#252 – Inside the Kobo Elipsa with Kobo VP of Product Ramesh Mantha

Ramesh Mantha, Kobo’s VP of product for devices, joins us on the podcast this week to tell us about Kobo’s newest eReader: the Kobo Elipsa. Ramesh walks us through the research and development behind the Elipsa, the challenges his team faced launching a new device during a pandemic, and he answers all of our questions about the technology behind eReaders.  Learn more about this episode!

Ramesh Mantha, Kobo’s VP of product for devices, joins us on the podcast this week to tell us about Kobo’s newest eReader: the Kobo Elipsa. Ramesh walks us through the research and development behind the Elipsa, the challenges his team faced launching a new device during a pandemic, and he answers all of our questions about the technology behind eReaders. 

  • Ramesh tells us about his role at Kobo and what being the VP of product for devices at Kobo entails
  • He talks about the three plus years the Kobo Elipsa was in development, and the research his team conducted in order to not only give Kobo readers the best possible experience, but also to bring new customers into the eReader market
  • Ramesh explains the challenges his team faced due to Covid-19, and how they overcame not being able to travel to the production site or test the Elipsa with users in person
  • He discusses the decision to make the Elipsa the first writable Kobo device, what challenges his team needed to overcome from both a design and hardware standpoint, and he explains the handwriting to text software the Elipsa uses
  • Ramesh breaks down how exactly E Ink technology works, what has improved with Elipsa’s Carta 1200 E Ink technology, and why Kobo has waited until now to offer a dark mode on a device
  • He talks about the size and weight of the Kobo Elipsa, what factors weighed into the design decisions, and how the team came up with a functional and flexible case design

Useful Links

Order a Kobo Elipsa at Kobo.com
Behind the scenes video of the Kobo Elipsa in Production
KWL Podcast #121: Behind-the-Scenes Look at Kobo’s New eReader Forma with Ramesh Mantha

Ramesh Mantha is the VP of product for devices at Kobo. He leads the team that conceives of, designs and develops Kobo’s eReaders.  His focus is on harnessing advanced technologies, and then rendering them invisible, leaving nothing but an amazing reading experience.

Episode Transcript

Transcript provided by Speechpad

Joni: Hey writers, you’re listening to “The Kobo Writing Life Podcast” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts, I’m Joni, Author Engagement Specialist at Kobo Writing Life.

Tara: And I’m Tara, the Director of Kobo Writing Life for English language. This week on the podcast, we’re delighted to have back our VP of product with focus on devices, Ramesh Mantha. And he is talking to us all about the Kobo Elipsa, our newest, most innovative device.

Joni: Yeah, it was a great interview. I love being able to talk to somebody that knows so much about what they do, and then he’s so smart. But also just being able to find out all the questions that you’ve ever wanted to ask about how e-readers work, and what is E Ink, and what does this do. So it was a lot of fun. I want to try this device very badly now.

Tara: I’m using it right now. It’s great.

Joni: Let’s rub it in.

Tara: We’re very excited here to have Ramesh Mantha, the VP of product and devices joining us for a second time on, “The Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” Ramesh, thank you for coming.

Ramesh: Thank you for having me.

Tara: It’s been a few years since you were last featured. So do you mind reminding our audience who you are and what it is that you do at Kobo?

Ramesh: Sure. As you said, I’m VP of product for devices at Kobo. And what that means is my teams work on both the design and development from an engineering standpoint for the Kobo e-readers, particularly on the hardware development side, as well as the overall product management. Which really means, you know, ultimately, what should we build? You know, how do we decide what to make? Simplistically is kind of what product management is. How do we choose what to do? How do we choose what not to do? And it has a lot to do with thinking about end-users, the market, and technologies, and kind of putting it all together and figuring out ultimately what our roadmap is for development. So yeah, that’s my role.

Joni: So we’re here today to talk about the Kobo Elipsa, which is a really different device for Kobo. First time that it is both an e-reader and a notebook. Can you tell us a little bit about how this was developed and how long you and your team have been working on it?

Ramesh: It goes back several years, probably going back at least sort of three, four years. One of the things we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about is just looking at digital reading. We know that the, you know, e-reader itself as a device is frankly really the preferred platform. It’s where people spend the bulk of their time reading e-books for Kobo, and frankly, our competitors as well. We have a variety of both internal data and external data points that tell us this. And so one of the things we’ve really thought about is kind of growth, and how do we…you know, e-readers started off with this kind of expectation almost 10 years ago that they would absolutely take over. And that, you know, print books would be a dish like vinyl is today for music. And the reality is, it didn’t turn out that way. They’ve settled into a really sort of significant scale of usage at maybe roughly 20% globally. That’s very sort of hand-wavy but in that range. But it kind of stalled.

