Amazon goes global. Sort of

My Newsweek op-ed of a few weeks ago urged Amazon to share their best product with the rest of the world and make Kindles available elsewhere, if only to help advance American interests abroad (free and unencumbered access to information is definitely one of them).

Today Amazon unveiled an international version of their basic Kindle model, which would be able to wirelessly download books in more than 100 countries. There will also be an international model of Kindle DX arriving sometime next year.

What does it mean for the future of knowledge, especially in the developing world? The ability to download books wirelessly is definitely a much-needed feature that would grow Amazon's customer base worldwide. However, this feature is useless unless it's matched by the ability to buy book titles and/or subscribe to newspapers and magazines at prices far below those in North America and Western Europe. So far, there has been no indication that Amazon's Kindle Store would rely on a differianted pricing strategy, whereby users in poorer countries would be able to buy Amazon e-titles at reduced prices.

If Amazon expects that Kindle users in the developing would would buy ebooks at the same prices as their richer peers, its strategy is doomed. Instead it should be prepared that Kindle would become the number one gadget for swaping pirated books: it's hard to expect that Kindle users in Africa or Central Asia would fork out 10 bucks for an ebook that they can download online for free. From this perspective, the ability to download books via a wireless connection doesn't really add much value: the pirated books would still be predominantly loaded to Kindle via cables rather than wireless. The only real change is that now these gadgets can ship internationally - not exactly a sea change.

Another shortcoming of the current expansion strategy is that the Kindle store currently offers a very limited selection of newspapers and magazines from abroad. For example, one can't still subscribe to any publications from Brazil, Russia or India (China is only represented by the English-language Shanghai Daily). Of course, if Amazon succeeds in negotating with top media titles in these 100 countries, this would be a major coup for Kindle's fans abroad. Somehow, however, I don't think that this is going to happen anytime soon. Thus, there is a very good chance that Kindle users abroad would get stuck with having to read with American and a handful of English newspapers - I doubt this will fundamentally reshape the marketplace of global ideas.

In other words, while this is a good first global step on Amazon's behalf, this is hardly enough. So far it looks more like a strategy to tap into the lucrative market of American expats (and, perhaps, frequently travelling Kindle-obsessed business executives) than the beginning of a genuine engagement with foreign readers. You can do better, Amazon!