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Can e-book sellers survive the tablet war?


Gadgets on the go

Adam Turner is an award-winning Australian freelance technology journalist with a passion for gadgets and the "digital lounge room".

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Kobo Arc tablet.

Kobo Arc tablet.

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?

27 comments so far

  • My wife has a kindle which she loves, whereas I access kindle and kobo through their android apps on my Nexus 7. I would be unlikely to go to an e-ink device as it lacks the versality/all in one capabilities of a tablet. Unfortunately I think the future is in all in one tablets, rather than a kindle/kobo etc reader which is in effect an electronic device masquerading as a book.

    I used to spend hundreds, possibly thousands on books - now I hardly visit a bookstore or library. I've found the impact on my consumption to be little short of amazing in such a short period of time. I still find the amazon experience in particular vexing, as the search functionality seems to be limited. Its hard to separate the often self-published dross from the properly edited e-books. Google Play, IBooks etc have only a limited selection compared to Amazon and Kobo - and also tend to be more expensive. But the average quality of their books is correspondingly higher.

    Date and time
    September 18, 2012, 11:53AM
    • I have an Android tablet and a Kindle eBook reader. I don't read eBooks on the tablet, have read a few on the Kindle but - and by my 'but' you might now have already guessed - I enjoy the printed paperback far more. I like its feel, I like to be able to bend back the pages (horrors!) and I enjoy not having the 'sameness' that you get with the Kindle. After all, the 'cover' of the Kindle never changes.

      Date and time
      September 18, 2012, 11:56AM
      • I have both two kindles (one for the wife) and an iPad, will normally read on anything I have handy but prefer to read off the kindle as it's much easier on the eyes. The iPad is good for short stints but could never read for long on it.

        Dave B
        Date and time
        September 18, 2012, 12:24PM
        • I have three: phone, tablet, kindle (touch) and will read on all three. But the tablet and phone are only for 'lighter' books - business, finance , comedic biographies etc.

          For literature I much prefer the Kindle. My main reason is that it takes me away from the buzz of the world. Back-lit screens are everywhere and I look at one most of my day. Tablets/phones alert of emails, and screen distraction. When i read a book I want to be taken away on a revery not reminded of a sale on from an email. That is the main reason I am drawn to the is JUST for reading.

          Do I think they will survive? Probably not. The all-in-one convenience of the tablet is sure to strike a cord with most; they are most definitely convenient.

          Date and time
          September 18, 2012, 2:22PM
          • I disagree that the tablet will displace the ebook reader.
            Eventually, colour e-ink with potentially faster refresh rates will come on board and tablets will end up with similar displays. E-ink is superior to glowing displays for viewing.
            The ebook reader will still be relevant as a cheap device used for mostly reading only.

            Date and time
            September 18, 2012, 2:23PM
            • I went to the second hand shop the other day and bought two great books for a total cost of 75 cents. Electronic readers are commuter devices. They are progress as some say and indeed technologically they may well be. But, their use is far more formal than a book and so they are inconvenient despite what people say. many just buy technology because others do or they like trends. Basically though, these readers are not storming the world. there are billions of people who still use books. Get real....I bet you cannot let your reader slip into the sand on the beach like you can with a book should you fall asleep. Techno victims many Aussies....and I work in IT.

              Date and time
              September 18, 2012, 2:34PM
              • It's all about how you work and the compromises you need to make to work that way. I have a Sony eReader and am looking to buy a Windows tablet when they are released. But I want a 10 inch tablet to replace my travelling netbook. I can't imagine reading a book on such a big device especially on a plane. I also don't want a 7 inch tablet because it will be too small to do the kind of work I do at present on my netbook.

                So I'll stick with my eReader and use the tablet for all the other things. It's not as though either weigh a lot.

                Date and time
                September 18, 2012, 3:33PM
                • Wait for the breakthrough when someone comes up with a tablet screen that works in bright sunlight, with the same qualities as e-ink. Then I'll buy a tablet and replace my trusty Kindle.

                  Date and time
                  September 18, 2012, 3:54PM
                  • Definitely room for both. I love my Kindle, it's like taking a whole library with me, and the way it syncs with the Kindle app on my phone is just fantastic. I've also got an EP121 Windows tablet which I really enjoy as well, and use my HTC Velocity very much like a mini tablet for browsing on the go.
                    Reading a book is such a different experience to browsing. I want to fully immerse myself in the story without distractions. I know that logic suggests tablets will ultimately lead to the end of stand alone ereaders, but right now, I enjoy the reader being a seperate device.

                    Date and time
                    September 18, 2012, 4:07PM
                    • I've owned a 9" Kindle DX (e-ink) ebook reader for about two years now. It's far superior when reading books over long periods of time. But it does lack the finesse of the iPad 3 which I also own.

                      The ipad's great for reading books with color content. Its Kindle app is an excellent PDF viewer, particularly for those PDF documents which have a lot of artwork and color layouts.

                      The same documents display somewhat in a somewhat mediocre manner on the Kindle.

                      So, for me, it's horses for courses. The Kindle's the best for curling up with a good book. The ipad, for the occasional read, (and its Kindle app sync's with the Kindle DX via Whispernet/The internet, anyway for ebooks purchased via Amazon). So I can easily switch from one to the other.

                      I only wish that Amazon would have released a 7" Kindle. The 6" form factor of current Kidnles is smaller than a standard paperback, whilst the DX is closer to a hardcover novel in size. A paperback is about the same size as a 7" tablet such as the new Kindle Fire. So, yeah, a 7" sidelit Kindle Touch with a color e-ink screen would probably offer me personally, the best of all worlds. Maybe next year?

                      Date and time
                      September 18, 2012, 4:08PM

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