Stumbling onto Kobo, reviewing its threat to Kindle Store

The Kindle and the Kindle Store co-exist only for each other. They are like two childhood friends who shun the company of others. No other eReader, and no other eBook Store, is let in – although a few tablets and phones are allowed to partake of the exquisite joy found in conversing with the Kindle Store.

In the world of eReaders, outside of the little Kindle clique, lie a variety of stores and eReaders that mingle freely. Amongst that milieu one store has begun to attract quite a lot of attention.

Stumbling on to the Kobo Store

Yesterday, the Kobo Store had a one-time use 50% off coupon – a coupon you could use on one out of a few hundred books. Today, it has a 20% off coupon valid on 40 or so books.

On top of these offers is this enticing claim -

Between 13th and 26th December, spend over $35 and get a 45% off coupon. Spend over $25, and you get a 35% off coupon.

Let’s get this straight – First, there’s 50% off, then there’s a coupon for another 35% off?

That does sound very compelling.

There are also a few other things working in Kobo Store’s favor.

Wonder of wonders – The store isn’t restricted to the US. Nor does it make things difficult – In fact, the store is reasonably easy to search through. Plus, unlike the Nook Store, its books work on any eReader. Finally, it uses the mildly awkward Adobe Digital Editions to authenticate books for devices, and not custom-made, super-awkward software like Sony Reader does.

It’s also a civilized store – not asking eReader owners to do anything untoward like enter special passwords.

3 Magic Words

Bought a book. Now reading it on the Nook Color.

There was one magic moment. The book bought from the Kobo Store had this in the ‘Book Info’ section -

Permissions set by the publisher

Allow viewing: on any device.

It’s such a strange contrast. My Kindle books are permanently welded to the Kindle, and to Kindle Reading Apps. My Nook Books are similarly intertwined with B&N’s offerings. Yet, here is a Kobo book that doesn’t discriminate.

3 magical words - on any device.

All it takes is one purchase

After that one purchase everything changes -

  1. Kobo has my credit card information now.
  2. Reading a Kobo Store book makes me a Kobo customer.
  3. The realization hits home - There is an option other than hacking Nook Color to run Kindle for Android. 
  4. The 3 magic words are now stuck in my subconscious.
  5. It becomes apparent that the Kobo Store is pretty decent. Prices for some books are higher than Kindle Store, and the range is less – But it’s decent.

That 50% sale paid off with this eReader owner – Kobo becomes the default store powering my Nook Color.

The Nook Store won’t even let me buy books. My US credit card has a Canadian address, and that’s not good enough for B&N. Understandable – given all the profit they’ve been making recently.

Kindle Store won’t let me read books on Nook. Hacking an eReader just to run Kindle for Android is a bit extreme – especially when Nook Color works really well as is.

Kobo Store is a valid threat to Kindle Store

Kobo eReader lacks punch. It also lacks personality, features, infrastructure, and any hint of excitement. It’s the type of device Steve Jobs has nightmares about. He probably screams – Not a Big Blue Button. For the love of God. Off with his head! - in his sleep.

Yet, Kobo eReader has the support of a Kobo Store that is quite impressive.

Here are a few of the Kobo Store’s advantages -

  1. The books work on any eReader that supports ePub.
  2. You can take your library with you if you switch devices.
  3. It works internationally. Not sure which countries other than US and Canada.
  4. It’s very aggressive with discounts and coupons.
  5. It’s managed to incorporate a lot of free books from Smashwords.
  6. It’s a decent store – easy to navigate, clear and clean-cut, beginning to get user reviews.
  7. There are good Kobo reading apps for other platforms.

Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t make any big, huge mistakes. There are some horrendously priced books – However, that has more to do with the kind and benevolent Agency Model.

Amazon has no option but to sell ePub editions to eReader owners whose eReaders support ePub

Here’s a suggestion from K H Acton -

What if Amazon SOLD ePub books along with its proprietary format, but limited the Kindle to the proprietary format. Then it could keep Kindle customers using the best ebook store around AND open the best bookstore to the ePub readers.

