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.

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Jeremy Corbyn and his opponents are now locked in a permanent struggle

Labour MPs will neither accept Corbyn’s leadership nor abandon the party if he wins again.

 

In September 2003, outraged by Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq War, Jeremy Corbyn declared in the Morning Star that there should be “an annual election for leader”. Thirteen years later, in rather different circumstances, his wish has been granted. Yet the Labour leader has little cause for regret. There is no evidence that the sequel will end differently from the original.

Having failed to force Corbyn to re-seek MP nominations (a decision being challenged in court by the Labour donor Michael Foster as the New Statesman went to press), his opponents imposed other obstacles. Those who had been members for less than six months were barred from voting. Registered supporters were required to pay £25 to participate, rather than last year’s £3. Corbyn’s foes hoped that both decisions would shrink his support base, perhaps to the point of defeat.

Yet the early indications are that he has cleared these hurdles. A YouGov poll published on 19 July found that among eligible members Corbyn would beat Owen Smith with 56 per cent of the vote to his opponent’s 34 per cent. Of the 140,000 registered supporters likely to be approved, between 55 and 75 per cent are thought to be pro-Corbyn. Although the leadership result will not be announced until 24 September, ballot papers will be distributed from 22 August. Smith, the former shadow work and pensions secretary, has less than a month to overturn Corbyn’s advantage.

The last Labour leader to face a contest was Neil Kinnock, challenged by Tony Benn in 1988. Today, the roles have been reversed. A hard-left Bennite is the incumbent, while a soft-left Welshman is the challenger. No one expects a result as resounding as that of 1988, when Kinnock prevailed with 89 per cent to Benn’s 11 per cent. Smith’s team concede that they are “the underdogs”.

It was as a “clean skin”, untainted by the Iraq War and service in the last Labour government, that the Pontypridd MP was endorsed by colleagues over Angela Eagle. But his low profile has been exploited by his opponents. Corbyn’s allies have framed Smith as a Big Pharma lobbyist (he was formerly head of policy for Pfizer) and an NHS privatiser (he suggested in 2006 that firms could provide “valuable services”). The Labour leader’s social media presence, the terrain on which party elections are now won and lost, gives him a formidable edge.

Some MPs believe that Smith should have defined himself more clearly in the six months between signalling his leadership ambitions and launching his campaign. Comparisons are drawn with Ed Miliband, who allowed his opponents to fill the vacuum following his victory in 2010.

Smith has made electability his defining dividing line with Corbyn. The leader’s supporters, however, either do not conceive of his project in such terms or regard his opponent as no more capable of winning. Victory for Smith, they fear, would precipitate a rightward shift on austerity and immigration. Some share the assessment of a shadow cabinet minister who told me that the aspirant leader would be challenged if he won. “The Blairites won’t rest until they’ve got their party back,” he said.

Corbyn’s team is confident of victory and confronts the charge of unelectability. A source spoke of the campaign as a chance to “showcase our levels of organisation” and “build a movement that can win a general election”. Labour MPs concede that they are unlikely to beat Corbyn but hope to narrow his margin of victory and win among full members. This would deny him the right to boast of an “overwhelming” mandate and grant his opponents greater legitimacy.

In any discussion of Labour’s crisis, the 1980s are invoked. But the differences are as notable as the similarities. The left today controls the leadership, rather than merely the constituencies; the trade unions are no longer right-aligned; a “one member, one vote” system has replaced the electoral college. It was in less adverse circumstances, then, that 28 Labour MPs joined the break­away Social Democratic Party in 1981. For this reason, the possibility of a new schism endlessly recurs in media debate. Yet it is not one that MPs intend to pursue.

Labour’s tribalists have no intention of leaving their party, while the more tactically minded see little potential for a new grouping to flourish. The electoral marketplace is too crowded to achieve power without coalitions, merely replicating present divisions in a new form. Theresa May’s economic interventionism further limits the space for a centre-left insurgency to occupy.

Rather than retreating, Labour MPs intend to mount repeated challenges to Corbyn. As one told me, “We only need to get lucky once. He needs to get lucky every time.” Corbyn’s allies are hopeful that some rebels will emulate Sarah Champion MP and rejoin the front bench if he wins. One suggested that the proposed boundary changes, which will be published on 13 September, would encourage discipline in order to prevent deselection by local activists. Still, most MPs have no intention of rescinding their opposition to Corbyn.

It is deselection by the electorate at large, rather than by members, that some in Labour fear most. Though May has ruled out an early contest (having privately assured backers that she would not trigger one), the temptation could prove irresistible. An ICM poll published on 26 July gave the Tories their highest lead (16 points) since 2009. Prime ministers are rarely stronger than when they first enter office, a lesson that Gordon Brown neglected fatally. But such are Labour’s divisions that May could conclude that she need not show haste. Until the members reflect the MPs, or the MPs reflect the members, unity will remain elusive. As Corbyn and his opponents contemplate a struggle with no obvious end, the prize that both seek is rapidly diminishing in value.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue