Kindle Touch Goes International; Bookstores, 3G Networks, Tablets, Not So Much

Amazon announced wide international availability for its Kindle Touch and Kindle Touch 3G e-readers. Beginning on April 27, with preorders available now, Amazon will ship its top-end E-Ink reader to 175 countries and territories, with support for digital bookstores based in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK as well as the United States.

It’s exciting news for anyone in those countries who’ve been waiting to buy a touchscreen e-reader from Amazon, or one that supports buying books and syncing with Amazon’s cloud internationally over 3G. In most of these countries, international support has been limited to the basic entry-level Kindle, which is inexpensive (though Wi-Fi only) and has an awkward interface.
At the same time, it’s not exactly the comprehensive global launch that Amazon’s press headlines might lead you to think. Amazon may be shipping Kindle Touch to 175 countries, but that doesn’t mean it’s fully and equally supported in all 175. Once you drill down, it’s an uneven lattice of user languages, supported and unsupported e-bookstores, and network coverage.
Let’s start with languages. Kindle Touch and Kindle Touch 3G now support German, French, Italian, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and American or British English. Those are the languages of the interface; Notes, book titles, and search will work in those languages, but no others.
So, let’s say you live in Romania, Japan, or any one of the 175 countries where none of those six languages are dominant. Unless you speak English or another one of these dominant second languages, you’re probably not going to be able to meaningfully navigate the device. And even in this set, Brazilian Portuguese is still more aspirational than actual, because Amazon hasn’t yet opened an e-bookstore in Brazil. But still, between English, French, Spanish, etc., a lot more of the reading world is covered.
The same can’t be said about the wireless network. Let’s say you live in the Republic of Georgia. And you read English. Fantastic. Amazon will happily ship you a Kindle Touch 3G. But under “Important Product Information for Your Country,” Amazon kindly notes that “Kindle wireless is currently unavailable in your country. You can transfer books and personal documents to your Kindle via USB. You may prefer to purchase the Wi-Fi-only Kindle.” Yes, indeed, I think I may — since the touted international wireless network doesn’t work in my country of origin. But who knows — maybe I travel to Western Europe regularly, and I want the 3G anyways.
Now we get into the weird stuff. The Kindle Touch 3G is on sale in Amazon’s sites in Germany, Italy, France, etc. It’s not on sale through (Amazon Japan) — which makes sense, I suppose, because Amazon doesn’t sell e-books in Japan yet. But it’s also doesn’t appear to be available for sale at — Amazon Canada — where Amazon absolutely sells e-books and e-readers. You can buy a Kindle Touch with our without 3G at and have it shipped to Canada, but you can’t buy it through your account. That’s bizarre. (Amazon Kindle and representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
What this tells me, six months after Amazon launched its new family of Kindles and began pushing outward into international e-book sales, is that it’s still a slog. Think about what goes into launching an international product like this. You’ve got to manufacture devices; you’ve got to write software to support all the different languages; you’ve got to build out or partner with people who can create a global wireless network; you’ve got to secure agreements with enough publishers to stock a digital bookstore (and support all of those languages and character sets, too); and then you actually have to build the digital bookstores themselves. At scale, in every country, with technical support, on that patchwork of wireless networks. It’s a huge, complex undertaking. Why does Amazon bother?
Amazon bothers because the market for books and newspapers and magazines is still one of the largest industries in the world. It bothers because in many of these places, a Kindle is the best and only way for an English-language or Spanish-language publisher to reach a global audience. It bothers because in most of the world, the e-reader market is even more poorly served than it was in the United States five years ago. It bothers because the company that can reach those markets with the best product and the best e-bookstore can win a generation of customers, not just for e-books, but for everything.
This year, the Kindle Touch will ship to 175 countries. Even just getting the Kindle Touch with 3G to Germany, France, etc., is no small thing. Next year, even more of those 175 countries will have their own e-bookstore. A software update will support even more of their mother tongues. In two years, they might be buying the next-generation Kindle Fire.
That’s the big picture. That’s the long play. That’s how Apple Computer became Apple, Inc., and that’s how a little company in Seattle that ships books you order on the internet becomes the evolutionary global Wal-Mart of the digital age.