We’re almost at a point where the Kindle name is, like Kleenex to tissues, interchangeable with e-reader. That’s fair; it was among the first in the US, and with the quiet retreats of Sony and Barnes & Noble’s Nook line, it’s among the last. But the introduction this week of an e-reader that both matches the top-end Kindle’s marquee feature and severely undercuts its price is a reminder that Amazon hasn’t monopolized the market yet. In fact, it’s got competition that’s more serious than you’d think.
The Kobo Glo HD won’t be available in the US until May 1, but when it arrives it’ll bring with it a display every bit as pixel-packed as Amazon’s stunning Kindle Voyage—at a $70 discount. The Glo HD also doesn’t appear to be cutting many hardware corners elsewhere to make up the cost; it’s just as light as the Voyage, and only very slightly thicker. The two use the same Carta E-Ink technology. Both are front-lit, though the Voyage finds a small advantage by automatically adjusting the brightness to best suit your surrounding conditions.
“With this particular device, we went to people who self-declare as being attached to paper,” says Michael Tamblyn, Kobo’s president and chief content officer. “We asked ourselves what characteristics would they want in a device to make the jump to e-reading.” Not surprisingly, they wanted a device that feels like a book. Based on its specs, the Glo HD comes about as close as you can get.
Despite the similarities to the Voyage, the Glo HD costs $130, compared to the $200 you’ll pay for Amazon’s base-level offering. In fact, you’ll pay less for the Glo HD than you would for the noticeably less crisp Kindle Paperwhite without the special offers, an apt comparison since Kobo doesn’t plaster any of its devices’ lock screens with ads.
You can’t judge any gadget on hardware alone, and the Kindle has plenty of advantages that don’t show up on a spec sheet. But for the right kind of consumer—the kind that still reads enough books to warrant a dedicated e-reading device instead of the occasional smartphone scrolling session—Kobo has importance beyond any individual product. It’s the last bastion of competition in a field that sorely needs it.
Turning the Page
The argument for Kobo is simply this: Without it, Amazon would be your only choice. Sony slinked off the e-reader field a year ago. Barnes & Noble hasn’t updated its Nook Glowlight since 2013, and seems to have zero interest in producing its own hardware. Kobo and Kindle are at this point the only mass-market e-readers, full stop. In other words, Kobo is the only company capable of pushing Kindle forward, and vice versa.
If you think that sort of competition doesn’t matter—that it’s just an e-reader, how much innovation do you really need—you just need to look at the Kobo Aura H20. Released last fall, it’s the only e-reader that gets delivered to your door waterproof. That’s a feature no Kindle can boast, unless you go the pricey aftermarket route.
Tamblyn is quick to cite other e-reader improvements Kobo has pioneered. In 2010, the Kobo e-reader’s $149 price tag significantly undercut its competition. Three years later, the 6.8-inch Aura HD was an affordable large-format e-reader (the 9.7-inch Kindle DX preceded it, but at a much higher price and for a more specialized audience) that set a new resolution standard for the time of its release. These are the types of efforts that have a gravity beyond their sales figures. A cheap Kobo makes Kindles cheaper. Kobo features that Kindles are likely to wind up in future Kindles. That’s just how competition works. And without Kobo, there isn’t any.
The need for a Kindle alternative goes deeper than just hardware. Kobo works with a broader range of file formats than Kindle does (though both use DRM on titles you purchase directly), and frankly has a less contentious relationship with major publishing houses. A public spat between Amazon and Hachette last spring led to delayed shipments, higher prices, and titles being pulled from the Kindle Store’s digital shelves. As many as 5,000 titles were affected.
Kobo’s hardly the only digital book retailer around; Barnes & Noble still moves plenty of merchandise through its Nook app, and upstart subscription service Oyster recently embraced retail as well. But by having an integrated hardware and software experience, Kobo gives its customers more direct, frictionless access to content than anyone but Amazon. And so far, unlike Amazon, it hasn’t used its customers as leverage in publisher spats.
That’s not to say Kobo’s perfect; there’s a selection trade-off here. Though Tamblyn describes his company and Amazon as “effectively peers” in quantity and quality of offerings (aside from content that comes from Amazon’s own publishing arm), the Kobo bookstore can feel jumbled and anemic in practice, versus the slickly produced and fully stocked Kindle Store. Tamblyn insists that the difference boils down to approaches to discovery. Kobo is “less automated” than Amazon’s algorithmic rigor, curated with more of a human touch. That’s likely true, but in my experience doesn’t always result in a better user experience.
How good a digital product is doesn’t mean much, though, if it’s not going to be supported in a year or two. And it’s tempting to think of Kobo as the doomed underdog; the name’s still not very familiar to the U.S. audience. But Tamblyn stresses that the Kobo’s focus has so far been on international markets, and that it has “significant global share,” despite often being an afterthought stateside.
More important than Kobo’s actual numbers, though, are those of its parent company, Rakuten, one of the world’s largest ecommerce companies that’s currently in expansion mode. You’re likely most familiar with Buy.com, which Rakuten acquired in 2010, but the easiest way to think of it is as the Amazon of Japan. Last year alone it tallied nearly $5 billion in revenue. It has a market cap of $25 billion. It’s no Amazon, but it’s not exactly Pets.com either.
That’s important not just for the confidence that you’re not buying off-brand junk—as someone who’s tested several Kobo products, I can assure you it’s not—but for the reassurance that there’s less risk than you thought to investing in the Kobo ecosystem. Rakuten is capable of thinking about, and surviving over, the long-term. Stashing your books on its devices is as safe a bet as any.
Fighting for Scraps?
There’s a looming hesitation around this entire discussion, which is how long e-readers will even continue to exist as a product at all. Forrester Research last year projected category sales to fall to 7 million per year by 2017, versus 25 million in 2012. The rise of big smartphones and small tablets appears to have made a powerful argument against a dedicated reading device.
While Tamblyn acknowledges that Kobo’s target demographic in the U.S. is an older generation experiencing e-reading for the first time, he’s perhaps predictably bullish on the industry’s prospects. There’s still a place for devices like Kindle and Kobo.
“People who love reading, who read a book or two a week, are much more likely to be drawn to a dedicated device,” he explains to WIRED. Many of those people are already too deeply invested in Amazon’s ecosystem to find their way out. But for newcomers to the e-reading experience, people who are tired of smartphone screen glare ruining their view, or of black-screen battery life woes, or of all the distractions that come with reading on the same device you tweet with, e-readers are a welcome respite.
In fact, one of the biggest contributors to e-reader sales decline is likely the same as that of tablets: You rarely need to replace them. A Paperwhite from two years ago is much the same as a Paperwhite today. Refresh rates get a little faster, E-Ink gets a little more crisp, but there’s not much about a new Kindle that would make you feel the need to replace your old one.
That’s the real reason Kobo matters. Without any rivalry at all, the pace of e-reader innovation would be even slower than it already is. Upgrades would either remain too expensive or too minor to bother with. Waterproofing would still be a distant dream. Kobo helps make e-readers worth buying again, wherever you end up actually buying one from.