And so part of it was we wanted to kind of understand why, and how do we kind of kick it into the next gear, if you will, in terms of adoption and growth of digital reading more generally. And then obviously, given sort of what I spend a lot of time thinking about e-readers specifically. So we started just looking at really a disparate amount of research. We were looking at everything from what types of genres people are reading on our e-readers, what are our current customer kind of demographics and profiles. And one of the things that we learned, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to either of you is, our readers skew older. They skew towards being more typically women, and they read fiction. And when you look at print books…and so we started looking at some data points with print. And what was interesting there was if you look at adult print books, and I’m totally excluding education and anything like that, sort of the kind of books that consumers are buying from bookstores. For adult books, nonfiction actually is slightly bigger than fiction, not drastically, but just a bit bigger, probably something like a 55-45 split-ish. Whereas, if you look at the books Kobo sells, it’s quite different from that. In fact, it’s on the order of about 80% to 85% fiction. That’s a big difference. So right away, that was interesting. It was an interesting data point. So we wanted to kind of understand more about that.

And so one of the things we did was then we kind of…that was sort of a market research angle. And then we did a kind of, let’s talk to our customers directly and ask them what’s going on. And so we surveyed a fairly large number of our customers. And we kind of talked to them about, you know, what are you reading? And what was interesting is even our customers who are reading a lot of books with us, people who are reading 10, 20, 30 books a year, were still reading a meaningful amount of print. And that was interesting because these aren’t people who are reluctant to read digitally. These are people who clearly have embraced both the physical platform, the nature of reading digitally, but also us as a company. They’re buying lots of books from us. So yet, they’re still reading a whole bunch of print. And so that was kind of interesting.

And so then, the obvious question was, well, why is that? So we needed to dive even deeper. And so then we took it a step further. And our user research team in particular actually brought a bunch of people in. So we had much smaller sort of 10, 20-ish type people and did some real deep dive interviews, spent like an hour plus talking to them about what are they reading and why do they pick one way of reading versus the other. And so, one of the things that sort of emerged from this were sort of some recurring themes, I guess, which were, people talked about sort of linear versus nonlinear reading. So they said, “What I’m reading more for sort of escape or entertainment, which typically match to fiction, but not exclusively, I tend to read linearly. I read through a book. I don’t necessarily need to go back. I just go straight through my book, and I’m done. But when I’m reading…” and this is kind of my own coinage, but I call it reading for purpose. It’s not that entertainment reading isn’t for purpose, but sort of once you’re done, you’re done with it.

But if you’re reading for purpose, and often that match to learning, but it’s not necessarily an educational context. It could be that you want to improve how you do your job. Another big category is self-help, which is entirely personal. It’s not about your job at all. But it might be about health goals, other kinds of goals. A lot of times for that kind of reading, people said a few things, “I want to move around in the book. I want to jump around.” And it’s really hard to do that in a digital book. And print books are…you know, you sort of don’t think about them as a technology but they kind of are. And if you think about them, they’re rather amazing in terms of the physical ease of jumping around the book, you know, you can have both dog ears, but also, you know, you can just have two or three fingers in a book and literally just instantly go back and forth. And so that sort of sense, the ability to jump around was one thing they said was lacking in digital. The other thing they said was a sense of spatial awareness in the book. So I know how far into the book I am. And again, you know, a book naturally kind of gives you that.

And then obviously, the other one people talked about was marking up. I want to write in the book because that helps reinforce whatever I’m trying to learn from it. And so we looked at that, and we’re like, “Okay. Well, these are related to gaps in the current reading experience that we offer.” There was also other reasons and, you know, people talk about the physicality of the book. And, you know, there’s not…all the reasons can’t be addressed. But what we sort of gleaned from all of this was, there are things we can improve. And if we improve them, a lot of those people who are currently reading in print, and I would say, in particular, nonfiction in print, in theory, could be converted to reading digitally and reading digitally with Kobo. So that was kind of the genesis of the conversation. This goes back sort of at least three years.

One person in particular who kind of came to Kobo, having spent a lot of time thinking about this is Harry Hutton, who’s our senior UX designer for e-readers. And there was a whole separate kind of academic track as well, because there’s a lot of research behind digital reading and why it works and why it doesn’t work that we also drew on as well. And Harry brought a lot of that in, and even going back to some of his research in grad school was in this space. So it was a bit of a gestalt of a lot of different kinds of analyses and thinking. But essentially, what it crystallized to was this idea that if we improve the reading experience, we could bring more people in, give them a better experience than even they can have in print, and obviously, grow our business. You know, that was ultimately the goal that set us off on a journey. And we started off even before we ever thought about writing on the device, looking at some of the other things like navigation, moving around the book, you might have heard of us talk internally about the concept of deep reading. I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about it externally. But it was the idea of addressing those gaps that our customers told us about. And that even precedes the stylus concept, and it’s something we’ve been working on.

So in a sense, once we finally sort of moved into the stylus that kind of represents, in one sense, the culmination of this journey, but in another sense, it’s just the first step because it was kind of theoretical up to now. And obviously, things get less and less theoretical. As you know, Tara, you’ve been in the beta. So we’ve obviously had people using this for a while, but there’s nothing quite like putting it in front of the public in a large scale. And so come end of June in a few weeks, actually, the first customers are going to actually start receiving their Elipsas and we’ll see what that feedback looks like. And obviously, we’ll learn from it and improve it. Anyway, let me stop there. It was a bit of a long answer.

