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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Donald Trump promises quick Brexit trade deal - but the pound still falls

The incoming President was talking to cast out Brexiteer, Michael Gove. 

The incoming President, Donald Trump, told the Brexiteer Michael Gove he would come up with a UK-US trade deal that was "good for both sides".

The man who styled himself "Mr Brexit" praised the vote in an interview for The Times

His belief that Britain is "doing great" is in marked contrast to the warning of current President, Barack Obama, that Brexit would put the country "at the back of the queue" for trade deals.

But while Brexiteers may be chuffed to have a friend in the White House, the markets think somewhat differently.

Over the past few days, reports emerged that the Prime Minister, Theresa May, is to outline plans for a "hard Brexit" with no guaranteed access to the single market in a speech on Tuesday.

The pound slipped to its lowest level against the dollar in three months, below $1.20, before creeping up slightly on Monday.

Nigel Green, founder and chief executive of the financial planners deVere Group, said on Friday: "A hard Brexit can be expected to significantly change the financial landscape. As such, people should start preparing for the shifting environment sooner rather than later."

It's hard to know the exact economic impact of Brexit, because Brexit - officially leaving the EU - hasn't happened yet. Brexiteers like Gove have attacked "experts" who they claim are simply talking down the economy. It is true that because of the slump in sterling, Britain's most international companies in the FTSE 100 are thriving. 

But the more that the government is forced to explain what it is hoping for, the better sense traders have of whether it will involve staying in the single market. And it seems that whatever the President-Elect says, they're not buying it.


 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.