It’s an absolutely brilliant suggestion.

Look at the threat Kobo Store poses, and the suggestion is not only brilliant, but also timely. It would be a proactive move that would prevent Kobo Store from eating up the entire non-Kindle market.

  1. With Sony’s terrible Reader Store, and B&N’s ‘ePub that works only on Nook’ fiasco, the Kobo is the clear #1 choice.
  2. If Amazon lets that status quo remain, soon Kobo will be making a ton of money from eBook sales.
  3. That would put Kobo in position to mount an all-out attack on Kindle’s lead – in both eReaders and eBooks.
  4. If Amazon sells books in ePub format, to eReader owners whose eReaders support ePub, it becomes the best eBook Store for them instantly. That prevents Kobo from being their #1 option.
  5. It would curtail the Kobo threat - Before it became a huge one.

Amazon can ill-afford to let a single rival store become the eBook source for all non-Kindle devices. Kobo is threatening to do that with its excellent, ‘works on any device’, ebook store.

Will Amazon make a proactive move to fend off Kobo?

Kobo Store is likely to grow into a big and dangerous threat to the Kindle Store. You could argue that Kobo isn’t yet a real threat – that Amazon should wait 2 years to see if Kobo or another ePub store manages to unite the ePub hordes.

However, there’s no point in launching ePub support for non-Kindle eReader owners after another store has established itself. The real value would be in making the move now.

Amazon has shown a tendency to let its rival eReaders and rival stores make moves first – PDF support, books in the browser, touch. It waits for the move, measures/estimates the impact, and then counters. With Kobo, it’s a different situation – Kobo is wrapping up customers and becoming stronger. Amazon needs to be proactive – It needs to stop the rise of Kobo before Kobo gets to the stage where it turns into a monster.

What might Kobo do to become a bigger threat to Amazon?

Kobo can actually do a lot -

  1. Match Kindle Store on ebook prices across the board.
  2. Release an eReader that looks like it’s at least trying.
  3. Target Nook and Sony Reader owners more aggressively.
  4. Keep expanding its international reach.
  5. Find a way to sell to Kindle owners.
  6. Release a Kobo Tablet.
  7. Target Nook Color owners very aggressively.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for Kobo is in targeting all the new Nook, Nook Color, and Sony Reader owners. Kobo’s already good enough to become the eBook store of choice for non-Kindle eReaders – It just has to get the word out.

The threats to Kindle and Kindle Store keep multiplying

Kobo is the latest addition to a long list of significant threats to the Kindle.

Nook Color is currently the single biggest threat to the Kindle – ever. Nothing else is even close – Nook Color makes the iPad seem like an overweight sumo wrestler trying kickboxing.

Kobo Store seems a distant threat – However, it’s almost as dangerous as Nook Color. Kobo Store can sell books to every single non-Kindle eReader. It might end up being the one eBook store that rules the entire ePub world.

The other threats we keep hearing about. Yet, they aren’t the ones Amazon should worry about first. Nook Color and Kobo eBook Store will end up being the biggest challenges for the Kindle.

5 Kindle 3 Competitors 2010

While the Kindle 3 is having a great run of sales there are several potentially dangerous Kindle 3 competitors set to launch this year – some in the new few weeks and some by Christmas.

Let’s take a look.

Kindle 3′s Biggest Competitor – Nook 2

The Nook 2 showed up at the FCC several weeks ago. Around the same time B&N announced that its grand strategy to fight Kindle 3 was to create small Nook stores modeled on the Apple Store design within B&N bookstores. That strategy doesn’t make sense unless there’s a new improved Nook to sell.

It seems that early in September we’ll see the Nook 2 launch in parallel with these new Nook Stores and perhaps that’ll be enough to stop the Kindle 3 from taking over the eReader market.

My money’s on Nook 2 arriving with – eInk Pearl Screen, a better version of the LendMe feature, far less bugs, better integration between LCD touchscreen and eInk screen. It would be a surprise if it had one or more of – touch screen, text to speech, accessibility. It would also be a surprise if B&N started selling it outside the US.

