Kobo unveils Aura 'high definition' ebook reader

Kobo boss Michael Serbinis talks to Rory Cellan-Jones

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Ebook seller Kobo has released what it is describing as a "high definition" e-ink based device.

The Aura HD's 6.8in (17.2cm) screen offers a resolution of 265 pixels per inch (ppi).

That puts it ahead of Amazon's bestselling Kindle Paperwhite which offers 212ppi on its 6in screen.

The launch comes at a time when ebook sales are booming, but some analysts suggest interest in black and white e-ink devices has started to wane.

Kobo is owned by the Japanese retail giant Rakuten which bought the company in 2011.

In the UK it has benefited from a tie-up signed the same year with bookseller WHSmith.

Kobo's chief executive said that this and similar deals with other bricks-and-mortar chains in other countries had helped his company enjoy rapid growth.

"Last year sales of e-readers for Kobo tripled year-over-year growing far faster than the competition and vaulting us into the number two spot worldwide," Michael Serbinis told the BBC.

The market leader is Amazon which sells its hardware at the UK's Waterstones book chain.

The manufacturers make little if any profit on hardware sales but instead seek to make money from sales of ebooks and other media themselves. Here again the US firm looks to have the edge.

Aura HD Kobo says the extra pixels mean the Aura HD offers "the closest experience to print-on-paper"

"Amazon retains more than three quarters of the market in the UK according to the publishers I've spoken to," Benedict Evans, Enders Analysis's digital media expert, told the BBC.

"In fact people have been quoting anything from 80 to 90% of the country's ebook sales being accounted for by Amazon - with that figure split between e-readers, the Kindle tablets and its app for phones."

When asked if Kobo was in fact a long way behind its US rival, Mr Serbinis replied: "Not as far as you'd think."

Children's books

Kobo boasts that the Aura HD's screen is the highest-resolution e-ink display on the market, adding that the device's Freescale processor also makes it the fastest at turning pages.

The machine goes on sale in the UK and North America this month, and elsewhere from May.

Its £140 suggested retail price makes it about £30 more expensive than the Kindle Paperwhite and Barnes & Noble's Nook Simple Touch. The Aura HD is also slightly heavier.

However, one industry watcher believed it would still have at least niche appeal.

"I think its interesting that they're going for a point of differentiation, aiming for the high-end of the e-ink market," said Philip Jones, editor of the Bookseller magazine.

"I struggle to see an HD screen being a big selling point, however it could prove popular with people wanting to buy childrens' books or non-fiction titles which feature illustrations."

Rocketing sales

The value of the UK's physical books market fell by nearly 5% over the course of 2012 in value terms, according to market researchers at Nielsen Bookscan.

By contrast they said that the country's ebook market swelled by about 100% over the same period accounting for about £150m of sales.

Kindle Paperwhite Analysts say Amazon's range of Kindles dominate ebook sales in the UK

Other countries are also seeing rapid growth - Kobo's boss highlights Brazil and India as emerging economies with huge potential. Even so, his firm may find it increasingly hard to maintain market share.

"We are still in an early kind of land grab and competition is growing," said Andre Breedt, Nielsen's research and development analyst.

"Multipurpose devices such as smartphones and tablets will become a much bigger part of the market than dedicated devices like e-readers. And in some countries you've now got mobile phone operators getting involved, as well as operating system makers like Apple and Google.

"You also have supermarkets buying up some of the smaller e-reader companies - so I think that more innovative devices and brands will be launched in the future."

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