Amazon.com Inc. unveiled the slimmest and most expensive version yet of its flagship Kindle e-reader this week. In an interview earlier this year, David Limp, senior vice-president for devices at Amazon, spoke about how he plans to crack the Indian market. Edited excerpts:
What is your agenda whenever you visit India?
I spend probably a little over half my time with the engineering teams reviewing their road maps. The rest of the time is usually with the sales and the marketing teams because India is becoming a bigger and bigger portion of our (electronic) reader business as we think about it globally.
What are the key achievements of the Amazon Kindle business in India?
If I look at the milestones that we sort of set for ourselves coming into 2015, the team here has exceeded almost all of them. Between the digital book business and the device business, growth of customers is up over 200% on an annual basis, which is just a phenomenal number. By the way, that’s off a pretty good base. So it’s growing very, very fast.
We crossed the three million book milestone (in terms of book selection) this past year, which was a big milestone for us. There is still more work to do. The vast majority of those are English books. We have to get more languages.
A big part of our plan for 2015 was to grow the number of physical retailers that you could go (to) and see the product. We crossed over 700 physical locations. We are going to continue expanding. So (on) a bunch of these dimensions, the team really executed well. The ultimate measure of success for us is how the customers feel about the products. On balance, it’s a four-plus star product and customers love it, and that’s the thing that makes you wake up every morning and be excited about coming to work.
Could you help us understand the quantum of the India business that came from actual device sales versus the revenue tied to e-books?
We don’t break it out. In the early days, the device is super important because it shows the vision of what we would call the best reading experience that we can give you out up front. We are not naive to think that the world is homogeneous. Not everybody is going to buy this reader. You may very well want to read on your phone. Others might want to read on a tablet. Others might want to read on a PC. We make sure that there are apps that are available on each of those platforms.
How is the Kindle different from other electronic readers out there?
It is very different than if you were to develop a tablet today or a phone today. We are bombarded, as modern citizens of the electronic world, with interruptions constantly. It’s a text message coming in, it’s a WhatsApp group that I am part of, it’s Facebook, it’s Angry Birds telling me to up a level. It’s any one of those things and you design your products in those worlds to notify you, to vibrate for you, to wake you up.
The Kindle is a totally different electronic design philosophy. We work from the customer backwards and say how do we make this device disappear? We don’t want them to pay attention to the device. We want them to care about (the authors’) words.
So, the things we think about are battery life. We think about how light it is. We obsess that the page-turn buttons don’t make any noise; so if you are reading next to your partner at night, you don’t hear the “click, click, click, click” of the page-turn button.
Help us understand your strategy here versus that abroad, considering e-reader sales have fallen quite a bit globally, even though India is a pretty nascent market.
Although I do believe the data that overall readers are down, Amazon’s Kindle reader business, device business, is up. It is growing. We are bucking the trend. We sell millions and millions and millions of devices a year. Why others have struggled, I can’t say. Why are we succeeding, I think it is because we continue to offer products that do vary by market segment.
So, for example, in the US where we do have a much larger installed base, we have just been there much longer, there are more customers that are in an upgrade cycle. There it’s about inventing a product that is worthy of an upgrade. For places like India, and China as well, which are both hypergrowth markets, part of it is education.
In many cases, some of the new features are less driven by the demands in, let’s say, the US where they might have been three-four years ago, and more driven by the demands here in India. We came out mid-last year with the feature we call Word Wise, which when you turn it on will give you a definition of a word in a line below it. For places where people are learning the language, in the case of China where English is a second language, it is a super valuable feature and it was driven by a set of engineers actually in Chennai because they felt like it would be great for this market segment in India and it has been super popular with customers. I think you will see us continue to do that.
What other language books will we see here?
The North Star for the Kindle business is to deliver every book ever written anywhere in the world in less than 60 seconds. That is the big audacious goal that we have. That is a decades’-long vision statement and mission. On a long arc of time, (the answer) to your question is every language, every dialect.
Will you focus more on south Indian languages or north Indian languages?
I am not going to be able to answer that. I know the answer but I am not going to answer it. What I can tell you is that we are working on it. Stay tuned. But I can’t give any specifics.
So would it be okay to assume that you will tackle at least a few vernacular languages this year?
I wouldn’t bind it by time but we will start with a number of languages for sure and I would stay tuned on the time frame.
How open have Indian publishers been to partnering with you?
That is not dissimilar to what has happened in the US and the UK. Publishers, you know, decide their timing, right? We can’t twist anybody’s arm to go in a direction that they don’t want to go. But we have had some good wins (Rupa and Westland). We will continue to work and get more. We also have to make it easier for those publishers to get their content into our system. Equally as important as tackling those publishers is building our direct publishing business here. That is not to say traditional publishers will go away. What we are trying to also do, and it is super important in a country as big and diverse as India, is to give tools to individual authors so that they can self-publish in an easy fashion. We have to work both in parallel.
Are you specifically targeting children in India?
We have begun more and more efforts around building software on the device that makes it better for children. Some of it (software) has come from the Chennai team. Not all these features have come to India. But on a global basis, we have a feature that gives you sort of parental controls. You can set goals for your kids—read so much at a time, you can track how much they are reading and you can see the vocabulary they are looking up. We have a feature called Vocabulary Builder so that you can train your kids on vocabulary as they go on. Obviously, every Kindle has a built-in dictionary. These are all great features for kids.
I think that is one segment of customers that we think is important. In general, the kids growing up today are used to technology. They live with it all around them and so it is not a big leap of faith to say “I am going to read on a dedicated (electronic) reader”. If you look at other portions of the population, it may take more convincing, if you have already fallen in love with that physical book. One of the nice things about readers is it is not exclusively one category. There is an amazing culture to read here in India. I watch the buses as they come in, in the morning, people are reading newspapers everywhere. That is just a great phenomenon that exists here. That is not as prevalent around the world anymore.