Whitcoulls launches NZ's first e-book reader, download service

Um, wrong way, guys.RedGroup Retail, the Australian owner of Whitcoulls and the local iteration of Borders, has today launched New Zealand's first e-book tablet and its major e-book download store.

Um, wrong way, guys.

RedGroup Retail, the Australian owner of Whitcoulls and the local iteration of Borders, has today launched New Zealand's first e-book tablet and its major e-book download store.

Most of the two million e-books on offer cost $12 to $19 (although early browsers have railed at some new release titles being priced in the mid $20s or $30s - close to or in some cases more expensive than paperbacks). A Kobo e-book reader to view them on costs $295 - although, notably, you don't have to own a Kobo tablet to buy titles from the Kobo download store.

The Kobo tablet goes onsale at midday today. The download service is due to go live at the same time.

Both the tablet and its -e-book service are rebadged versions of “Kobo” - a black-and-white, low-cost system originally developed for Canadian retail chain Indigo, and later adopted by Borders in the US.

RedGroup co-owns Kobo with other booksellers in countries where launches have already taken place.

In Australia, where Kobo was launched last week, the tablet is selling for $A199 ($NZ237) - cheap as chips, or at least compared to the full-colour, touchscreen iPad, which is expected to sell for between $750 and $1250 locally.

Readers must control the means of downloading
100 free e-books are included in the $295 price of a Kobo - all being classics or copyright-expired titles or both. These include Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, Bram Stoker's Dracula, lots of Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle and, curiously, The Communist Manifesto by one Karl Marx.

Download service supports Mac, PC, iPhone
The associated e-book download service (accessible through whitcoulls.co.nz) will offer 2 million titles for the Kobo - but, crucially, Whitcoulls also lets you download free e-book reader software for Mac or PC, and there's also a Kobo iPhone app.

Support for Apple's iPad is promised upon its July NZ release. The free Kobo e-reader software will also support BlackBerry and Google Android phones.

Providing multi-device support is a smart play by Whitcoulls, maximising the potential customer base for its new e-book download service.

But, naturally, Redgroup MD Dave Fenlon also pushed the merits of the dedicated Kobo reader at the company's launch in Auckland today - especially its eye-friendly eInk, and five adjustable font sizes.

Mr Fenlon quoted from a Wired review that reckoned Kobo, rather than iPad was the real "Kindle Killer" - a reference to the proprietary Amazon tablet that has so far sold around 4 million units.

Your book collection in the cloud
In another neat twist, customers can store there collection of e-books in the cloud (on the internet), making them accessible from anywhere they can grab compatible hardware. (The device also has 1GB of bulit-in memory, or enough to store around 1000 books.)

Random House NZ MD Karen Ferns said the Kobo download would make it easier for New Zealand publishes to sell titles to offshore customers.

Author Deborah Challinor said she hoped that e-books - being cheaper - will encourage more people to buy books rather than check them out of a library, and that the new format would also see older books coming back to "print".

First in
RedGroup has handily beaten Apple to the New Zealand e-book market.

Apple's iPad is not due in these parts until July. Amazon, whose Kindle is now available in many countries, including Australia, still has no local plans.

A Kobo reader looks very similar to an Amazon.com Kindle (check one out, plus tech specs, on Borders.com here), sharing the same style of black-and-white, anti-glare display.

But the Kobo economic model is very different with publishers - rather than Amazon or Apple - more in the driving seat, according to US reports.

However, at today's NZ launch, Redgroup's Mr Fenlon refused to say whether his retail chain was mandating pricing to publishers (a sore point with Amazon's Kindle in the US), or providing them with recommended price bands.

Open file formats
File formats are also a lot less locked down, with Kobo supporting the open ePUB standard, plus PDF and Adobe DRM.

In the same spirit of openness, you can also copy your own PDF content onto a Kobo.

There are two connectivity options - using Bluetooth to sync with a cellphone or laptop, or syncing with a PC or Mac via USB cable.

The Kobo has a 6-inch (diagonal) display; is just under 19cm tall, 12cm wide and just a shade over 1cm thick, and weighs 227 grams. That is, it's a little shorter than the 24cm tall iPad, but its other dimensions are similar.

Giving it as whirl
Hands-on, the Kobo is smaller than you might think from photos, but also feels lighter than I had imagined.

The eInk screen is as easy on the eyes as promised, and was quite readable in the slightly murky light of Auckland's Northern Club (for dimmer situation's there's a "night mode" of white text on a dark background).

And the controls, which include a choice of four font sizes, seem a no-brainer. Although already a couple of times of tried to touch the screen before sheepishly returning my fingers to the page-turn button. Stand-by for a full report shortly on Keallhauled

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