Kobo banks big on reading future: Jeff Beer

In a crowded market, a bet on readers.

This week, the Canada-born, Japanese-owned e-book retailer, e-book and tablet manufacturer unveiled its newest line-up of tech toys, including a 10-inch HD tablet—the company’s largest to date—to compete with the full-sized likes of the iPad, Nexus 10, Nook HD and Kindle Fire.


The Arc 10HD is comparable in price and horsepower with the Nexus 10, will sell for $399, starting Oct. 16, and is already getting rave reviews. But in a market so crammed with competition that even Tesco has tablet plans in the works, how does Kobo plan to stay in the game? I talked to CEO Michael Serbinis last week and he said the key is to know who your customer is and then make the product that will be the absolute best for their needs. In Kobo’s case, this means ditching the generalist’s approach to tablet computing and make the best machine for readers.

“In a crowded market having those top tech specs isn’t enough,” says Serbinis. “Really differentiating and effectively splitting it into niche tablet markets. There will be tablets optimized for gaming, for video, just like with PCs and laptops. We want to create tablets for people who love to read and stand with that as our core differentiator, but still recognizing that our customers still want to use their tablet for other capabilities. Having that differentiation is critical to stand out in a sea of tablets.”

He compares today’s tablet market to e-readers just a few years ago. There was a sea of e-readers when we started,” says Serbinis. “At my first CES show there were 150 brands with e-readers. What we focused on then was building not only a top device but the best in terms of content, recommendations and just making it an optimal experience for readers. And today, there are only a handful of e-readers on the market. It’s  us and a company from Seattle. We leverage that same thinking when it comes to tablets.”

Kobo’s new Android-fueled OS is organized around reading with features like a homescreen that doubles as a personal library and a “reading mode” that cuts off notifications, apps and any kind of web distractions. The company is also unveiling what Serbinis calls a “full-on magazine store and experience, with all the top publishers, hundreds of titles and an experience that doesn’t really exist anywhere else.” A bold claim, but Serbinis is convinced that catering to readers is the key and that the digitization of publishing is still in its infancy. “Kobo turns four on December 15th,” he says. “The market really started a year before us, so it’s only on Year Five of a 25-year transformation [in publishing]. So what’s next?”

Serbinis says we’re at the very beginning in figuring out the best way to consume books and magazines in digital form. “Most of e-reading so far has been black and white, adult fiction,” he says. “But what are kids books going to be like? Or How To books? When the first TV shows came on, they were essentially people performing radio shows on film. That’s largely been the digital reading experience, just a direct translation of the printed experience. It’s far from over. We’re in the early innings of this market, for sure.”