the company as being designed from the ground up for "passionate" readers, it's got an ultra-high resolution screen (slightly sharper than an iPad 4's, though at that stage, who's counting?), sharp industrial design, and a speedy processor that makes it feel faster than any e-ink reader I've used before. It's also got everything that we've come to expect as standard: a backlit touchscreen, wireless syncing, a built-in dictionary, optional fonts, and so on.

But it was the build-up to the announcement – a Steve Jobs-inspired "one more thing" at the end of a press conference – that I found most interesting. The elephant in the room was, clearly, Amazon, whose Kindle reader dominates the market. But the way Kobo is choosing to fight that dominance suggests a level of trust between companies which is rare to find in an industry as cutthroat and rapidly changing as this one.

Amazon is the business you don't want on your turf. Matt Yglesias described it as "a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers" and he's not far off. If it decides to compete with you, your options are dramatically limited: you can't undercut it, because it doesn't care about profits. You can't live in an under-served niche, because Amazon's scale lets it serve every sector out there. And you can't really pivot into a new business, because if you can, Amazon can too – and will.

But Kobo's strategy seems to be make use of the one thing Amazon doesn't have: friends. The distinction is clearest when it comes to retail partners. Stephen Clarke, the CEO-designate of WHSmith's, spoke about the chain's working relationship with Kobo. Following what he described as an "interesting courtship" – "a little bit of falling out, a little bit of hissy fitting, a little bit of 'it's not me it's you'" – the two companies are now selling Kobo readers in a shop-within-a-shop in WHSmith's Oxford Street branch, and plan to expand that to 100 shops around the country. And the deal is reciprocal: while Kobo gets to sell in WHSmith locations, the latter now has a white-label ebookstore where customers can buy Kobo books.

That's a far cry from Amazon's relationship with brick-and-mortar retailers, which is basically to make them cry. But there's also less of an air of menace in Kobo's relationship with publishers. That's a group which Amazon needs to keep onside – for now – because they do make most of the books which the company sells. But the company has made no secret of its desire to be a publisher itself, and has made several aggressive moves into the sector.

Again, contrast that with the presence of Stephen Page, the CEO of Faber and Faber, at the launch. Page spoke about his company's transformation as a result of the internet, with particular focus on the conversation it lets happen with readers. A data-sharing agreement has been worked out, and the two companies seem to be going forward with a far less passive-aggressive relationship than many.

But even if everything is smiles now, can it last? Kobo's CEO, Michael Serbinis, spoke about his expectation that the transition to ebooks would be a 25 year change. Big transformations have happened already, even in the three years the company's been working with WHSmith, but we still don't know what the end stage looks like.

Retailers clearly hope there is a space for them in that future, and Kobo is eager to convince them that's the case. But it's hard to believe that there won't be some point where the latter finds it easier to go alone – and when that comes, will a history of friendship mean anything at all?

The Kobo Aura HD. Photograph: Kobo

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.