Tara: No, that’s wonderful. I think that’s really great. One of the things that we’re always telling our authors is about how Kobo really is so focused on the reading experience, like that is what we do. And I think everything that you’ve just said really highlights that. The amount of research that just goes into these devices. And I think it’s really great that we have this area of our business where we can be completely innovative and move into like this space and, you know, be so thoughtful. And one of my questions was like, how much customer feedback goes into the creation of a Kobo, but it sounds like quite a lot. Like these are really customer-driven devices.

Ramesh: Absolutely. I mean, we get feedback at more of a macro scale in terms of surveys, where we hear back from, you know, thousands of our customers simultaneously. We look at the feedback channels. We have, you know, as you can imagine, customers come to our website and leave comments or questions and stuff. We’re constantly pulling that in and kind of digesting it to see what we should do to address those things and how we can improve. And then there’s sort of that deeper level of research where we actually literally bring people in the building, have them use our products, either existing ones, or new ones and get their feedback. And also, one critical thing is, it’s getting feedback for the things we’re doing today. But then it’s also about getting feedback for the things we might do in the future. Because if you think about growth, you want to bring more people and new people in the door, as well as making sure you serve your current customer base well. And so, it’s not just about understanding what you’re doing, but understanding what you could be doing.

Joni: How was it for you, on your team working with COVID with not being able to have people necessarily come into the office and sit in a group and give you that kind of feedback?

Ramesh: Luckily, we were…I mean, there’s two aspects of challenges for us. One is the ability to do those kinds of one-to-one interactions with people. So obviously, one of the ways we did it was…I mean, it validates like everyone in the team. We’ve had to adapt remote. And a lot of it has simply been, you know, if you want to do some testing with a person, you ship them a device. And then you do what we’re doing right now. We just have a Zoom call and talk to them that way. So there’s been a lot of stuff like that. So that’s kind of been one challenge that’s been manageable simply by just, you know, using all these tools we have available to us. You know, Tara, you’ve been in the beta program. And so, you know, we just had to make sure we found a way to get a device to every person who’s using it, and then go from there. In some ways, I think the bigger challenge is one of the things as a company that we do is, we’re a device manufacturer.

And so there’s an entire kind of R&D process that normally happens intimately with our partners in Asia. So on the hardware development side, myself, and most of my team are typically overseas in Taiwan primarily, occasionally in Hong Kong, Mainland China, every couple of months. And that really historically has been quite important in order to sort of develop our products, and especially with fairly aggressive timelines. So as you can imagine, that’s ground to a halt. So managing that has become a lot more difficult. Typically, you know, we might get a prototype right off the production line, and literally be at the factory, and people on my team like Archer, for example, who leads the hardware development, him and his team would literally be in the physical factory. And as something came off the line, and they could physically look at it and say, “Okay. This is good.” Or ultimately, it’s not good. Give us some immediate feedback and you could iterate on that, as opposed to now where you might have to send that thing to Toronto from Taiwan and then wait for shipping time. And everything gets a bit longer.

So we’ve been able to mitigate that by the fact that we actually have a small engineering team in Taiwan, which we’ve grown a little bit this year. And so they’ve really…part of it is, frankly, trusting people and increasing your trust in people. Things that maybe I would have expected to look at to approve in the past, now, I trust Archer and his team locally to take care of it. And so I think sort of letting go a bit has been part of it. And, you know, realizing that we don’t necessarily have to always be there. But it’s definitely been a big challenge on the development side. And that’s before you even get into things like shipping and that sort of thing.

The other thing that’s probably been one of the biggest challenges, and it’s ongoing and will continue indefinitely, is I don’t know how much you’ve read in the media and stuff about sort of the global chip shortage. It’s real. It’s significant. And so we really have had to scramble and be agile in sort of our engineering processes to deal with that. Sometimes, you know, a product that’s in the middle of development, suddenly, this part is not available. Okay. We need to make a design change to switch it to something else. Sometimes that’s simple. Sometimes that’s actually very complicated. So that’s been a big part of COVID this year as well is managing that.

Tara: I really like that we got to see some of the insights into the creation with the video that we shared of kind of like the inside and the factory and how it was built. So we’ll definitely link to that in the show notes. Because it’s super interesting to see like a Kobo Elipsa getting put together. And yeah, it’s really interesting to see how you’ve been able to adapt during COVID times as well.

Ramesh: Oh, for sure. And, you know, me and my team are sort of so used to seeing that stuff that we forget sometimes that it is kind of sort of…you’re sort of pulling the curtain aside a bit and kind of revealing stuff that people normally don’t see. You know, in order to ship a consumer product at scale in the thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions with the kind of quality that our customers expect to see, it’s really quite complex. And, you know, so you saw some snippets in that video of like some of the destructive testing we do. So, you know, how tough does…you know, how do you ensure that the product is tough enough that it survives being dropped from a certain height? Well, you drop it over and over again. And, you know, how do you make sure that the design is robust to being in your backpack and doesn’t get bent? Well, you have a requirement for how much force it should handle. And then that means you have a test where you literally stick it on a rack and bend it until it shatters. And to make sure that, you know, it does what you expect it to do. So all sorts of stuff like that is kind of a standard for any device we develop. If it’s a waterproof device, you’re going to immerse it in water, and so on and so forth.

