While the Kindle name is practically synonymous with eReading for many people, it has been confined largely to the US for a rather long time now and as such Amazon may have lost a chance to build the same momentum in other markets. Much of what made them so successful was being the first company on the scene ready to get eBooks out there when customer interest began to stir. The situation will be a bit different moving forward.
When it comes to international market coverage in eReading, Kobo is the name to reference. They haven’t had the same impact in the US that Amazon has managed with the Kindle, but the Kobo Touch eReader has been available in areas where a Kindle was hard to come by for quite a while now. They have recently partnered up with WHSmith in the UK in an effort to gain more coverage. The Kobo Vox, essentially their attempt to match the Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet, is just £149.99 (by comparison, the Kindle Fire is not even available). That’s not to mention the fact that Kobo devices are already available in 190 countries with expansion still ongoing, or the newly revamped self-publishing platform that they are having some success with.
Sony is also making something of a comeback. While they were possibly the first company to launch a major eReader line with the Sony PRS series, they have failed to stay relevant in recent years. Their new Reader Store has finally opened (months behind schedule) in the UK and they have a fairly substantial presence in select other markets where the Kindle is just beginning to move in.
Even Barnes & Noble is going to be something of a threat, potentially, in specific international markets. Well, one specific international market if they’re lucky. The much-reported partnership that the company has with Waterstones has produced very few results so far. The partnership is still likely to happen, but they are taking their time about it. This is most likely a matter of developing relationships for content to fill UK eBook stores with and could be held up at least partially due to the chance of the Agency Model being abolished in book publishing by ongoing lawsuits. This would naturally have widespread implications.
None of this is to say that the Kindle won’t be able to make it outside the US. If anything, the international launch of the Kindle Touch and Kindle Touch 3G enjoyed such popularity that even Amazon was shocked. Since the creation of a real, local Kindle Store in any given market is likely to be a major undertaking, however, anybody who has already got their store and device out there for customers is at a distinct advantage. Amazon certainly has enough weight to throw at the problems they encounter, and they will do so without much hesitation as the recent small publisher negotiations prove, but it may be a long process at best with all the other big names already at work.
The Kindle Fire has made a big splash in the Tablet PC marketplace, driving prices down across the board and seemingly speeding along the release of direct competition from Amazon’s fellow eBook vendors. Sadly, at the moment the Kindle Fire is only available in the US. Chances are good, in fact, that there is going to be an extremely long wait before device is released anywhere else. It is simply too reliant on the integration with Amazon’s Cloud Servers, Video Streaming, Android Appstore, and other such things that have not been prepared for other markets yet.
That doesn’t mean that people outside the US will want to overlook the Kindle Fire, of course. Combine the $200 price tag with the almost complete lack of security measures to prevent Rooting of the device and you have a decent 7″ Android Tablet even if the quality of the custom OS is lost. It does the job, if you’re willing to put up with all of the related complications of buying, shipping, rooting, etc.
The Kindle Fire isn’t the only option in this price range, though. In fact the Kobo Vox, a similar competing tablet from an eBook vendor, is already available in the UK. Even if it had nothing else going for it, and it does, the Vox’s availability would be enough to make it a major player in the new $200 tablet niche. In addition to that, there is no need to root the device to get full functionality just about anywhere. It comes with full access to the Android Marketplace already enabled, unlike either its Kindle or Nook competitors.
Admittedly the hardware isn’t as nice as the competition. Neither the screen nor the processor is as nice as in the Kindle, which is itself criticized as lacking power by many. They have made next to no effort to make the Kobo specifically ready for anything aside from the reading, which will already have some shortcomings given the backlit screen. Since the primary competition will be rooted devices from the US, at least at first, this shouldn’t be too big a deal but it isn’t necessarily a recipe for long-term success.