Kindle 3′s Touch screen Competitor – Sony 650

The rumors about the Sony 650 are much stronger since we’ve seen Sony Insider reveal a lot of details including -

  1. Touch layer that goes below eInk and thus doesn’t impede readability.
  2. Strong hints that eInk Pearl is involved.
  3. The new Sony Reader 650 is supposed to be very thin (less than 10 mm) and very compact.
  4. It’s supposed to have WiFi and there are even a few rumors of 3G connectivity.
  5. There’s talk of a new user interface and a few people have suggested Android is involved.

If Sony 650 can pull all this off then its existing strengths (library books, ePub, compactness, good looks, touch) will combine with new strengths (better readability, eInk Pearl screen, WiFi, better user interface) to make a very impressive eReader.

Sony’s store and infrastructure will still be lacking but it might have a surprise trump card there as Google Editions is supposed to launch soon (rumors say October) and might be integrated into Sony 650.

Big in Russia Competitor – Pocketbook

At MobileRead they’ve found images of the new generation of PocketBook eReaders. It seems there are five versions -

  1. Pocketbook 602 which has a Kindle 2 style aluminium back,  speakers at the bottom, page turn buttons on one side, and a circular navigator/5-way.
  2. Pocketbook Pro 603 which has 3G, comes with a stylus which indicates a touch screen and possible handwriting support, and looks pretty similar to the 602.
  3. Pocketbook 902 which is a 10″ screen version of the 602.
  4. Pocketbook Pro 903 which seems to be a 10″ version of the 603.
  5. Pocketbook IQ which looks a lot like an iPad and has a TFT color screen. It’s probably the best looking of the bunch.  

These are all being made by FoxConn which also manufactures Kindle 3, iPad, Nook, and iPhone.

Here are some very interesting details courtesy IgorSK -

  • The software for the 902, 903, 602, and 603 models is based on Linux and is Open Source. The Pocketbook IQ runs Android 2.0.
  • There’s text to speech with 4 languages pre-installed and another 28 possible. 
  • There’s an accelerometer. 
  • It supports ePub and PDF with DRM and 14 other formats. 
  • Dictionaries for 20 languages.
  • Support for adding notes.
  • Folders with sub-Folders.
  • There might be PC apps to support the eReaders. Perhaps they mean something like Kindle for PC.
  • All models have 2 GB memory.
  • All models have WiFi while two (603 and 903) also have 3G.
  • The 603 and 903 have Wacom touchscreens.

It’s interesting that they’ve made it so that absolutely any apps or software can be installed on top of the existing OS. There’s also a comment saying that Pocketbook is selling over 50,000 eReaders a month and that it’s the leading eReader in Russia.

The models are supposed to be available in November 2010. There are some comments at Mobile Read that Pocketbook doesn’t support ePub and PDF well and that there are often text formatting errors.

In terms of price the claim is that prices might be 450 Euro for the Pocketbook 903, 400 Euro for the Pocketbook 902, and under 300 Euro for the Pocket book 603. That’s way more expensive than Kindle 3 and Kindle DX 2.

Lots of complaints on the supposed prices and, in my opinion, if those really are the prices it kills the PocketBook’s chances of doing damage in the US eReader market.

‘It’ll arrive some day’ Competitor – the mythical Android Tablet

Not exactly an eReader but considered a Kindle 3 rival nonetheless.

The great hope was Adam which would use the magical Pixel Qi screen with Android. Supporting Flash seems to have killed Adam’s chances of arriving early and perhaps Apple really is right about Flash not being worth the trouble.  

A seemingly endless number of Android Tablets have been announced but none have seemed to materialize.

  1. Will there be any by Christmas? Probably.
  2. Will any of those be really good? Unlikely.
  3. Will any threaten the Kindle 3? Not really.

All in all the Android Tablet is a very interesting threat – It’s the perfect competitor in that it forces you to improve and be wary and prepared and then it never shows up.

Very good Android Tablets are probably not going to arrive until early 2011. It’s possible that Kindle for Android becomes the reading app of choice for Android Tablets though Google Editions will be a major threat.

