Today, Kobo announced the release of its new Vox tablet and Pulse social eReading app layer. TabTimes sat down with Kobo General Manager Matthew Welch to talk about the new products, the competitive landscape, and the future of the company.
Kobo Vox is a 7-inch Android 3.2 Gingerbread tablet pre-loaded with an enhanced version of Kobo’s eReader as well as a number of apps, including Zinio. The screen tech for the Vox tablet is FFS+ (Fringe Field Switching), which is similar to the IPS (In-plane Switching) display in the Kindle Fire, but is theoretically capable of sharper white/grey reproduction, increased brightness, and reduced color deviation.
With Kobo Pulse, the company is attempting to enhance the eReading experience by allowing readers to comment and discuss a book within the context of the book’s pages. Integration with Facebook allows readers to share their comments on Facebook, but also allows members of the Kobo community to discover the books their friends are reading—including book authors. Readers can also connect with new Kobo friends based on book affinity, author affinity, and more.
Earlier today in downtown San Francisco, TabTimes met with Kobo General Manager Matthew Welch, who was kind enough to answer several of our questions.
TabTimes: What’s the state of Kobo’s business these days?
Matthew Welch: The company is basically two years old, and we’ve gone to 5 million users globally, with 2.5 million in the U.S. And if you look at the Android store globally, we’re the number one eReader app in the world. And the iOS store, we’re always one of the tops, but obviously Apple has a home field advantage with iBook, so you’re never really going to be the top of that store, but it’s pretty impressive if you take the numbers over all.
We’ve really been emphasizing social reading. It’s a key area for us. At the last F8 conference on stage, when they were doing their Open Graph thing , it was Netflix for video, Spotify for music, and Kobo for eReading. So we’re Facebook’s only eReading partner across the world.
Interacting within the pages of the book is starting to catch on. As an example, earlier this week, we wrote about Subtext's enhanced reading app, which adds social elements. it seems like there are some interesting implications in allowing readers to become a part of the book.
Absolutely. I don’t know if the future of book-writing becomes collaborative—probably. That’s the level of futurism I’m not quite at yet. We’re going to try to crack the social piece first. So the next step for us is better social discovery. We don’t want to make you re-create your own social network. We’re all already on Twitter and Facebook. So why redo all that? You want to make your comment? Make your comment, and then push it all out to the Facebook ticker. And the next thing we’re going to allow people to do is find people and your friends who have similar interests and discover what books they’re reading.
You would think by now someone would have figured out social discovery of books. But we haven’t. In and of itself, this seems like a good opportunity.
So we’ve got two approaches. We’ve got machine learning on one side, and we’ve got the social graph on the other side. You put those two things together and you nail it.
What about the hardware side of Kobo?
On the hardware side, we really stand for reading. We’re not calling the Kobo Vox a tablet, we’re calling it an eReader. You can’t do an e-ink screen with a color tablet right now, unfortunately. So we looked around for the best alternative? And we found this FFS+ technology, which is used in the cockpits in airplanes. It seems like Amazon is going more into media consumption with video and music. We’re staying true to reading, and a lot of people want to read outside.
Part two of the story is a little thing we like to call freedom. It’s the philosophy of our company, and it’s what people really mean when they use the word "open". You should be able to have all of your content anywhere and everywhere you go. In general content works this way, except for books on the Kindle. You’ve bought all these books, and then you want to upgrade to a social reading experience, you can’t take the books with you. They’re stuck with Amazon--
--The thing Amazon does well, however, is that they have apps across every platform , so you can read your books on any device.
Yeah, but they don’t have a good social platform. A lot of people want to read in Kobo’s reading environment. It’s just a better social environment. So what, do you have to buy all those books twice now? The thing that sneaks up on people that they don’t know about is that when they buy their first Kindle, they’re effectively getting married to Jeff Bezos. And guess what? When you get divorced from Jeff Bezos, guess how many books you’re going to take with you? Zero.
What’s your growth strategy? And how are you going to compete with Amazon? They’re huge.
It depends on what country you’re coming from. In the U.S., we’re in Target, we’re in Best Buy. We’re in Fry's. But if you look at Canada, we’re affiliated with Chapters, the largest bookstore there. And in the UK, we’re associated with W.H. Smith, and in France, we’re going to be announcing an alliance with FNAC, which is the largest in France. So companies around the world who want to get into the eBook game are starting to ally with us. So if you take the global view the question is in fact the opposite: How is Kindle going to catch up to us?
Clearly in the U.S., Amazon has a dominant position. But we do have fantastic distribution, and our emphasis on social reflects the modern road we live in.