As much as I’m a big fan of my Kindle Fire, neither option here thrills. The Fire is amazing in many ways, but a big part of that is the seamless integration with Amazon’s services. You lose that the second you take it out of the country. The Vox, on the other hand, has no really exciting features. When your tablet’s big claim to fame is extensive Facebook integration for a reading app, it is a stretch to see success in the future. Either way you’re getting a 7″ tablet that runs Android 2.3 for around $200 (depending on local taxes and the cost of importing) but not much else.
As such, it seems unlikely that the Kindle Fire has much to fear from the Vox at the moment. What will decide things is not where the two devices stand right this minute, but where they go from here on. If Kobo can come around and start offering some really impressive incentives to use their tablet before Amazon extends their web service line sufficiently, there will be some real problems. For now, the Kindle Fire wins ever so slightly based on narrowly superior hardware and nothing else. Firm footing this is not.
While the Kobo eReader has had trouble gaining much traction against competing Kindle and Nook options, it continues to be a comparatively strong presence in the eReader marketplace. This is especially true in international markets where Amazon has not yet managed to secure the same sort of market dominance that it enjoys in the US. In an effort to keep up with the recent Kindle and Nook price drops, the Kobo Touch eReader had been brought down to as low as $99.
Of course, they accomplished this by using Amazon’s own methods against them. This newer, cheaper version of the popular touchscreen eReader will only be available at the $99 price point by offering advertisements. This is obviously no different from what has been done before with the Kindle, but it is especially interesting in that Kobo is the first company to attempt to make use of Amazon’s eReader ad revenue stream model.
The major question right now will be in how they implement it. Since none of the new Kobo models have shipped just yet, we have no way of knowing precisely where these ads will be placed aside from in screensavers. Any time the device is powered off or in sleep mode, the owner will be treated to a sponsored special offer. No major imposition there. The tricky part is that Kobo also lists ads in “other discreet places” without clear definition of where these will be.
I think it is safe to say that none of these ads will in any way interfere with the reading experience. Not only would that better adhere to Amazon’s already successful model, but Kobo as a company has always maintained that it is interested first and foremost in the reader. Nobody would be particularly happy at this stage if they had to read ads inside their books. That does not preclude throwing up half-screen banners or pop up windows that need to be closed to proceed throughout the menu navigation, though. We can hope that these will not be present, but the company does not have quite the clout that Amazon brings to the table and may need to concede a bit to get advertisers interested.
While it can be a touchy issue to bring advertising into something like this, especially in an environment where publishers are desperately afraid that customers will start perceiving eBooks as an affordable alternative to paper printings, if done right it can reduce costs significantly. There is every reason to expect that within the next year or two we will be seeing Kindles priced so low as to make it almost silly not to own one. They might even be free, under the right promotion. If this takes place, the competition will have no choice but to follow suit or drop out. Considering how tactfully Amazon has managed to include ads on their eReader line, making many owners including myself wish that it were possible to ad the adds to older Kindles, there is no reason not to join in so long as a similarly low key approach is employed.
The new Kobo Touch with Offers will be shipping in 2-3 weeks.
The Nook Color might have been the first tablet to come from a major eReader maker, but the Kindle Fire has clearly set the tone for devices in its size / power range. Amazon’s new media tablet hasn’t even shipped yet and people are scrambling to match prices or rush out competing product. For the most part, there isn’t really any obvious reason for Amazon to be concerned, but the new Kobo Vox is an imitator with impressive potential.
Kobo’s new Kindle Fire competitor, marketed as a color eReader much like the Nook Color, will be a 7″ Android 2.3 device with comparable specs, expandable memory, and a small selection of colored quilted backs to choose from. The single core processor might end up being a slight negative, but this was never intended to be a powerhouse anyway. Oddly enough, both the major strengths and the major shortcomings come in on the software end.
When Barnes & Noble started out with the Nook Color, they tried to keep it almost entirely about the reading. It was only relatively recently that their app selection started to improve. Amazon avoided that mistake by building up a huge App Store for the Kindle Fire before it even existed. Kobo seems to feel like it isn’t worth the trouble. Rather than a heavily customized, or even locked version of Android, they have decided that Vox users can just grab what they want through the default Android Marketplace. The OS seems to be pretty much just basic Android 2.3 with some Kobo Apps.
