One “feature” too many, and Kobo finally ruins its iOS app

I no longer enjoy launching the Kobo app on my iPhone or iPad. I stopped looking forward to interacting with it a few updates ago, and now I actually avoid it.

This has been building for a while. A year ago, I praised Kobo for being ahead of the curve when it came to adding entertaining new features to its iPad app (the features were later extended to other platforms). “Best app,” I wrote then, and I meant it. But over the past six months—well, ever since Apple crippled all the competing ebook retailers’ apps for strategic reasons in the summer of 2011—Kobo has been adding new features to make its app more and more “social” and “networked” and “fun”, with the consequence that the app has started to become less and less enjoyable to use. The latest upgrade (version 5.3) has simply made it not worth bothering with anymore.

All upsell, all the time
Update:
Kobo has responded with a preview of its forthcoming iOS update, which looks like it will address my biggest criticism. Be sure to check it out!

The new home screen for the Kobo app

Why is it so unpleasant to use now? First, because the new design adds a recommendation section to your home screen, and by “recommendation” I mean “ads” for books that Kobo thinks you might want to consider buying.

(I don’t even want to talk about the fact that, because the last book I’d opened in the app before this update was erotica, now Kobo thinks that ALL I WANT TO SEE are self-published Smashwords-style M/M book covers with titles like “Marked Men” and “Temptation Castle”. That’s my fault for opening books in an app that clearly intends to track everything I do for all time. It’s embarrassing, I guess, but it’s not even what I’m upset about.)

There is a time and place for book ads, and it is: WHEN I HAVE CHOSEN TO SHOP FOR A NEW BOOK. Guess when I haven’t chosen to do that? When I launch the Kobo app for the sole purpose of reading a book I already own.

Again, my complaint put in even simpler terms: The Kobo app is was designed to let me read my ebooks. It is was not a catalog I launch to browse for new purchases.

One more time, in visual form, in case someone at Kobo sees this rant but is pretending to be too busy to read it:

Look at the screencap above again. Jeez. The new recommendations section takes up HALF of the display area now. Your own books–the ones you’ve added to the Kobo app so that you can read them (in many cases, you even paid good money for them)–are swept aside into a secondary section, reduced to one cover image (unless that slot is filled by a sample you recently opened, sigh) and a four-pane mini-thumbnail collage that together take up only one-third of the display area.

Imagine if the next time Apple updated its iOS for your iPhone it replaced half of your home screen with “trial apps” that you didn’t ask for. You’d think Apple was insane, or maybe had turned into a U.S. cellular carrier circa 2007. In fact, Apple does look at your past purchases (if you give permission) and offers up recommendations. But it does this within its App Store, so that you, the customer, have to deliberately choose to look at the list when you’re good and ready–the digital equivalent of walking into a store to browse the merchandise.

Try to buy this book, we dare ya

So that’s the first problem, and it’s a big enough “screw you” to customers to make me worry that Kobo now suffers from what I call Tivo-itis, which is when all the smart people who made a company visionary leave and are replaced by second- and third-stringers.

But the second problem with the new Kobo update is that this new “recommendation” advertising doesn’t even work. Here’s what it’s like to reach the end of a sample book.

Remember when I mentioned that Apple had zombified all competing ebook apps? Those competitors, including Kobo, have to hand over 30% of their profits if they want to include crazy cutting-edge things like links to their own websites. This means Kobo, Nook, and Kindle have all been forced to offer dumbed down apps that can display files, but that can’t enable any sort of shopping experience.

Kobo still has to follow this rule, even with “free sample” books. The result is what you see above: If you do tap on one of their recommended titles, what you’ll end up with is a “free sample” that just stops at the end of the sample. There’s no message. Nothing. Not a quick “End of sample!”, and certainly not a “Buy this book on Kobo’s website!” because Apple would reject that functionality in a microsecond. Just a blank screen, and an error message if you try to turn the page. It’s true you can “share” the name of the book via email or social media, but let’s look at how you can do this.

So technically, if you really want to sell yourself the ebook sample, by emailing it to yourself you can then get an email with a link to the book on the Kobo website, and from your email message click through to buy the book. Wow. It looks as stupid illustrated here as it felt doing it.

[Update: A Kobo representative has told me that if your Kobo account is set up to permit email communication, you actually receive this email automatically the first time you open a sample within the app. It turns out I had this option unchecked, which is why I ended up having to figure out the manual way to do it.]

The other ebook retailers have similar problems with samples–for example, Kindle samples offer “buy this book” links that simply don’t work. The difference is, because the customer has pre-selected a Kindle sample, the non-functioning link serves as a reminder that the title can be purchased from Amazon. On Kobo’s app, the experience is more like, “Here’s a bunch of context-free excerpts from books you probably don’t care about. Good luck with that.”

Part of me wonders if this is the first sign of the New Face of Kobo, now that it’s been bought up by Rakuten. Software updates don’t happen overnight, so this was likely something Kobo had in the works for a while. Rakuten surely had enough time to kill this update but chose to release it anyway, which is a good sign that this is the way things will work with Kobo from now on. Who knows? By the time summer comes around the Kobo iOS app may be nothing but an impenetrable billboard of book samples, Facebook alerts, infographics, help screens, pop-up windows, slide-out sheets, and “share this” badges. (I haven’t even discussed the increasingly overstuffed social sharing features, but if you haven’t experienced them for yourself, just imagine how cool it would be to combine an ebook app with the slot floor of a casino.) Good times.

What Kobo should have been working on the past six months was a decent web app alternative so that it could escape Apple’s ridiculous iron fist. Then it could reinstate the original web catalog that it used to have, which was both useful and non-intrusive.

What Kobo has been doing instead is steadily ruining the customer experience for some of its best customers–the ones it already has.

(Photo: jot.punkt)

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