Joni: So you’ve done this for a lot of e-readers and different models over the years. But this is the first time that we’ve had a writable device. What were some of the challenges for your team in creating that?

Ramesh: I mean, a bunch. A bunch. I would say with the writing technology, I mean, first of all, it is an entirely new hardware technology in terms of using a stylus and writing on the screen. There’s a few different fundamental ways of doing stylus on a screen without getting into gory details. People talk about what’s called an active pen versus EMR. And so there’s all sorts of pros and cons in terms of picking one technology versus the other. So at sort of the design level, just understanding that and figuring out what, you know, there’s considerations of technical feasibility of costs, and ultimately, and most importantly, user experience. So we had to kind of factor that. So that kind of at the beginning was a difficult thing.

And then once you get it built, and we have our hands on it, then there’s just a lot of really tricky technical details so that it works well. Things like when you’re writing on the screen, your palm is invariably going to rest on the screen as well. You don’t want it to cause unintentional page turns, for example. So really optimizing those aspects of the experience. So there was a bunch of stuff kind of at the sort of what I would call the low level of getting the stylus to work. But then I would say that fundamentally, the biggest challenge with the stylus was I would say, in the software experience. Because ultimately, the software experience makes or breaks it. And we knew that there’s going to be certain things that were critical. You know, we always looked at there being kind of two pillars of the stylus software experience. One was related to reading. This kind of goes back to the initial motivation, which is the idea that being able to mark up your book will allow you to sort of get more out of what you’re reading, kind of give you that experience that you’re used to in print.

So we knew we needed to do that really well. We knew that, you know, marking up an ePub or a PDF had to be something that we were the best at. That was a critical focus for us. And it turns out that that’s actually a pretty challenging problem. Just to give you one example, imagine you, you know, underline a word or circle a word or something, or circle a passage in a book. And with our books, as you know, one of the great features of e-readers in general and us in particular is customizability. So you can go and change your margin size or go change your font size. And suddenly you go and change that and words that were together are now crossing from one line to the other. How do you actually preserve that freehand user intent in a situation where you can kind of change all of the sizes and margins and everything else? So that was actually like a sort of substantial technical problem. And so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to do that well, and I think we did things that no one else does. And we’re quite excited by that. So we knew the writing on what you’re reading experience was crucial.

But at the same time, the reality is, we also knew that people were going to expect sort of a notebook experience. They want to just have it like a blank notebook that they can write on, you know, whether you’re taking meeting notes on your day to day at work, which is actually what I do all the time with my Elipsa, or maybe you’re reading a book. And in addition to marking up on the book, you want to have a companion notebook where you’re writing stuff at more length, for example. So all sorts of use cases for it, or you just have a to-do list or you’re doodling or whatever. So we knew just a basic notebook experience was something that was quite important. And frankly, we knew we would be compared to some significant competitors who focus on that area. So that was kind of a second pillar.

And so, really, the software effort to kind of deliver great experiences across that full spectrum. It’s probably one of the largest in the e-reader side software efforts we’ve done in quite a few years. Typically, when we launch a new e-reader, there might be some new software features associated with it. So when we launched Aura ONE going back a bunch of years, we first introduced OverDrive library borrowing, for example. So you’ve seen kind of what I would call a big-ish ticket item in software, sometimes come up with a new e-reader. But we’ve never had a device that’s been as completely defined by software experience, in particular related to the stylus as we did with Elipsa. So the incremental software effort to deliver a good stylus experience just dwarfs what we’ve done with any other device before. So that was really big and new for us. And it’s undiscovered country, you know, we had to do a lot of user research and get feedback, and was, “Okay. How do we deal with that?” It was just a completely new interaction mode, which means there’s all sorts of new things we had to learn from very low-level hardware minutia to just sort of ways people use things, and higher levels of abstraction and software.

Tara: I really enjoyed being part of the beta for this, because I am somebody that writes all over my books. I like my books to look like they’ve been read. So this is like the perfect device for me. And I really loved how it captures my handwriting because I write in script, and it captures it so well. And also my doodles because that’s, you know…you’re doodling away, especially when I’ve been using it for meeting notes and stuff. And I love the difference in the features between like the advanced notebook that can capture my handwriting and convert it to text really easily. And then the other notebook that just lets me sort of create this mess of what my physical notebooks actually look like. So the stylus is the key factor from this is that what I’m learning from chatting to you is that it’s just all about the different pressure points and kind of having it as close to feel as a ballpoint pen.

