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?