Flexible, color screen ‘sounds too good to be true’ competitors powered by LG Display

LG Display has been talking about having color eReader screens and flexible eReader screens for so long it’s threatening to take over Plastic Logic’s title of ‘Under-deliverer of the Year’. Now it’s saying that it has 9.7″ color eReader screens arriving by end 2010 and that there will also be 19″ flexible eReader screens.

Let’s get this straight – They can’t deliver a 6″ color or 6″ flexible screen but want to deliver a 9.7″ color screen and a 19″ flexible screen. That sounds a lot like Plastic Logic’s ‘We’re going to make a $649 business eReader’ strategy.

If you have a millions of eReaders a year market for 6″ screen eReaders (perhaps tens of millions of eReaders a year by 2011) and an unknown market for 19″ screen eReaders why would you concentrate on the latter? Have they even tested what carrying around a 19″ screen eReader feels like? Is it flexible enough to bend like a newspaper?

The Role of Google Editions

Google Editions constantly lurks in the background. Google’s partnerships with Sony and B&N mean that both Nook 2 and Sony 650 will probably end up with Android Operating systems and direct connections to Google Editions by end of 2010.

It will make for a really interesting contest -

  1. Amazon Customer Service + Trust  Vs B&N plus Google trust and B&N customer service.
  2. Kindle Store vs Google Editions plus B&N ebook store.
  3. Kindle infrastructure vs Perhaps Google Cloud.
  4. Kindle 3 vs Nook 2, Sony 650.
  5. Kindle App Store (perhaps) vs Android App Store.
  6. Kindle’s own OS vs Android.
  7. Amazon.com shopping traffic vs Google.com search traffic.  

At a time when Kindle 3 looks unbeatable it’s interesting that the biggest competitor might not be another eReader but Google. Nook 2 and Sony 650 are unlikely to be impressive enough to both beat Kindle 3 and overcome Amazon’s store and infrastructure advantage – However, Google and Google Editions might be effective counters to Kindle Store and WhisperNet and it would turn the 2010 holiday season into a 2-way or 3-way contest.

The Kindle 3 will see some really solid competition soon and its biggest competitor is going to be Google.

A tale of 4 kindle competitors

By a strange coincidence there were 4 posts discussing 4 different Kindle rivals open on my browser this morning. It’s surreal to see the wide variety of approaches, strengths, and flaws exhibited by the Kindle’s rivals.

Let’s take a look. 

The Nook – Perennially Late

If there was any doubt that B&N have a huge problem sticking to deadlines it should be removed completely by the list of improvements in their Mega-Update (courtesy CNet) -

  1. Their Read in Store feature which didn’t make it to release and then missed the promised January arrival is here. It’s only 4 months late (from the originally promised data - the November release).
  2. Bug Fixes – addressing freezing problems with the Nook. These again have been complained about since release. My Nook has frozen both times it tried to get the current update.
  3. User interface and Performance Tweaks – Wasn’t this in the magical update that arrived one or two weeks after the Nook was released? What about the January update that was supposed to fix this?

If all Barnes & Noble performance improvement upgrades really worked as claimed Nook would be faster than LCD screens by now.

To be fair there is one solid addition and one useful addition in this upgrade -

  1. Nook added a web browser so users can take advantage of the WiFi. 
  2. Two Android games – Chess and Sudoku.

This release is a microcosm of Nook’s strengths and weaknesses -

  1. The Read in Store feature highlights B&N’s retail presence.  
  2. The Browser with WiFi represents the WiFi capabilities and the promise of Android. 
  3. The fact that they still have to fix freezing problems and speed problems says a lot about their lack of software expertise.
  4. The fact that Read in Store was advertised at launch and has made it out only 4 months later shows just how much overselling B&N do – calling their eReader a ‘color’ eReader and promising Lending of Books without explaining that Publishers could turn it off.

If half of winning is showing up then Nook has been losing half the battle even before it gets started.

Consider this snippet -

It’s also important to note that because the device can now access the Web, you can log in to Wi-Fi networks that require authentication via a Web page.