Ramesh: Totally. So I mean, certainly we’re going for that set of fidelity, even just small things like the texture of the screen. One of the things you’ll notice if say, you use an Apple pencil on an iPad, which is a great experience. They’ve unarguably done a great job. But it feels a little bit weird because it’s like very slick. And so when you write on a website, you’ll notice that it has a certain tactility. And I wouldn’t say it exactly replicates like a pencil on paper, but it feels like you’re writing a bit more naturally. So that was definitely a piece of it. But then how the software kind of picks that up and delivers the overall experience was a really important area of focus. And it’s one. We’re not done. This, you know, when I say Elipsa is the first step, it is…you know, we will be continually iterating on this experience. For us, it’s the beginning of a journey rather than sort of culmination.

Joni: I’m going a little bit off script here.

Ramesh: Sure.

Joni: We can cut it out if we need to. But we got a mention of the Elipsa in our newsletter yesterday and we had somebody write in and say it was love at first sight, and they’re really excited about it. This author is in Hungary. Are we going to be able to make this e-reader available worldwide?

Ramesh: That’s a good question. So right now we’re in a lot of countries, I can tell you that. Our main markets that we launched Elipsa in, our core EU market so, you know, France, Netherlands, Spain, Italy, the Nordics, Belgium, not EU anymore, but the UK, and then obviously North America, Canada, U.S., and then various parts of East Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Now I know, our device from sort of a regulatory point of view can be sold anywhere in the EU and Hungary is in the EU. So I think it should be possible at minimum for someone in Hungary today to at least go to websites that sell within the EU in one of those other countries where we definitely are selling and get it to themselves. In terms of, are there local Hungarian retailers? I don’t think so right now, but I do know we’re constantly looking at plans to expand into new geos in the EU in particular. But as of now, I think they probably have to go to a retailer in France or the Netherlands or something like that and order online.

Joni: Awesome. Thank you for clearing that up. And something else I wanted to ask, so I read mostly on the Forma, which I love, and I love the ComfortLight ability that that device has. And I know that the Elipsa has something called the Carta 1200 E Ink technology. Can you explain how that’s new?

Ramesh: Yes. Sure. So, E Ink itself, like when you think of it as a display technology, in simple terms, every display technology has the layer that actually creates the image. LCD screens, like you’re probably staring at on your laptop right now. It’s basically like a little electrically controlled stained glass window with a shutter that opens and closes and light shines through it. An OLED TV is little tiny LEDs and each pixel that actually individually are emitting light. What an E Ink screen does is actually, in principle is, in many ways similar to a piece of paper, in that it doesn’t emit any light naturally of itself. It’s just basically a material with little particles embedded in it, little plastic balls, simplistically. I mean actually, that’s basically what they are. And they have ink in them, either black ink or white ink. And so you can basically cause either the black part to be visible, or the white part to be visible. And depending on which, you’ll see a pixel as black or as white.

And so, what’s interesting about that is because its actual inks, it doesn’t require any light source of its own. It’s illuminated by ambient light that’s above it. So in that sense, it’s a lot like a piece of paper where whatever you draw or read is embedded in the ink on that screen. The difference here, of course, is that ink is electrically controllable, which means you can switch it from being dark to being light, or 16 shades in between. And that’s how we control what image you see. So that’s sort of how E Ink works in general. And then, when they talk about Carta 1200 versus previous generations of the technology, it really boils down to how quickly that those ink particles can change. Because the faster they can change, the more quickly you can update the screen. The more quickly the line you’re drawing stays close to the tip of your stylus, that sorts of things. So basically, it’s the speed.

And then the other piece of it is we always talk about sort of the optical properties, which is simplistically, you want your black to be as black as possible, as close to pure black, and you want your white to be as close to pure white as possible. And if you look at our screens, I mean, the reality is white is not actually like a blank piece of paperwhite. It has, you know, a bit of a gray tone to it. And that’s improved considerably over time. And so, with Carta 1200, in particular, the blacks have gotten better in terms of being a deeper black. And so that ends up giving you better contrast between the text and the underlying white background, which makes it look nicer. So it’s really that better appearance due to the contrast, as well as the speed that is essentially what Carta 1200 gives you relative to previous generations.

Tara: Is that what also enables dark mode? Because that’s something that’s new on this device too.

Ramesh: Exactly, exactly. So it’s a big enabler for it. And the reason is, with dark mode, you have a mostly uniform black background, and then the text is in light. And so the reason we’ve waited for Carta 1200 before we put dark mode out there is we wanted it to look good. And so the more uniform, and also the blacker the black, the better that white text will look on it. And so the Carta 1200 really is an enabler for that to be a good experience. It’s not that it hasn’t been possible before, but our assessment always was: We just didn’t think it was going to look good enough. And this is the thing that kind of took it over the top in terms of giving the visual kind of experience that we wanted to deliver.

Joni: The technology for this blows my mind. It’s basically magic.

Tara: I love getting these insights. It’s so interesting to be able to, like, in theory, I think I know what E Ink is until you explain it. And I’m like, “Oh, right. Like that makes more sense.” It’s like, I just love that we’re able to just call you up and get you to join and dive into something so technical like this. This is not something that we had written down, but just my own curiosity, what kind of thinking went behind the size? Because this is like the biggest e-reader we’ve created, right, is kind of to mimic the notebook experience or could you talk to us a little bit about like how you came to the size that it’s on?

