At last, the Amazon Kindle is to launch in the UK - and around a hundred other countries. This ebook reader has attracted a lot of attention in the US, as much for its business model as for its hardware and software (which are on a par with a rather brain-dead smartphone).
That business model has dictated a lot of limitations. Not all content sources can be accessed over the wireless network of the Kindle, which uses a protocol called Whispernet over the Sprint network in the US to support nominally free mobile access. It's only nominally free - in fact, around thirty percent of the revenue from paid content goes to the network - and so what you can do wirelessly is restricted compared to what you can get it when you plug the Kindle in via USB (there's no wi-fi) to another networked PC.
There's no equivalent to the Sprint wireless network outside the US, so the UK Kindle (actually a Kindle 2, which has to be bought from the US) and other international models will use 3G data.
Now, the commerical side of 3G data is fascinating. Which network are they using, we wonder, and how are they going to duplicate the no-subscription model? "It'll use the AT&T Global Network", the PRs assured journalists. "But AT&T doesn't have a network, global or not, in the UK", the journalists replied. "Ah... we'll get back to you on that", said the PRs. Likewise with Amazon execs, who say "You'll have to ask AT&T about that".
So how come Amazon is ready to talk about the launch of the Kindle, but unable to say which essential partners it'll be working with? Not as weird as it sounds: my bet is that it's a matter of press releases. When you're a big company doing something with another big company, you have to make a joint release - or say nothing. That's not just politeness, that's big company rules.
But all releases from big companies have to be written by marketing and approved by upper management. Upper management tend not to approve things until they've fiddled with them, because they have to prove that they're managing upperly. Then the changes go back down to marketing, who have to turn those changes back into some form of language that the rest of the world will understand, and submit the new version back upstairs for the OK. This can take a few iterations before marketing or management get bored, and you can normally tell who surrended by whether the press release makes any sense or not.
That's bad enough when you're doing it by yourself. When the process has to be synchronised between two big companies, it can turn into a rich carnival of madness. When you've got a hundred countries and goodness knows how many mobile operators (AT&T's Global Network, whatever that may be, notwithstanding), you've got a better chance of organising a bank holiday on Mars with Prince Philip and Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo.
Unless you hold a gun to everyone's head, in the nature of a unilaterally declared public deadline. Which, I think, Amazon has just done - quite possibly taking lessons from Apple in the process.
So, we'll have answers to our questions about how you can have a subscriptionless connection to 3G soon enough. And at that point, we can ask the next question. Given that Amazon has promised no roaming charges if you take your Kindle abroad, when will us paying stiffs get the same kindness?
There is one outcome that seems particularly exciting. What if all Kindles worldwide are on American AT&T sims, and the 'no roaming charges' are because all of them are roaming, all the time? There's absolutely no technical reason for that - once you get the other networks to agree to it. If that's the case, then what happens if you extract the sim from the Kindle and shove it in your own phone? A global, free, 3G data sim?
If that's the case, then there's going to be a very lively market indeed in Kindles. Or, as we will get to see them, a rather useful sim in an elaborate, disposable package.
The first international Kindles are due to ship by October 19. Can't wait.