Kobo’s new web app is good for Kobo, but not for readers

Kobo’s new web app, released earlier this week, is a great first move at breaking free from Apple’s App Store extortion. Good for Kobo, I say. Unfortunately, it keeps the same design and user experience as the official Kobo app, which means it’s designed to be a storefront first, and a reading app second. Unless you’re stuck with Kobo, there are better options out there.

Like Amazon’s Kindle web app from last August, the Kobo web app is really a website that can store data on your device even when you’re offline. This means you can download and read ebooks without a live connection. [Edit: My description here is badly worded and confusing. To clarify, you have to be online to download anything. Once you’ve done that, then you can access those downloaded files in the future regardless of whether you’ve got an active wireless connection.] It also means Kobo can offer it to (for example) iPad and iPhone users directly, instead of having to request Apple’s permission first.

But unlike Amazon’s Kindle web app, the interface is designed to benefit Kobo more than its customers, by reserving about two thirds of the screen for Kobo’s own use. The difference is striking when you look at the two web apps side by side, so let’s do just that:

Comparison of Kobo's web app reader with Kindle's web app reader

The green parts that I’ve marked indicate the “store” section of the interface.

On the Kindle web app, it’s all about creating a user experience that emphasizes reading — it’s all about your ebooks, your library. You’re in control of what you see each time you open the web app. And when you’re ready to shop, you tap the button and the entire interface switches to the Kindle Store. Amazon’s approach is more sensible, because if you’re a customer/reader, your primary need when you open an ereader app is to read; shopping for more ebooks is important, but secondary.

It’s true that there are lots of ereader apps that can fulfill that primary reading need, but unfortunately for the vast majority of us, each retailer’s DRM/format scheme prevents us from straying beyond their custom apps. We’re stuck with the app that the retailer provides — and that means if you’re a Kobo customer, more likely than not you’ll be reading your ebooks “within” Kobo’s store.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a new path for Kobo. Here are side by side comparisons of the current App Store apps for Kobo and Kindle:

Comparison of Kobo reading app and Kindle reading app

Again, green indicates the “store” section; again, Kobo claims the majority of the interface for itself, leaving you just one third of the screen to browse your own library.

I don’t know why Kobo keeps doing this, other than I suspect the company is aggressively trying to boost sales. By contrast, I imagine Amazon enjoys strong enough sales that it can afford to hand over the full interface to its customers. But I also suspect that Amazon intentionally keeps the private library and public store concepts separate in order to provide a more intimate experience for its customers.

With this and my last critique of Kobo, it’s starting to look like I really don’t like the eternal third place runner in the ebook retailer race. That’s not true! I just don’t like it when a business pushes too far into its customers’ personal spheres, and that line is very easy to cross when we’re in the digital world. No matter how “e” publishing becomes, a quality reading experience is still essentially a private experience — a silent connection between the reader and the author that takes place in the inner world of the mind. I wish Kobo would take that concept more seriously.

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