There I was at IFA 2013 last week, stumbling around the trade show babbling incoherently in English, when I found myself at the very hip, very expensive Pauly Saal restaurant in the Mitte district of Berlin.
I was summoned there to witness the unveiling of two new e-book readers by Kobo's EMEA managing director, former Apple exec Jean-Marc Dupuis.
[ For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter and follow Cringely on Twitter. | For a quick, smart take on the news you'll be talking about, check out InfoWorld TechBrief -- subscribe today. ]
Wait, did he say e-book readers? Like, the original Kindles and Nooks?
Yes, he did. And not only e-books, but also e-magazines.
Granted, many bottles of wine were consumed -- I cannot say precisely by whom. Scotch was poured. Meat and fish were served, as well as a dessert that looked like it might have fallen from the ceiling during an earthquake but was absolutely delicious. (Full disclosure: I did not pick up the check. I don't think I could even lift it.) I'm pretty sure this happened because I was in a room with 20 other witnesses.
A book by any other name
Kobo, Dupuis explained, is an anagram for "book." (Also for "koob," which makes no sense whatsoever.)
You have heard of Amazon, right? I asked between mouthfuls.
Yes, it had. But after being acquired by $5 billion Japanese etailer Rakuten in fall 2011, Kobo is ready to do battle with giants. The company was in Berlin to show us the Arc 10HD, a $400 10-inch Android tablet that's also an e-book reader, and the Aura HD, a 6-inch $150 touchscreen-based black-and-white e-book reader. (Computerworld's Barbara Krasnoff has the specs, for those of you who are into that kind of thing.)
The Kobo devices are certainly slick enough, but they're not game changers by any stretch. They don't read native Kindle or Nook e-books, for example, so you'd have to perform some DRM-bending gymnastics to port your existing e-library over to them. The magazine reader is well designed, but not so well designed that it will make you forget any other emagazine app you've ever seen -- and the per-publication pricing is unlikely to be better than NextIssue's deal (90 rags for $10 a month). Kobo's strategy is to lean heavily on soft features, like book recommendations based around curated collections and the ability to dive deeper into the subject matter via hyperlinks, to lure "passionate readers" into the fold.
Once I got over my hangover the next day, I began pondering whether it's really possible for Kobo's David to slingshot its way past the Amazon Goliath -- or, for that matter, whether any relatively small tech challenger could defeat such a diverse and deeply pocketed incumbent. If Barnes & Noble doesn't belong in the ring with Amazon, what chance does Kobo have?