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Advancing the Kindle as a Global eBook Reader: Challenges and Opportunities for Amazon in a Balkanized World

By the one-quarter mark in this century, there may well be a billion ereaders — including as yet unimagined devices with ereading capacity — in the world.  

By Stephen Windwalker
Originally posted February 19, 2010 – © Kindle Nation Daily 2010

Amazon has announced that it has added language support for Kindle books (and Kindle authors) in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian to its previous support for English, French and German, and this seems like the right time to step back and take a look at exactly where the Kindle is going for readers, authors, publishers, and current and prospective Kindle owners around the world.

The Kindle is still a relatively new product outside the United States. Amazon began shipping the 6-inch Kindle with global wireless connectivity to customers in over 100 nations around the world in the Fall of 2009, and followed with a global wireless update to the Kindle DX early this year. Initial international sales have been brisk, and the Winter 2010 Kindle Nation Citizen Survey included some indications* that as many as one out of every 10 Kindles being sold in early 2010 could be destined for a customer outside the U.S. 

Amazon has its work cut out for it in several key areas if it is to make the Kindle all it can be for potential ebook customers — and ebook content — all over the world. The company is racing to replicate as closely as possible, with the international Kindle customer experience, the very positive experience that the Kindle hardware, catalog selection and pricing, features, and support provides for U.S. Kindle owners. But there is nothing simple or easy about the process, due largely to some serious complicating factors that result from the balkanizing effects of multiple “geographies” on wireless connectivity issues and costs, copyright issues, language support, translation and character-set display challenges, and issues related to pricing, taxation, and import duties.

Many of these issues exist below the radar for many current and prospective Kindle customers around the world, so it should not be surprising — for now — that we have regular instances, all over the Amazon website and in other venues such as this blog’s comment areas and Amazon’s own Kindle Facebook page, of international customer dissatisfaction with and misunderstandings about several key shortcomings of the international Kindle in its early months:

  • Kindle books that are listed as free in the U.S. Kindle Store are not free in other countries, since incremental charges that usually fall in the $2 to $5 range are added to all Kindle titles for other countries to cover value-added taxes, import duties, and wireless transfer costs.
  • All of the recent focus on the standard U.S. price point for Kindle new releases and bestsellers, due to controversies between Amazon, Apple, and the big book publishers, has only served to heighten dissatisfaction outside the U.S. with bestseller and new-release ebook prices that due to the aforementioned incremental charges fall, ironically, in the same $12 to $15 range whose anticipation has U.S. customers up in arms.
  • Thousands of books that are bestsellers in the Kindle Store for U.S. customers are not available to Kindle owners in the U.K., Australia, Canada, and many other nations due to geography-based copyright restrictions.
  • Equally important, there are very few titles in the Kindle Store in any language other than English.  As I write this there are 2,320 Spanish titles, 1,495 in French, and 1,074 in German in the Kindle Store’s U.S. iteration, and support for Italian and Portuguese is so new that you can’t even search for titles in those languages with Amazon’s Advanced Search tool.
  • The free wireless web feature and Kindle web browser that are very popular with U.S. Kindle owners are not yet generally available to Kindle owners beyond U.S. borders, due to wireless connectivity costs dependent on 3G wireless contracts between Amazon and carriers that may vary from country to country. International customers (and U.S. customers who are travelling internationally with the latest-generation “international” Kindles) do have access to the Kindle’s 3G international wireless Whispernet, but are charged significant extra sums for content downloads and can generally use the Whispernet only for access to the Kindle Store, for content downloads, and for Wikipedia access.
  • None of the 8,500 or so blogs in the Kindle Store — including Kindle Nation Daily — are available in Kindle editions to Kindle owners outside the U.S.

If all of this sounds like a big whine, well, that’s not my point at all. The good news is that Amazon is on a mission to fix each and every one of the issues I have just recounted. I believe that the time will come when Kindle pricing will become more straightforward and transparent across international boundaries, when blogs and Kindle’s wireless web will be available around the world, and when Amazon will find ways to bring its Kindle Store closer to Kindle owners in a growing number of countries around the world. 

Most importantly of all, Amazon has not backed off its original mission for the Kindle, which is that it will allow anyone, anywhere, to download any book ever published within 60 seconds. Support for some languages, of course, will require Amazon to make changes in its hardware display features in order to render those languages’ alphabets. The Kindle is still dominated by English-language content, and it will be essential soon for the Kindle platform to support the full range of languages being read and spoken in all the countries where Amazon makes the Kindle available. To achieve this will require enhancements to both hardware and software, and it is possible that the Kindle platform will be able to render some character sets before the Kindle device itself is read to display them. Along the way, Amazon will also have major barriers to overcome with respect both to country-by-country copyright issues and to translation and language options for the Kindle’s documentation and onboard command structure and its content.

So even the good news is complicated. If there’s bad news, it’s that the clock is ticking with respect to customer good will around the world. The recent Kindle Nation survey made it clear that such good will is abundant for Amazon with its U.S. Kindle customers, but prospective Kindle owners in other countries may judge the company less generously if they perceive it to be lagging on any of the issues delineated above.

By the one-quarter mark in this century, there may well be a billion ereaders — including as yet unimagined devices with ereading capacity — in the world. Millions of them will be manufactured and sold by companies that do not even exist yet. But Amazon is in a better position than any other existing company to manufacture and sell the lion’s share of those ereaders, and to be the world leader in providing content for them. Amazon’s experience with the Kindle, its inviting platforms for new and existing authors and content providers, and the fact that it is already running its own successful online retail stores in Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom provide it with enormous advantages against all competitors in extending a worldwide Kindle Revolution. Some very possible definitions of success for the Kindle could add so much top- and bottom-line power to Amazon’s P&L statements over the next decade that neither the company nor the analysts who cover it would dare speak of such numbers for fear that they would lose all credibility.

But it is equally clear that Amazon has a bull’s-eye painted on its back. To succeed, the company will need to maintain the discipline of a start-up — which continues to mark the Kindle team’s approach 27 months out from the Kindle’s 2007 launch — and apply that start-up mindset to what could well become dozens of individual but integrated start-up initiatives within the overall Kindle operation.

*Among the 412 of the survey respondents who had purchased a Kindle since December, 8.2% said they were not U.S. residents, and it is natural at this point that the Kindle Nation Daily blog would be less well-known to Kindle owners outside the U.S. than within.
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