Ramesh: Let’s say it was actually more book centric and more reading-centric. I mean, I don’t know off the top of my head what the right terminology is for different size paperbacks and hardbacks. But the reality is, if you look at a lot of print books, the page is actually bigger than even our 8-inch screen on Forma today, which is obviously the biggest screen to date that we’ve made. So we already sort of just purely from the point of view of, we’d like to more faithfully kind of reflect kind of the full-page experience that you’re getting from print books. That was a piece of it. The other piece of it was we knew this was a writing machine. We knew people would be writing either in the margins, possibly between the lines. And so that meant that you might want to shrink your margins, maybe you’re going to increase your line spacing, so you give yourself a lot of space between lines to actually write.

And so once you start doing all that stuff, you kind of need the real estate to be able to sort of see as much as the page as you’d like to while still having that sort of spatial luxury of writing wherever you want. And so it just felt like a bigger size was going to deliver the best possible experience from that point of view. And then we also thought about things like PDFs. And so, you know, we wanted you to be able to read a PDF without necessarily having to pinch, and zoom, and pan all over the place. And so a PDF in landscape mode is probably still a bit zoomed out relative to if you’re reading it in print mode. But it’s definitely much, much more readable. And it kind of depends on how good your eyesight is, whether that’s sort of sufficient or not. But then one cool thing we do is if you take a PDF and you go into landscape mode, so you turn it sideways, then we essentially fit to the width of the page.

So now suddenly, it’s pretty much the same size as if you had printed it out. And you can very comfortably read and write all over it. So we were kind of… That was a big consideration in terms of the screen size. And then we also just had to balance the fact that, you know, bigger is better to a degree, but obviously it means it gets physically larger, heavier. Weight and comfort has always been a big consideration for us. I mean, as you know, that was one of the big sort of things about Forma was, no one had really done something of that size that was as light as it was. And so, that was another consideration in not going bigger necessarily. With Elipsa, for example, we spent a lot of time thinking just about the absolute weight, but also the weight distribution. So we tried to, you know, you know that there’s sort of a handle side that’s a bit wider, and so the center of mass is actually shifted to that side.

So it makes it feel even lighter than its actual weight. And its actual weight just, you know, is interesting. So, Forma has a 10.3-inch screen, which is slightly larger than the kind of standard iPad, which is a 10.2-inch screen. Basically the same just a little bit more. That iPad is 100 grams heavier than Elipsa. Elipsa is 385 grams and the 10.2-inch iPad is 480-something grams. So again, that was about sort of weight and comfort. So that was one of the main considerations in not going larger. But we did feel the large screen would just give a much more kind of compelling experience for marking up a book. And then obviously, when you think about it from a notepad point of view, you can see why people would like to have kind of a full page to be able to write on.

Tara: Yeah. I can definitely attest to the fact that it is a light device, like this is lightweight and so easy to use. And it’s funny that you say that the weight is shifted to the kind of the wider area, because I hadn’t really noticed it. It’s such a natural feel that it didn’t occur to me.

Ramesh: Yeah. It was very intentional.

Tara: I see. No, that’s great.

Joni: How does the weight compare to the Forma?

Ramesh: Forma is considerably lighter. Forma is around 190 range.

Joni: The Forma weighs nothing.

Ramesh: Yeah. Yeah. No, Forma is exceptionally light as far as the device is concerned. But keep in mind that Elipsa’s 10.3-inch screen is almost exactly two-thirds larger than Forma’s.

Joni: Wow.

Tara: I always like the thoughtfulness that goes into the covers that go with the devices as well, the kind of origami design in them. And yeah, that must have been kind of an interesting problem to solve with the Elipsa, especially having an area for the stylus as well.

Ramesh: Yeah, for sure. I mean, you know, obviously, we always start with kind of two core principles for our covers, which is, you know, protection. That’s why people are buying them to protect the device. But style and fashion because the reality is, it’s what you see, right? And it becomes a very sort of personal thing when you’re carrying around this. So we’re always mindful of that. But then with Elipsa in particular, we had a bunch of other things we needed to think about. And obviously, you want a place to put your stylus because otherwise, you know, you don’t want to risk losing it. So, there’s that functionality. But at the same time we knew that, look, relative to other devices Forma most notably, Elipsa is heavier, because it’s physically larger. And we knew that the cover was going to add a bit more weight to it and stuff. So we thought about how do we sort of address that in a way that gives all the utility that the cover offers in terms of storing the stylus, protection, and everything else, while still allowing people to minimize the weight when they’re reading?

And so one of the things we did was…the cover kind of comes in two pieces. There’s the tray that you stick the device into. And then there’s the actual PU leather cover itself. And that magnetically detaches from the tray. So if you want it to feel a bit lighter and not be as bulky, you can just very easily yank it off. And then just hold the device that’s in the tray, and then very easily attach it back on. Or if you want to read with the cover on, it attaches at the top, but imagine you’re switching from your left hand to your right hand, suddenly it’s at the bottom, which is a bit weird. Because that’s sort of where you want to hold it. So you can actually detach it from the top and reattach it at the bottom. It’s sort of ambidextrous in that way. So it has a bunch of flexibility there in terms of the way you can use it.