On the one hand, this is genius. It gives them the ability to offer customers access to the largest selection of Android apps in existence without having to jump through hoops. At the same time, however, it means that Kobo themselves will not be making any money off of anything but the books. Whether or not this proves to be a smart business move remains to be seen, but it will definitely appeal to a certain segment of the customer base.
What really makes the Vox a major player among eReading companies jumping into tablet production is Kobo’s international presence. More than pretty much anybody else so far, Amazon included, Kobo has managed to make sure a wide selection of books is there in any market they can get their hooks into. The Kobo eReader is widely available and has been for some time. It would not surprise me even a little bit to discover that when Amazon manages to get the Kindle Fire out to markets outside the US, especially those new sites like Amazon.es, the Kobo Vox is already a common sight.
It isn’t the best option in terms of hardware or software in the US right now, even for the $200 price, but for users who want just a cheap, effective 7″ Android device it might fit the bill. In areas where the tablet market has yet to really take off, though, I expect to see the Vox make a huge impression. Let’s just hope Apple can hold off on the anti-competition lawsuits?
Amazon is all set to launch their new Amazon.es site in Spain on September 15th, according to sources in several Spanish newspapers. While the service will cover only physical goods at the time the store opens, it will expand to digital content including a Spanish Kindle Store before the end of the year. This will be a big step in eCommerce for a country that has reportedly been somewhat late to the game so far, as well as expanding the Amazon empire even more.
The lack of a local Amazon presence hasn’t stopped the company from developing a substantial Spanish following over the years. It is reportedly quite common for people to order through extra-national Amazon sites in order to ensure fair prices, reliable delivery, and good customer service in a way that hasn’t been directly available in the Spanish marketplace. Some even associate the slow adoption of online retail in Spain to the fact that the country has lacked an Amazon presence up until now, so this will spur things for the better in a number of ways.
One place where Amazon will not necessarily have an automatic lead over the competition will, surprisingly, be in the field of eReading. The Amazon.es site is slated to have a Kindle Store open late this year, while the Kobo release is expected any time now, if earlier promises to have their store open by the end of the summer can be believed. Kobo has managed to outdo Kindle on the international front so far in a number of ways, so this is just another front in an ongoing conflict.
On top of the lack of status as the first people on the scene, the Kindle Store in question will not be able to set prices in an advantageous way. There are means in place in Spain to fix eBook prices across the market at about 30% below the cost of their print equivalent. As in the US following the introduction of Agency Model pricing, Amazon will have to find other ways to add value to their platform aside from low prices. If nothing else, at least it’s an effort that they have practice making.
Amazon currently maintains a presence beyond the United States in France, Germany, China, Italy, Canada, Japan, and the UK. Their Kindle line has made it to the UK and Germany so far, with further international expansion said to be a priority.
Many have conjectured that there will be a large push with localized devices is loosely planned for after the introduction of a Kindle without a hardware keyboard, which would obviously help with pressing adoption in countries where English is not the primary language. Time will tell if this manifests, but with many expecting a new Kindle with a touchscreen as early as October there would seem to be very little to prevent it. The speculated-upon move to an Android OS for the Kindle eReader in addition to the Kindle Tablet might make localization more problematic, but until an implementation is actually seen it is hard to do more than speculate.
Fascinated as we are by the platform here, Kindle users are far from the only group to be inconvenienced by Apple’s in-app purchasing guideline enforcement. Apple built the popularity of their iPads on the availability and functionality of apps being developed by other parties, only to change their minds once an ownership base was established. Certainly totally within their rights to do, but more than a little unpleasant for both the app developers and users who are accustomed to better treatment. Amazon has retaliated by releasing the Kindle Cloud Reader, which completely bypasses the iPad’s App Store, and they aren’t the only ones looking at the options.
