Amazon’s customers outside the U.S. have good reason to be both excited and frustrated by the company’s three new Kindle devices.
The baseline $79 Kindle finally supports seven different interface languages and will be sold immediately in Canada, the UK, Germany and elsewhere. It’s a bit more expensive — £89 ($139), 99 EUR ($133) and $109 Canadian ($104), if you’re interested. However, the much-anticipated Kindle Fire tablet is U.S.-only, with no announced timeline for a global roll out. The same is true for the Kindle Touch.
It’s a reminder that Amazon is still growing into its role as a maker of devices. The Kindle started with English-language books because that is where Amazon started, and where its biggest strength lies. Like most still-growing companies, it tests the waters with its core consumers first, and only gradually branches out into new markets — supporting new languages, geographies and media.
For Amazon, which has always been overwhelmingly focused on the U.S. and anglophone markets, the entry-level Kindle’s modest international support is actually a huge improvement. Even a year ago, when the third-generation Kindle launched, it was an English-only device.
Even in non-digital retail, Amazon’s global reach has been limited; the company is only now launching a Chinese-language bookstore, in tandem with a local bookseller. Building an international reputation takes time, partnerships and a lot of hard work.
It’s even more difficult when you’re not just selling a tablet computer, but a global media store. As Netflix has seen, it can be extraordinarily expensive (in time and money) to get global digital rights to movies and television, let alone navigate the vagaries of local law.
It’s almost better to compare the media tablet market to the smartphone market. Both devices are heavily subsidized and depend on sometimes-contentious negotiations with local partners. Books, newspapers and magazines are, if anything, even more balkanized than video or wireless. Digital rights and international sales (i.e., from an Amazon store in one country to a customer in another) add even more knotty complications. State-to-state sales tax has nothing on this.
Still, unraveling those knots is crucial. Technology companies have to crack the global market in order to compete with companies like Apple and Microsoft, or get Apple- or Microsoft-like growth. If you look at how Apple became (by some measures) the biggest technology company in the world, the iPhone, iPad and Intel Macs are a huge part of that story, but largely because those products gave Apple a foothold in markets it wasn’t truly competitive in before.
So Amazon Fire’s temporary confinement to the U.S. is just one more reason it’s unfair to compare the Fire with the iPad. The Fire simply doesn’t stand a chance competing with the iPad or iPhone or iAnything in total number of sales unless and until as many people in as many countries have a chance to buy both.
This means that one or two quarters from now, when we can first compare sales of Apple’s and Amazon’s tablets, domestic sales may give us the best gauge of customer interest and excitement in both devices. But total global sales will give us a better picture of just how robust the growth in the tablet market continues to be, as well as who is truly on top. If it isn’t Apple by a wide margin, I’ll dance a jig.