And then one of the things we’ve been doing for our coverage for some time now is building in stand functionality. And in the case of Elipsa, it’s really designed in particular with writing in mind. So you can rest it in a bit of a gentle angle when it’s on a table so that it’s most comfortable to write versus having it be completely flat. So we tried to sort of…we’re always trying to do a bunch of things with our covers, but in this case, kind of we had to add to the list of jobs it was trying to do.

Joni: That sounds really cool. Do you need to charge the stylus?

Ramesh: Oh, the stylus does require power, but it’s actually got a battery inside. So it’s got a little quad A battery, which is actually…it’s a cylindrical battery, but it’s even smaller or narrower than, you know, the triple-A you might have in one of your remote controls in your house. So the good thing is it lasts a ton of time. The writing time. So if you were just writing continuously nonstop, you’re talking about something like 500 hours, in practice. And then if you’re not writing and you’re sort of in a standby mode, it’s like thousands of hours. So in practice, even a heavy stylus user, we don’t really expect that you’d have to change a battery more than every many months. So we think it will last quite some time.

Tara: And it’s included in the unboxing experience. I found that was really…

Ramesh: Yes, absolutely.

Tara: …it was a very easy part where it’s just like everything you need is there to get set up.

Ramesh: Batteries are included.

Tara: So the feedback that we’ve been getting from authors so far as Joni sort of alluded to has been overwhelmingly positive. And authors are in love with this device. We even had one specifically ask us about getting one because she missed the pre-order window. So we have to figure out how to best let her know when she can buy them.

Ramesh: I was going to just interrupt one thing because you mentioned authors and that’s something we didn’t explicitly touch on. You alluded to a bit with the fact that we have two different kinds of notebooks. The basic notebook, which is basically like an unstructured, blank piece of page, not entirely blank, you can pick various kinds of backgrounds and stuff, but it’s basically intended for you to just write anything. And then there’s the advanced mode. And as you mentioned, that’s the one that has actual handwriting recognition, text recognition. So you just scroll in whatever lousy handwriting you have and then it will convert it to sort of typed text. And so the way I would describe advanced notebook is it’s kind of much more like a document creation mode. Because you can write an essay or even more a whole book as much as you want, and then convert it to text. And then what’s interesting is you can subsequently export that as a DOCX file, and then you just pull it into Word and do whatever you want. So if you had an author who actually was interested in…I don’t know how common this is, but like handwriting, it can literally be used as an authoring tool, export to DOCX, and do whatever you want afterwards.

Tara: Yeah. So I was going to ask you how you thought that authors would use the Kobo Elipsa and that is perfect. I do think that the exporting ability is really key. I could see authors definitely using it to edit manuscripts to go through things because it’s so easy to just load them. And what’s funny to note is that I don’t think we have a huge number of people that handwrite. But every time we do NaNoWriMo, which is the National Novel Writing Month, we get a group of people that come into the office and they write for an hour and we just always count and we see how much we can write. And there’s always one person that handwrites everything. So it is interesting to see how people will adapt and use it for that.

Joni: I suspect people might handwrite if it wasn’t for the fact that you then need to like type it up into a document. I think this might actually open a new option for authors that do prefer…like I prefer handwriting. I type just because I don’t want to type things up later.

Ramesh: Exactly, exactly. And right now it’s a pain. So maybe if it’s less of a pain…I mean, I will say, we knew that handwriting recognition technology would be an interesting feature. To be honest, in some ways, it’s the most experimental in the sense that we don’t fully grok all the use cases necessarily for it, and we’ll see what people do with it. But we felt that if you’re going to support handwriting, it was an important thing to have. You know, when you design something like this, you have a lot of very specific use cases and research back things and intentionality. But at the same time, there’s also areas where you want to try stuff, and maybe experiment a bit more and see what the feedback is. So it’s sort of finding that right balance.

Tara: And I guess one of the things to note as well is that this handwriting conversion also works on non-Roman languages.

Ramesh: Oh, yeah.

Tara: Yeah.

Ramesh: I wish, actually, I could give you the entire list. It’s dozens of languages. I mean, what I will say is, when you set up Kobo e-reader, the first thing you’re asked to do is pick language. And so you have something like roughly 15 at least distinct languages. All of the Latin alphabet languages, but then you also have, for example, Japanese, traditional Chinese, Turkish, and so on. And every single language we support in the user interface, we support for handwriting recognition. And our actual underlying handwriting recognition engine, which is itself, a feat of AI and machine learning, which is a whole large topic in and of itself, actually supports many more languages like 50, 60 languages, including many that we don’t currently support in the device user interface. For example, pretty much everyone from the Indian subcontinent is supported. So it’s really vast. But for now, at least, what we’re surfacing to the end user is any of the languages you can pick in the user interface, conversion will be supported. And in the future, we may even open up more options there.

