Amazon Announces Sweeping Kindle Changes (The Timing is Just Coincidental)

I have heard it said, “If you can’t compete, sue.” Of course, I’m sure that’s not the case with Nokia’s recent complaint against Apple. Sure, it could have started litigation back in 2007 when the iPhone was first launched, but I guess the almost-three-year-delay was just how long it took getting its lawyers to agree on the wording. Or the letterhead. Or something.

Amazon, on the other hand, is doing the exact opposite and choosing to Compete with a capital C. This week it has floated a boat-load of announcements around its Kindle e-book reader device and platform. Now, stop being cynical, I’m sure the timing has nothing to do with the imminent unveiling of Apple’s mythical Tablet.

In January alone Amazon has introduced the Kindle DX to over one hundred countries with Global Wireless, expanded the Kindle Digital Text Platform to both publishers and individuals (allowing independent authors to publish and sell their work without a contract with a publishing house), amended its revenue sharing policy (effectively enabling authors to earn higher royalties) and, yesterday, announced a Kindle Development Kit which will allow developers to build “active content” for the Kindle.

This last announcement means that apps from developers like Handmark (a restaurant reviews guide), Sonic Boom and EA Mobile (games) will one day be available on the Kindle in all their digital ink glory. The Kindle’s slow refresh rate and low-resolution, greyscale e-ink display suggests sudoku-style or word puzzle games will be the most likely apps for that platform. Canabalt fans should look elsewhere.

Love Your Kindle, or Your Money Back

Not since Victor Kiam fell in love with his Remington electric razor has a company dared to offer complete refunds based on a customer’s sense of satisfaction. But that’s exactly what Amazon is doing.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Evolution of the e-Book Market

Amazon’s Kindle-marketing-blitz continues. According to TechCrunch, customers buying an obscenely huge number of books from Amazon on a regular basis have started receiving a remarkable email invitation; if they buy a Kindle before January 26 and don’t experience Victor Kiam levels of satisfaction, they get their money back. Every penny of it. Oh yeah — and they can keep the Kindle, too.

Going on the Offensive

Expanding into new markets, lowering prices, producing developer kits & app stores and offering free Kindles to unsatisfied (or just mildly-indifferent) customers speaks volumes about how threatened Amazon feels by Apple’s tablet.

It is remarkable that a device we still don’t know actually exists is having such a measurable effect in the technology world. The media are falling all over themselves to fill column inches (virtual and dead-tree varieties) with breathless speculation and debate over screen sizes or front-facing cameras. Meanwhile, every tech company on the planet seems to have launched their very own tablet at this year’s CES. Even Microsoft couldn’t resist the temptation to jump up and down shouting “Me, too!” as Ballmer showed off HP’s lackluster prototype during his keynote.

Now Amazon is doing marketing and promotion somersaults to get their Kindle message heard over the din.

The sad thing, of course, is that no matter how hard Amazon tries, their efforts will be in vain. Assuming, of course, the rumors are accurate and Apple’s tablet will revolutionize e-book/magazine reading, nothing the Kindle does at this stage can make the tiniest bit of difference. The world is waiting for the Tablet because, despite so many conflicting rumours over the last few months, the general consensus seems to be that Apple’s Tablet will crush all the competition.

In due course, we’ll find ourselves where we are today with the iPhone; in the same way every new smartphone is compared less-than-favorably with the iPhone, so it will be with tablet devices. Predictable phrases like “Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Tablet” or fanboy-baiting headlines like “HTC Launches THE Tablet Killer” will appear in popular publications and generate the usual Comment Flame Wars in the leading tech blogs. And in the meantime, everyone will forget the Amazon Kindle with its author-friendly royalty rates and digital-ink word games.

How Will Apple Do It?

The Kindle might have fared better had Amazon not delayed its rollout so markedly. In its early years the Kindle was available in only a select few markets (for a long time North America only) and even since its recent expansion to over a hundred countries, content availability has proven somewhat patchy. That’s not Amazon’s fault, but the precarious distribution rights of major publishing houses across different territories. If Amazon had released the Kindle sooner, and in more markets, rather than setting sights on North America only, it’s possible some of the more chewy worldwide licensing issues faced by publishers might have been worked out earlier in the game, thus cementing public perception of the Kindle as the e-book reader of choice. But they didn’t.

This thorny issue of content rights plagues all publishers and distributors everywhere, so it will be deeply interesting to see how Apple tackles these problems if (when) it starts selling books and magazines in the iTunes store.

And so here we are today, on the eve of Apple’s bound-to-be-historic tablet launch, witness to Amazon’s last desperate thrashing attempts to remind the world that they have this Kindle thingy. Only, I don’t think the world can hear them.