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Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009

TECHNOLOGY

Kindle confident in face of challenging Japanese market


Staff writer

Amazon.com Inc. has made its electronic-book reader, Kindle, available in Japan, whose e-book market has grown sharply in the past few years.

Charlie Tritschler
Charlie Tritschler KAZUAKI NAGATA PHOTO

Amazon is confident of getting into the Japanese market, which has been dominated by cell phones in terms of electronic reading devices, with a goal of providing Japanese-language content in the future.

Some people in the industry say Kindle's participation will energize the field and that they will be carefully watching if the device is accepted, especially in a market where providers still find it challenging to collect good content.

Charlie Tritschler, director of Kindle at Amazon, said during an recent interview with The Japan Times that Amazon's move to begin selling Kindle globally came after the positive reaction it received from U.S. consumers.

Amazon would not disclose the number of Kindles sold in the United States so far, but Tritschler said the device has become the most gifted and purchased product device at Amazon's online store.

Tritschler believes Amazon has improved on previous e-book readers.

"The device was one thing we were thinking that we really could do a better job, given some of the changes in technology," he said, adding that the goal was to make Kindle "disappear" when reading.

"Just like when you are reading a book, you don't think about glue, and stitching, and paper and binding, it just disappears as you are reading. And you get lost in the author's words. We wanted to do the exact same thing."

The device has a 6-inch screen, weighs 289 grams, can store 1,500 books and downloads the content via a free cell-phone network, while having e-mail and Internet browsing functions. It claims to be readable even under bright sunlight, and enables users to look up words, take notes and highlight sentences.

In addition, the battery lasts about four days when using it for a three-hour reading session with the wireless on, while it lasts about 14 days if the wireless is off.

Amazon has put the price of Kindle at $279 (¥25,000).

Tritschler said commuters are a major possible consumer base considering the high use of public transportation in Japan and the portability of the device.

"Commuting is such a bigger part of Japanese lifestyle. I think that would be a big win for Japanese commuters," he said.

As Amazon aims to localize Kindle over time, one challenge will be to amass enough content for the readers.

Tritschler said Amazon is aiming to work closely with publishers to ensure a win-win situation.

However, getting good content has previously stymied the Japanese e-book market.

Mikio Amaya, CEO of Papyless Co., which is a Tokyo-based e-book provider, said Japan has more publishers compared to the United States, so it is hard to gather content.

U.S. content-providers can collect a lot of content if they can convince five or six major publishers to work with them, Amaya said, adding there are more than 2,000 publishers in Japan, including about 50 major ones.

Despite these numbers, Japan's e-book market has been growing.

According to Impress R&D, a Tokyo-based market researcher, Japan's e-book market in fiscal 2008 saw sales of ¥46.4 billion, which is a 31 percent increase from the previous year.

In fiscal 2004, the market posted a mere ¥4.5 billion in sales.

Amaya, whose company sells more than 127,000 books, also pointed out that computerizing Japanese documents is both time-consuming and costly.

"The optical character-reader can read English better," said Amaya, adding that Japanese has more characters due to its kanji system so documents have to be carefully checked by humans.

While Amazon seems confident about bringing Kindle to Japan, the device itself is not Japan's first choice for reading e-books.

Impress said 86 percent of e-book sales went to cell phones in fiscal 2008, while much of the rest went to personal computers.

Sony Corp. started selling an e-book device in 2004, but stopped producing the device in Japan in 2007.

Sony spokeswoman Yuki Kobayashi said the device, which was similar to Kindle, did not sell well because the technology hadn't been developed as extensively at that time. She points out that Sony's latest device, the Sony Reader, is currently selling better overseas and concludes that it was probably too early to sell an e-book reader in the Japanese market in 2004.

Even though Kindle is hitting the Japanese market, Sony has released no specific plan to compete with the device, said Kobayashi.

Amaya said it is hard to predict whether devices specifically made for e-books or multipurpose devices such as cell phones will win the e-reader battle.

While promoting Kindle as a hard device, Amazon also wants to expand the software at its online Kindle store. That could be key to adapting to the Japanese market, where there are more than 100 million cell-phone contractors.

Amazon has also started a service that enables Apple Inc.'s iPhone and iPod Touch users to read Kindle books on their devices.

"We are committed to bring Kindle experiences to a number of different platforms," Tritschler said.



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