The launch of the Borders ebook offering in Australia finally brings a contemporary local ebook buying experience to Australians. The store is fresh and easy-to-use, and Borders is a recognised name in books in Australia. The prices look reasonable, and if all goes well they should soon have a reasonably wide selection of ebooks to sell as their existing relationships with publishers are finalised for ebooks.
Thus ends the good part of this review. While the front end of the store seems to be well set-up, the user interface end is not as good. Borders have reached an exclusive arrangement with Kobo to run their ebooks platform, but the Kobo platform is flaky at best. Kobo (previously Shortcovers) is a competitor to Amazon’s Kindle – they are both aiming for device independence. There are Kobo apps for the iPhone and iPad, there is a standalone Kobo reader (for the impressively low price of $199). Unfortunately, however, you get what you pay for. The standalone reader lacks the most rudimentary ereader features – like search and annotation – and supports only ePub and PDF (and does PDF badly, like most e-ink devices). The iPad and iPhone versions– since they are software only and not really limited by the physical specs of the standalone reader – should have, at the very least, a search function. But they do not.
Books purchased on one device can be downloaded for free to any other device – but how is the user supposed to figure out where they are up to? If I’m reading a book on my iPad, and then switch to my iPhone – there is no way to find the place that I’m up to. On the Kindle platform, this happens wirelessly and automatically through Amazon’s servers (through a service enticingly called ‘Whispernet’). I don’t necessarily expect this level of functionality – but at the very least let us search! What’s the point of being device independent if you still have to manually flick through hundreds of electronic screens to find your place?
This is not the only problem with the Kobo platform. Although the books that come with the reader for free (out-of-copyright titles including Alice in Wonderland, Pride and Prejudice, Dracula and so on) look great on the screen – other purchased titles are cut off at the edges and are nigh on unreadable (see images). Additionally, the App Store for iPhones and iPads features both a Kobo and Borders app – both of which are backed by the REDgroup (Borders’ parent company) catalogue of ebooks in Australia. However, consumers will need a separate account for each app (which look almost identical, save for branding), and if a book is purchased in one it will not transfer to the other.
I really want to love the Borders/Kobo ebook offering. But I emphatically do not. Kobo should be applauded for their attempt to do device independence, but the implementation is ultimately flawed. Borders should be applauded for taking a step forward with ebooks in Australia – but it’s a pity they have wedded themselves to this particular platform. There is a very good chance that over the next year or so software and store selection will improve and many of these problems will be ironed out. But how many readers will be burned in the interim? How many readers will turn off ebooks altogether because of a cheap entry-level offering that is clearly not ready for the market? And, more importantly, how much further ahead will the competition be by then? If you’re looking to get in on the ebook experience in Australia – your best bet, sadly, is still the Kindle.