Nook owners have been asking for the ability to access more public Wi-Fi hot spots since the e-reader’s launch.

B&N actually launched a WiFi capable device that couldn’t handle log-in pages. That’s just amazing.

B&N’s tardiness actually gets worse – B&N’s eReader for the iPad doesn’t arrive until May. They are giving Kindle for iPad and iBooks a whole month plus to gobble up iPad readers.

The Generic Low-Value Low-Price eReaders

In this case it’s the Aluratek Libre eBook Reader Pro and the Kobo Reader – both reviewed at ZDNet review.

Here’s the cookie-cutter formula for budget eReaders -

  1. 6″ eInk screen.  
  2. $150 price.
  3. Go with either openness (support for ePub, PDF, library books) or value for money as the primary draw.
  4. Do your best to make it look indistinguishable from every other eReader.
  5. Make sure the feature set makes it even more indistinguishable from every other eReader.

Aluratek sticks to it with the minor deviation of using a 5″ black and white reflective LCD display. They manage to take away the single biggest advantage of eReaders, eInk, while embracing one of eInk’s biggest negatives (lack of color). ZDNet think the Kobo is better and from the images and features it certainly seems that way.

Kobo stick to the formula too - except they add a big blue button in the front that looks completely out-of-place. The review is very favorable and Kobo’s service and store are both beginning to impress.

It’s interesting that the review is based on 15 minutes of playing around with a Kobo eReader and that the reviewer thinks that Kobo Reader sets the bar for low-priced eReaders.

Yup – it’s now half a feet off the ground.

It’s insignificant carbon copies and the Press still claims they are Kindle Killers

The Press keep making the mistake of thinking that because they don’t think eReaders are worth $259 people who actually buy eReaders also think the same.

In the Press’ mind every sub-standard $150 clone ereader seem closer to what an eReader should be than a decent eReader like the Kindle or the Sony Reader Touch Edition or the Nook.

The iPad – It looks so good it must be good for something

This iPad review from Concordiensis is impressive in that the reviewer does three very interesting things -

  1. In an area he’s qualified to talk about (college and education) he says it’s not usable because it doesn’t have a keyboard (and the keyboard dock takes away whatever mobility advantage it has). 
  2. In an area he’s not as qualified to talk about (reading books) he offers up the possibility that the iPad is a good option.
  3. Not mention what the iPad is meant for.

The second and third paragraphs sum up this paradox of looking great and not being very useful perfectly -

The most impressive feature of the iPad is undoubtedly the beautiful touchscreen … Equally impressive is the design of the device; it’s clear that aesthetic design didn’t take a backseat to performance.

That said, the rest of it isn’t nearly as impressive. One can’t help but feel that you’re using an iPod Touch that was simply scaled up to the size of a netbook … typing anything substantial on the screen gets old fast.

There’s this strong sense of potential about the iPad – It has so much potential. It looks so pretty. It feels so good to touch. It’s so well designed.

It MUST be usable for something.

The grand assumption is that someone is going to invent a ‘killer app’ that makes the iPad absolutely necessary. Until then let’s keep pretending it’s a dedicated reading device and a dedicated work device and a netbook and a hundred other things.

At some level no one’s really trying hard enough to make a better eReader

B&N’s Nook team keeps delaying things. Sony’s Reader Team seem not to care about providing a service or selling books. Apple wants an App to do what hardware usually does.

Plus a thousand smaller companies want to feed off the edges of the market.  

Which company is actually creating a Kindle competitor?

None.

  1. The iPad is a reading killer – it’s trying to kill reading, not the Kindle. Ditto for tablets.
  2. The Generic $150 eReaders are just trying to trap uninformed customers.
  3. Nook and Sony Reader just aren’t solving the problems of reading.

It’s the ultimate irony that we have tens of thousands of Kindle Killer articles but not a single true Kindle competitor.

Verizon to help Kindle rivals + Sony wireless Reader in Mar 2009?

Update: Thanks to Jack for the scoop/rumor on a March 2009 wireless Sony Reader. That would be big news, and way earlier than I’d expected.

