Kobo and Amazon have unveiled new tablets, but are they playing a game they can't win?
The general consensus is that e-Ink is a much better technology for reading books than the backlit screens of tablets -- it's cheaper, thinner, lighter, has a longer battery life and is easier on the eyes. Of course that didn't stop Apple launching the iBookstore for the iPad in an effort to replicate its success with music and movies.
e-Ink might be the best tool for the job but, just like cameras, the best e-book reader is the one you've got with you. For many people, once they own a tablet they're more likely to buy e-books on that device rather than carry around a separate e-Ink e-book reader (I'm sure some people carry both, but they'd be in a minority). So as Apple pushed into the e-book space, the likes of Amazon and Kobo had little choice but to push back with their own tablets. Apple's move to take a 30 per cent cut of in-app purchases came as a major blow to Amazon and Kobo's iOS strategies.
Amazon recently unveiled the second-generation Kindle Fire, available in 7 and 8.9-inch models, but there's still no word as to whether we'll see these Android-powered tablets in Australia. Around the same time Kobo announced its 7-inch Arc tablet which should be available in Australia by Christmas. It's a follow-up to last year's Kobo Vox which met with disappointing reviews. The new Arc is in the same ballpark as Google's Nexus 7 tablet -- running Android 4.0 with a dual-core processor and 1280x800 pixel display. It will be available in 8GB ($249) and 16GB ($299) models.
Rather than stick to their strengths, the e-book vendors have been forced to play Apple's game -- a game which it dominates. Amazon has certainly found some success with the Fire, thanks in part to the fact it has kept the price so low. When you're as big as Amazon you can afford to sell your hardware at a discount, knowing you'll make your money back on content and services. But now we're seeing a range of decent sub-$300 Android tablets so Amazon's price advantage has been somewhat eroded.
Kobo offers a slick e-reading experience with a strong focus on social interaction, but I think it's destined to be an also-ran in the tablet race. Kobo might be a worthy competitor in the e-Ink space, but it's certainly at a disadvantage now it's been forced to fight in the tablet arena. Of the iPad's Android competitors, Amazon and Samsung have much higher profiles in Australia. The fact Amazon doesn't officially sell the Fire to Australians is perhaps Kobo's biggest advantage right now, but I'd say it's best chance to is target existing Kobo owners who are contemplating a tablet. The problem is that they're probably not contemplating a tablet for reading e-books, because they already have an e-Ink Kobo. Instead they probably want a tablet as a general purpose device, but once they have a tablet they're more likely to start purchasing their e-books from someone else (and perhaps read less books). So Kobo's main aim in selling tablets is just to stop people buying a tablet from someone else. That doesn't sound like a recipe for success.
It will be interesting to see if Apple unveils an iPad Mini, which would be a sign that Cupetino is nervous about the 7/8.9-inch Android market. If Apple did unleash an iPad Mini, the Kobo Arc's prospects would look even dimmer.
Would an Android-powered tablet lure you away from an e-Ink reader, or is there room in your life for both?