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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.

From the Kindle Nation Mailbag: Traveling Abroad from the US with a Kindle

Thanks to Kindle Nation citizen Carole for sharing this question about taking her Kindle on the road beyond US borders:


I am going to Eastern Europe and Africa.  Do I need something special to charge my Kindle?  I bought it so I could read it while traveling and I just realized that the electrical systems are different there.  I don’t know how to manuver around the instruction books for my Kindle yet, so this seemed more efficient to ask you.

Thanks, Carole

Bon voyage, Carole! 

Here are some of the basics for traveling abroad, for a US Kindle customer, with your Kindle. I hope they’re a help!

Charging Your Kindle While Traveling Outside the US:
Illustration of Kindle connected to a computer via USB

  • You can always charge your Kindle directly from a computer via USB if you have a laptop, netbook, or other computer with you or accessible, unless the Kindle’s battery is empty. For that process, of course, all you need is the micro-USB cable that came with your Kindle. Charging time ordinarily takes 4 to 6 hours. Connect the micro-USB cable to a USB directly on the computer you’re using rather than on a keyboard, monitor, or hub, and make sure your computer stays on, preferably with its own power source engaged, instead of reverting to sleep, hibernate, or standby status. You can use your Kindle while it is charging in this fashion if you go to the computer’s “Finder” or “My Computer” utility and select “eject,” “dismount” or “safely remove” the Kindle from the computer. (If the battery is completely “empty,” you’ll need to charge your Kindle from a power outlet.) 
  • To charge the your Kindle from a power outlet in a country where the wall outlets are incompatible with your Kindle’s US power adapter, connect it to a wall socket using the Kindle micro-USB cable and Kindle U.S. power adapter with a third-party physical plug adapter appropriate for the power outlets in whatever country you’re in. Be sure to read and follow all safety instructions provided by the third-party physical plug adapter’s manufacturer and make sure the third-party physical plug adapter fits the Kindle U.S. power adapter tightly and without gaps.
Wireless Coverage When You Are Traveling Outside the US

Access to Content When You Are Traveling Outside the US
  • If you’re using the latest-generation Kindle or Kindle DX with global wireless coverage, be aware that Amazon charges special wireless fees for US customers traveling abroad with their Kindles if they want to download content via the Whispernet. These fees are summarized here in Amazon’s own words:
  • International Book Service: Download books from your Kindle’s Archived Items or the Kindle store via Whispernet for $1.99 per book.
  • International Subscription Service: Receive all of your newspaper, magazine, and blog subscription content via Whispernet for a weekly fee of $4.99. 
  • International Current Issue Service: Download individual issues of newspapers and magazines from your Kindle’s Archived Items or the Kindle store viaWhispernet for $1.99 per issue.
  • International Personal Document Service: Transfer personal documents to your Kindle via Whispernet for $.99 per megabyte (rounded up to the next whole megabyte). For more information about transferring personal files to your Kindle, see Amazon’s Transferring, Downloading, and Sending Files to Kindle Help page.
  • In order to avoid the aforementioned wireless charges for personal documents, send (or have them sent) directly to your computer through Amazon’s free transfer and conversion service using your [you]@free.kindle.com email address. You’ll need to make sure that you’ve added this email address on your Manage Your Kindle page, and authorized any sending email addresses from which you expect to receive content. Files smaller than 5 MB are generally sent within 5 minutes, and supported file types include DOC, HTML, HTM, RTF, JPEG, JPG, GIF, PNG, BMP, PDF, and DOCX files. Kindle-compatible files will then arrive in the email inbox associated with your Kindle’s Amazon account, and you can transfer them to your Kindle via your micro-USB cable.
  • In order to avoid the aforementioned wireless charges for items purchased previously from the Kindle Store and archived in your Kindle account, go to your Manage Your Kindle page, find the items under “Your Orders,” and select “Transfer via computer” to download them directly to the computer you are using at the time. You’ll then be able to transfer them to your Kindle via your micro-USB cable. 
  • In order to avoid the aforementioned wireless charges for content purchased anew from the Kindle Store, follow these steps to download items directly to your computer at time of purchase:

  1. Select “Transfer via Computer” from the Deliver to: pull-down menu on the product detail page.
  2. Save the file to your computer when prompted by your web browser.
  3. Connect Kindle to your computer with the USB cable.
  4. Use your computer’s file browser to drag and drop the file to your Kindle.

Other Travel Tips

  • Make sure to turn off your Kindle wireless when you leave the country, and avoid using Kindle audio unnecessarily, to extend your battery life while traveling. 
  • Consider picking up another Amazon Kindle Replacement Power Adapter as a back-up so that you don’t get caught short if you happen to leave the original in a hotel room or internet cafe. 
  • Before you leave, consider purchasing and downloading one or more translation dictionaries for unfamiliar languages in any countries you plan to visit. You’ll then be able to open the dictionary and search for a word or phrase with ease, without having to connect your Kindle wireless.
  • Similarly, purchasing and downloading travel guides for destinations you will visit will make it easy for you to check for background historical, travel, and cultural information while you’re on the go.

Useful new features in the Kindle 1.2 firmware upgrade

With the Kindle 2.0 Jazzed Level at Code Red, it would have been easy to miss important features that are included in the version 1.2 firmware upgrade that Amazon has been zapping in waves to the 713,451 Kindles* that are currently in the field.

So the sometimes helpful Amazon Kindle Team posted this announcement on the Kindle’s own Amazon discussion forum:

A new software update for Kindle has rolled out. This update (version 1.2) adds the following features:

– Zoom any image in Kindle books or periodicals by selecting the image using the scroll wheel.
– Individual items and groups of items can be deleted directly from the Home screen. Simply scroll to the item you wish to delete and push the backspace key.
– Improved character and font support including Greek characters and monospace fonts.

To make this process as effective as possible for all of our customers, not all devices will be sent the update at the same time. When the software update is available and your Kindle is connected wirelessly to Whispernet, the update will download to your Kindle automatically. Then, the next time Kindle is in sleep mode, it will take advantage of the idle time and apply the update.

The zoom feature will be important for all of us who have been frustrated by the Kindle’s previous inability to show us useful graphics of art, maps, diagrams, tables, etc. Obviously, this feature will greatly enhance the Kindle publishing platform’s appeal for publishers of academic texts, other textbooks, and travel guides, among others.

The upgrade that allows us to clean up our personal Kindle library by deleting titles directly from the home screen is an important convenience, but like many of the features missing from the Kindle 1.0, it deserved to be more remarked “in the breach than in the observance.”

Then there is the Greek alphabet thing. H’mm. Maybe it’s a signal that the first destination for a global Kindle roll-out will be among American ex-pats on the island of Crete. Or not. Maybe it’s all about academic texts. Maybe it ties back to Jeff Bezos’ original launch day statement that the Kindle would eventually be able to access “every book ever printed” and illuminates a commitment to go all the way back to those pre-Gutenberg texts that Caesar used as Kindling 2057 years ago. In any case, I’m yet to be convinced that this one will change my life.
* I arrived at this scientific quantification of the Kindle’s installed base by drawing from two sources: the time showing on my Kindle as I began typing, and the temperature at which paper becomes spontaneously combustible. And no, you can’t check my work.