A Strange Team: Kobo + ACCESS

Kobo’s acquisition by Rakuten (and subsequent launch of a Japanese Kobo Store) has brought about its first big change: Kobo Selects ACCESS NetFrontTM BookReader v1.0 EPUB Edition as EPUB 3 Standard Viewer Engine for Its eBook Services

Some background: ACCESS is a Japanese company that has been around for quite some time. Its NetFront web browser was very popular pre-iPhone and was also so far ahead of all other mobile browsers that Jeff Hawkins’ Handspring licensed it. Sony also chose the NetFront browser for its line of CLIE PalmOS devices.

So ACCESS is no stranger to the mobile world at all. In fact, it bet big and bought PalmSource, the OS software company that was spun off from the original Palm, Inc., back when they still believed there was a future for that OS and that licensing it would be successful.

You can tell how successful that acquisition was from the many devices out there now running PalmOS Cobalt — or, as it was renamed, The ACCESS Linux Platform (ALP). Ahem.

Back in February of last year, I was the only person that was still interested in ACCESS: ACCESS To Make Digital Publishing Announcement. I was actually surprised that nothing came of that. And when nothing did, I let ACCESS fall off my radar. I even missed this announcement last October: ACCESS Announces Advanced, Platform-Independent eBook Reader that Supports the EPUB 3 Standard

Now here we are today with Rakuten choosing ACCESS to power the next generation of Kobo reading software!

Having seen its mobile browser leadership usurped by the iPhone and then Android, and seen its set-top business go nowhere, and its PalmSource acquisition just drop dead, ACCESS has apparently once again changed tack and gone big into digital publishing.

Isn’t it weird how technology companies see a future in the book while the Big Six don’t?

Anyway, look at this:

What’s significant about that is that it gives publishers what Apple — and Amazon, and Google, and even Kobo! — refuse to offer: A direct line to the customer.

But wait. See that fat area titled ACCESS? That will switch to Kobo in this deal. Because Kobo will do the book hosting, DRM, etc. So that direct line to the customer feature is Not For You, Big Six. Unless Kobo decides to add it.

That this is a huge deal for ACCESS can’t be understated. According to its own Portfolio, there have been only three customers so far. (And don’t be fooled by all the devices that ACCESS lists as customers. Like this list of PalmOS Garnet devices, most have been rotting in the technology graveyard for years. Consider them a list of Past Glories, not Current Victories.)

All of this brings up some very big questions:

1) What happens to all the Kobo devs who were assigned to its own reader software?

2) What platform is the new hardware reader software running on? Is it going to be put on the existing underlying Linux of the Kobo eReader? Or is Kobo about to switch to Android for its hardware? Android is what powers the Kobo Vox (and I’ve been saying the Kobo eReader should switch to Android too, to get some of that Nook Touch rooting action). Someone will need to get ahold of a Japanese version of the Kobo eReader (or we’ll need to rely on blogs from Japan) to determine this.

3) ePub3 capabilities are very important to the Japanese market because of the special typographical characteristics of that language. But what will that really mean in the English-language market? Will the eInk Kobo eReader contain only a subset of ePub3 capabilities — such as forgoing multimedia possibilities?

4) I don’t see the word “exclusive” anywhere. So is Kobo vulnerable to competitors also licensing from ACCESS?

We’ll have to see what the full ramifications of this will be. Too much is still unclear.

But for ACCESS, this is a huge win and now they’re back on everybody’s radar after being off it for so long.

PostScript: Re-reading the announcement, I’m wondering if this is any big deal at all. One way to see this is as a Japan-only deal. Which means, outside of Japan, it might be business as usual for Kobo. We will have to see.

Update, July 2, 2012: This was a news item Friday: Confirmed: Kobo Touch Coming to Japan in July – Will Get Epub3 Support. Now we know where the ePub3 is coming from. And I still wonder if this is a Japan-only deal due to this from today’s press release:

In addition to licensing NetFront BookReader v1.0 EPUB Edition for the kobo Touch, ACCESS, as a content aggregator, will provide the viewer engine for EPUB 3 compatible apps.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

In that diagram above, it seems ACCESS will do the ACCESS part after all. Kobo won’t be hosting the files. I can’t see that being anywhere except within the Japanese market.

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