Tara: That’s really incredible.

Joni: Yeah, my first question with that is, when you’re training this handwriting recognition AI, do you have to take hundreds of thousands of people’s handwriting samples so it learns?

Ramesh: Well, in theory, yes. No, we don’t do it ourselves. We actually have a technology partner we’re working with, that we’ve worked with very closely for a lot of notebooks experience with a stylus, including the hand-like writing recognition. The company is called MyScript. They actually have a pretty well-known iPad app called Nebo, N-E-B-O. And there’s a lot of commonalities between what we’re doing with our notebook experience and MyScript’s app for…actually it’s for iOS and Android. So we took a lot from them. And they have a huge amount of expertise with machine learning and AI. And a lot of it is based on training, like you said. Basically, you know, you have large, large datasets of handwriting, and all sorts of languages. And they basically learn from that in order to kind of optimize how their translation works. And all of that is embedded into the software that runs on Elipsa entirely. So there’s no sort of cloud dependency. You don’t need to even be connected to Wi-Fi or anything. All the intelligence for that handwriting recognition lives locally on the device and occurs almost instantaneously on the device.

Tara: Blowing our minds here, Ramesh. That’s just so incredible. The listeners won’t be able to see but Joni and I are wowing quite a lot at all of your answers. So you’ll be able to see them there. But we don’t want to keep you too much of your time. We really appreciate the amount of time that you spent with us going through this. I could talk about this all day. I think it’s fascinating. But one of the things that we like to ask on “The Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” we have a quickfire book round with some book questions for you. So is that okay if we’ll go through these?

Ramesh: Okay. Sure. Let’s do it.

Tara: All right, I’ll do the first one. Joni, do you want to rotate them then?

Joni: Yeah.

Tara: Okay, cool. What was the last book you read that you enjoyed?

Ramesh: Hmm, that I enjoyed? I hate to say it because it feels like it’s too on-point with my job. But I’ve been reading a lot of like, kind of management books. So there’s this book called “7 Powers” that I just finished, which is sort of…it’s basically a corporate strategy book on how to compete in business. And so it’s been quite insightful stuff like that.

Joni: It might be crossover then. Because my question is, what is a book that you have marked up or written notes on?

Ramesh: That book in particular, is extremely marked up for me. So yeah.

Joni: Awesome. Nice. And last one, favorite book as a child.

Ramesh: Favorite book as a child? Let’s see. I think I’ll have to go with…I’m a bit embarrassed because it’s a bit of a cliché. But I was absolutely obsessed with “Lord of the Rings.” So I can’t lie.

Tara: Me too.

Ramesh: My knowledge of Middle Earth history is staggeringly deep.

Tara: Don’t worry, I traveled from Ireland to London to go to a “Lord of the Rings” convention when the movie came out. So, you know, it’s…

Ramesh: I totally would have done that.

Tara: Yep. You’re welcome here with the nerds, don’t worry. Well, thank you so much for joining us and chatting about this. This has been so insightful, and I hope that our listeners sort of get something out of it. And we’ll have the link where people can get a hold of the Kobo Elipsa. And is there anything that we didn’t touch upon that you wanted to mention, Ramesh?

Ramesh: I don’t think so. I think we’re pretty comprehensive. I mean, you know, I think probably the thing I want to emphasize, you know, and I’m sure your listeners sort of realize this but despite having broader audiences, is the fact that, you know, we see this as really a first step on a journey. I think of a whole lot of the people who make e-readers and even think about digital readings where Kobo’s definitely in for the long haul, we’ve been building e-readers for 10 years. We still, as much as is humanly possible, still provide, you know, software updates to devices that were launched, you know, five, six-plus years ago to try to keep them up to date with our latest and greatest to the best of our abilities. You know, we support, like I said, dozens of languages around the world. So I think just sort of in terms of the way we think about this, it’s really part step one of what I see as a very long term strategy. So people should stay tuned.

Tara: You know, I wanted to ask you what’s coming up, but I thought we could just bask in this incredible device and…

Ramesh: Exactly, exactly.

Tara: …let’s just stick with this one for now because it really is something, so.

Ramesh: I mean, what I can say is more great stuff.

Joni: Oh, intrigue. Excellent. Thank you so much.

Ramesh: Thank you.

Tara: Thank you for listening to “The Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in picking up your very own Kobo Elipsa, go to kobo.com and you can see where they’re available for sale. If you enjoyed this podcast, please be sure to rate, review and subscribe as that would help us out a lot. And if you’re looking to grow your self-publishing business or find more tips, you can go to kobowritinglife.com and be sure to follow us on all of our socials. We are everywhere. We are Kobo Writing Life on Facebook and Twitter and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.

Joni: This episode was produced by Joni Di Placido, Rachel Wharton, and Tara Cremin. Big thanks to Kelly Robotham for editing. Thank you to Tear Jerker for providing music, and huge thanks to Ramesh for being our guest today. If you’re ready to start your self-publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.