Kobo, the leading international Kindle competition, has announced plans to follow in Amazon’s footsteps with an HTML5 Reading app of their own. When it is complete, users should be able to read their Kobo purchases on any device with a web browser, effectively bypassing Apple’s restrictions. You should even be able to save the app to your iOS device Home page for seamless integration. As with the Kindle Cloud Reader, users will be able to sync their collections for offline browsing, which addresses the largest possible shortcoming of a browser-based solution to the problem.
The only major problem with apps like these is the loss of Apple App Store exposure. To effectively bypass Apple’s fees it is important to already have a substantial user base, since random discovery is far less likely. Existing Kobo customers will have little problem, and will likely welcome the chance to make use of the store again without the price increases that would have been necessary to profitably continue operation within Apple’s guidelines. New users will almost certainly be harder to come by. We can expect to see continued support for the Kobo iOS app as a result, for exposure’s sake if nothing else.
This is not the only obstacle that Kobo has had to face recently. With the end of Borders, their US distribution partner, exposure will be harder to come by in the current largest eBook market. Although they remained separate companies, Borders was directly linked to the Kobo eReader in the minds of consumers for having been the first ones to bring to to the US. Regaining that kind of presence will be a slow process.
Outside the US, the Kobo Store is reported to have perhaps the best selection of eBooks currently available. Due to ongoing licensing right disputes, the Kindle Store is not yet always able to consistently provide the same level of service that Kobo has managed to over such a large number of markets. The release of this HTML5 app should do them a great deal of good in expanding their lead, given the number of Tablet PCs hitting the market recently. This may allow readers to enjoy the service even in countries where localized selections are not currently available and shipping the Kobo eReader itself is problematic.
We can expect the official release of the new Kobo app later this year.
So far the big contribution that the Kobo has made to the eReader marketplace, in my opinion, is spurring the more established and easy to use eReaders like the Kindle and Nook into an abrupt price drop. The Kobo hit stores at $150 at a time when a decent eReader would cost you somewhere around a hundred dollars more than that no matter which one you went with. It made a big difference, even if the Kobo itself was so basic and clunky to use that it didn’t make a huge splash in terms of usability. Now, with their first major hardware upgrade, the Kobo eReader is back in the race. The new Kobo is a lot easier on the eyes and promises to be more than a little bit simpler to use. The big question is whether or not it is enough of a change.
In a lot of ways, the new Kobo Touch is the same concept as the new Nook. You’ve got a 6″ E Ink Pearl screen, a Home button, and a nicely dark frame. Lots of visual similarities. You also get a WiFi connection, though it only works to go to the Kobo Store. The touchscreen seems ok, and they avoided the blurriness issues that arose in Sony’s touchscreen eReaders by going with a touchscreen technology that does not involve an extra screen layer. You even get a fair amount of internal memory and an SD slot to work with. Really, though, it seems like something is missing to be really competitive here.
Leave aside the Kindle comparison for the moment to focus on the more directly comparable new Nook. Yes, there is a $10 price difference, but consider what is being sacrificed for that money. Both devices have EPUB support and work well with libraries, by all accounts. The Nook is supposedly pushing 60 days of battery life these days compared to the new Kobo’s 10 days. You only get two font sizes to choose from on the Kobo. You won’t be getting apps of any sort, from what I can see. Even the size isn’t considerably smaller in any way.
The one place where the Kobo might make a splash is in its social networking service. Amazon’s Kindle has done a bit along these lines and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Kindle Tablet do more when it comes around, but so far I would say that the Kobo’s Reading Life is a lot more elaborate. Up until now, to the best of my knowledge, this feature has only been available through iOS and Android apps rather than as a part of the Kobo eReader itself. It tracks reading time, page turns, books completed, hands out awards for having read books, and more.
Will the novelty be able to clear a spot near the top of the eReader market for the Kobo? Probably not. Keep in mind, however, that there is room for variety. This is probably the third best eReader brand out there right now as far as the price to features ratio is concerned. There might very well be a place for it even with the Nook and Kindle holding what are in my opinion deservedly superior positions at the moment.