Verizon Wireless is planning to help Kindle’s competitors negate one of the Kindle’s big advantages i.e. wireless downloads. Ahead of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2009), Tony Lewis of Verizon spoke with Reuters and detailed Verizon’s plans. Here’s a snippet -

“Competitors to the Kindle are out there and ready,” said Lewis, who declined to name the company’s e-reader partners. “In 2009 I’d expect them to come to the market.”

There was a huge wireless spectrum auction battle between Google and Verizon and other carriers, and Google had managed to get part of the spectrum open for all wireless devices and applications. Verizon is saying that they’re going to open that part of the spectrum to not only phones, but also ereaders.  

This is actually not the biggest Verizon news this week – Verizon will also make its 5.9 billion acquisition of AllTel Wireless official on January 9th, and become the largest wireless carrier in the US with 78 million subscribers.

Which means – The single largest wireless carrier in the US is opening up part of its wireless spectrum for ANY ereader (or for that matter any ereading application on any phone) to use for wirelessly downloading books and media.  

Amazon still has the biggest range of ebooks to offer and a lot of other advantages – however, if Verizon starts offering instant downloads to Sony and other Kindle competitors, things are going to become very interesting.

Sony’s new PRS-700 Reader has TouchScreen, Note taking, and Sidelight

Updates everywhere (wired, yahoo, etc.) on Sony’s new eReader, the PRS-700. It’s priced at $400, targeted at college students, and will be available at the end of this month. Although the SonyStyle store says November 14th.

The PRS-700 has a six-inch screen of “electronic ink” … has light-emitting diodes that can be turned on to illuminate the screen from the sides … also comes with a stylus, which can be used to highlight text or make handwritten notes.

A pretty home screen

A pretty home screen

The news releases are quick to point out the lack of wireless internet and lack of the equivalent of a Kindle Store. Gizmodo is quick to point out that the response time leaves something to be desired.

This is a good step forward – mostly because it sets the precedent for a ‘journal+ebook reader’ as opposed to just an ebook reader. And by Journal i mean something you can write on easily and quickly. I remember when i used to carry a ton of textbooks and also a ton of notebooks because each subject had a separate notebook to write in, etc. Replacing all of that with one device :)

TouchScreen = More Real Estate

TouchScreen = More Real Estate

And here are two links to really high quality images -

Sony PRS-700 high def

Sony PRS-700 high def

Note taking on PRS-700

Note taking on PRS-700

Now a little about the features and specifications. First the features -

  1. 6″ eInk screen. TouchScreen.
  2. Finger gestures for turning pages, bringing up bookmarks.
  3. Bring up an onscreen keyboard to add notes.
  4. Or, use the stylus.
  5. Built In LED reading light.
  6. Multiple Format Support – easily transfer Adobe® PDF documents , Microsoft® Word documents, BBeB® format, and other text file formats to the Reader. It also supports EPUB/ADEPT and connection with Adobe Digital Editions. You can even play back unsecured MP3s and AAC audio files.
  7. The page at SonyStyle also has a ‘Engrave/Make it Personal sticker’ – however, couldn’t find exactly where they let you personalize.

Makes me wonder why they don’t have handwriting recognition? Perhaps the touchscreen doesn’t support it or was it something else?

And now some Sony PRS-700 specs -

  1. The Sony 700 Reader weighs 10 oz. without soft cover.
  2. Battery Life – Up to 7,500 continuous page turns (or up to two weeks worth of reading). What about the sidelight?

Screen specifications for the PRS-700 include

  1. Gray Scale : 8-Level Gray Scale
  2. Resolution : Approx. 170 Pixels Per Inch
  3. Screen Size : 6” Measured Diagonally

Supported Formats include

  1. DRM Text : BBeB Book (Marlin)
  2. Image : JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP
  3. Unsecured Audio : MP3 and AAC
  4. Unsecured Text : BBeB, ePub, TXT, RTF, Adobe® PDF, Microsoft® Word (Conversion to the Reader requires Word installed on your PC).
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