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: ASA
Show Hide image

Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA