Friday, May 17, 2013

KOBO - Now More Than Ever

It's not too late to support your local independent book seller ...

Of all the reading platforms for ebooks perhaps the one with the most fortuitous name is not Kindle or Nook but Kobo. (Let's omit the unimaginative Sony Reader Store, the goofy Google Play Store, and the total misnomer iTunes.) So until someone starts selling a Koob or Obko reader, Kobo is the only one to call itself by an anagram of what it's all about: THE BOOK.

But I've become a fan of Kobo for more than just the name. It might be my best chance to defend my rights as a reader and to keep my friendly local bookseller in business.

Some history: In the beginning (1971) a fledgling ecosystem came to life. Project Gutenberg began offering free public domain texts after Michael Hart "invented" the idea of an ebook. By 1998 primitive reading devices came into existence, along with several variants of copy protected text formats, and they all began vying for supremacy, each offering their own limited selection of content, each supporting one or more of the available file types, but none of them dominant. They had dim, low resolution LCD screens, and were less fun to read on than your laptop -- which at the time weighed 6 pounds and heated up your legs like a toaster oven.

The first big breakthrough came with ePaper display technology. This replaced LCD screens with something much more clear, rendering black on off-white text at nearly the resolution of laser printers. Better still, these new screens drew battery power only when the page was turned, resulting in times between charges measured in weeks instead of hours. Now we're getting somewhere!

At this point Amazon exploded over the landscape like a nuclear bomb. Sony and other lesser known vendors came to market with ePaper more or less simultaneously, but Sony is now marginalized and the others are long gone because only Amazon recognized the key ingredient -- it's not the device, it's the ecosystem. Using its might as ubiquitous retailer and its ability to sell devices at or below cost, it was able to foist its own proprietary format on vast numbers of consumers who didn't care how much they were being locked in to a single vendor as long as they could get whatever they wanted from Amazon, instantly.

They key word there was instantly -- and wirelessly. It was Amazon's genius to "give away" cellular data plans with each Kindle so that you could buy your books at the beach instead of taking them with you, reducing the delivery time to zero. Can you spell "impulse buy?"

I confess it took time for this idea to grab me. My own first reading device (2008) was a Sony and it didn't even have Wi-Fi. (I didn't have it in my own home yet either.) No problem. Just download books to my PC, then plug in the USB cable and copy them over. A chore of few minutes followed by weeks of happy reading. It was much later before I experienced the instant gratification of hear-about-it / download it / read it.

I'm not sorry about the delay however. I instinctively shied away from the hermetically sealed world of Amazon with its books that can be read by nothing else. Faced with this juggernaut of competition, most other vendors had rushed to support the ePub standard and Adobe's digital rights management, in principle allowing you to buy content from whoever you wanted and read it any way you wanted. Most other reading devices will also view PDFs and plain text files, but if you want to read those on your Kindle you have to send them to Amazon first to be automatically converted to Amazon's proprietary format. This really rubs me the wrong way. I need permission to read a draft of my own novel? Not only that, they have the gall to charge you 15 cents per megabyte for the privilege.

So I trudged along with my Sony, taking advantage of the wealth of free digital books available from Project Gutenberg and Feedbooks, while still buying most of my new books in paper form. But that fledgling ecosystem was not standing still. Meanwhile the iPhone and iPad happened, then Android phones and tablets. Prices plunged and features exploded. My Sony with all its limitations cost over $300. Suddenly for a hundred bucks less you could get a general purpose tablet with full color display, sound, video, wifi, email, web browser, etc etc etc. And the miracle workers who first brought this to market was not Amazon but ... Barnes and Noble.

The venerable bricks-and-mortar bookstore had jumped on the bandwagon late, but in time to make a splash. The Nook was the first real budget priced Android tablet, subsidized and only slightly limited by having a restricted version of the App Market (now the Play Store) to prevent people from, for example, installing Kindle software and downloading books from Amazon. That's fair, right? Just try installing Nook software on a Kindle.

B&N did a lot of things right. Their hardware came out before the color version of the Kindle, and new models competed well on features as Amazon took a turn playing catchup. B&N followed up with the first back-lit ePaper device. The predictable price war ensued, benefiting the customers of both. But now it's beginning to look like the party could be over.

Faced with slumping sales in spite of its arguably superior product, B&N first began to whimper about getting out of the hardware business, then appeared to play a trump card by releasing a software upgrade that removed all restrictions on their Android tablet. Match that, Amazon!

Why would they do such a thing? Well, for the same reason I bought my Android tablet elsewhere. Namely, Google had got into the market, offering full featured tablets with no software restrictions for not much more than Amazon and B&N were charging for their locked up ones. Given the choice, why would you choose the ones that were needlessly crippled? On a Nexus you can install apps from both of the "other" booksellers and buy from whoever you want -- in addition to Google.

For awhile I was buying books from B&N on my tablet, if only to root for the underdog. But now B&N appears to be considering selling off its entire digital content division. I don't know what they're thinking. Dumping the up and coming thing to devote themselves to selling paper books and magazines? Haven't they learned anything from the experiment? Worst of all, the potential buyer may turn out to be Microsoft, which could mean the death knell for both parts of the company.

Which brings us to Kobo. Remember them? As I reported after hearing their presentation at the Miami Book Fair, Kobo was once going to be the salvation of Borders Books. The partnership was their answer to the Kindle and Nook, and it was Kobo's answer to having a brick-and-mortar anchor in the world. Kobo had great hardware at competitive prices, a commitment to open standards, and their own online book infrastructure. When Borders went under and Kobo became an orphan I was worried about them but maybe I shouldn't have been. They were orphans before the partnership, so they had little to lose while Borders needed them like a life raft.

So Kobo is still around, with newer and prettier devices. They were acquired by Rakuten, said to be "the Amazon of Japan," and have made another savvy move. They replaced Borders with a network of independent booksellers. With a bold stroke, one underdog hooked up with another. Now you can have the best of both worlds, acquiring ebooks while giving your support to your favorite local bookstore. You can create a Kobo account and install their reading app on your tablet or PC even if you don't have a Kobo device. Just be sure to register through your bookstore's website so your account will link to them.

Better do it quick. Today, no Borders. Tomorrow, perhaps no Barnes and Noble? What about the day after that? It's not that I hate Amazon. I buy from them too. I even have a wish list. I just don't ever want them to be the only place I can go.