If you want to see the future of Amazon in education, don’t look to Seattle. Look to Sao Paulo.

Look to the app
Look to the app

For months, I’ve wondered what Amazon’s strategy for the Kindle in education might be. Amazon’s presence in the K-12 school market has been notable largely by its absence. No grand, sweeping announcements. No blow-out presentations at education technology conferences. No dramatic Bezos schoolyard laughs.

Yet, in the past year or so, Amazon has:

  • Hired a Microsoft executive, Raghu Murthi, to lead Amazon’s efforts in the education and enterprise markets;
  • Acquired TenMarks, a tech company for math learning materials that appeals to teachers with its freemium model;
  • Rolled out Whispercast, to let educators centrally distribute and manage eBooks for reading and other programs en masse; and,
  • Introduced new models of the Kindle Fire HD and HDX with Fire OS 3.1, an Android variant that sports advanced features such as corporate-level security (e.g., native VPN support) and encryption.

These improvements have gone a long way to reverse Amazon’s early perceived disinterest, including the one-time barrier of a five unit-per-order limit on Kindles which made it hell for any school library or classroom to fully outfit itself. Amazon now has a dedicated Education and Enterprise Sales page, too, in addition to mass device management.

Individuals vs. Institutions

Amazon has always been interested in education at the individual student level, and aggressively pursues that segment of the market in higher education by offering Kindle eTextbook sales and eTextbook rentals. College students are like the mass-market consumers Amazon dearly loves, except they often get to spend other family members’ money. Schools, on the other hand, are more like government, just pickier.

TenMarks_Amazon_SiteDespite this activity, Amazon seems oddly passive. It has yet to make a dedicated, decisive Kindle push into primary and secondary schools. Its Fire is a rounding error in K-12 tablet and laptop sales stats where Apple’s iPads rule supreme (at 43%, according to recent Futuresource Consulting estimates) and only appears to be challenged by the rapid rise of Google’s Chromebooks. Amazon’s Kindle looks like it falls in the forlorn four percent that Futuresource labels “Other.”

Hello, Sao Paulo

The news this month from Brazil could signal that a change may be underway.

By Jefferson Souza Fenandes (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
(Map by Jefferson Souza Fenandes [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons)
Amazon’s education focus may not be selling Kindle tablet hardware after all. It may be the Kindle app.

Working with an agency of the Brazilian Ministry of Education, Amazon has been converting and wirelessly distributing more than two hundred textbook titles to hundreds of thousands of public high school teachers, using Whispercast. These are teachers’ editions, and they are being delivered to be used inside the free Kindle Reading App on roughly 600,000 government-issued tablets.

Read that again: content is getting delivered not necessarily to Kindles, or Kindle Fires. To the Kindle Reading App on other manufacturers’ Android tablets. The free Kindle Reading App, that runs on iOS, Macs, Windows and Android. As Amazon’s news release describes it, “Amazon’s expertise in compression technology ensured teachers have a fast download and great reading experience on their tablets.”

“To date,” Amazon claims, “More than 40M eTextbooks have been delivered.”

Amazon, in its news release, goes out of its way to emphasize a word that’s become almost an obsession to many in budget-strapped schools: free. The Kindle Reading App is free, and allows teachers to “read, highlight, make notes and reference the dictionary directly in the textbooks, even when the tablets are not connected to the Internet.” That, too, is true of some of the content, with “more than 2,500 free books in Portuguese.”

All About the App

Sales of the Kindle hardware, and Fire tablet market penetration, is not the sole measure of success for Amazon in education. Analysts have put the price of Fire tablets at close to Amazon’s cost. That’s because from Amazon’s perspective, Kindle devices are needed to reach the ultimate goal of delivering paid digital content sold by Amazon.

First one's free
First one’s free

But the free Kindle Reading App runs on nearly any manufacturer’s tablet, basically turning every tablet into a Kindle: that is, an Amazon content delivery device. Whispercast management software is a “free self-service tool.” So what if, as Amazon’s education pages state, it has “millions of free, out-of-copyright titles like Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist?” Odds are once a school is into Amazon’s ecosystem, that’s increasingly where it will find its paid content, too.

Speculating a step further, what better place to run with this strategy than in countries where there is no fragmented, fractious procurement process, but rather where education ministries make the choices for all public schools from the top down?

It may be that Amazon isn’t disinterested in the overall K-12 education game. It may simply prefer to redefine the game’s rules and playing field. By focusing on global opportunities and the Kindle Reading App – irrespective of the underlying hardware – it can do what Amazon does best: sell content that, in this case, just happens to be eTextbooks. Or perhaps even more interactive instructional materials that play nicely inside the Kindle Reading App or a potential new free education market app that has yet to be unveiled.

It makes a peculiar kind of sense. The river that is the company’s namesake makes its own path. And doesn’t start anywhere near the U.S.

For Amazon and schools, there may indeed be an app for that.

[Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared in EdSurge.]

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  • ricrude

    Makes sense to support the super low-end, $30, Android tablets without tarnishing the Kindle hardware brand, especially in price sensitive areas.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      It also opens up smartphones and other school BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) initiatives to Amazon-distributed content. As long as a device supports the Kindle Reading App, it’s a “Kindle.”

  • FC White

    I trust very few, if any, of these “Ed Entrepreneurs”. Ultimately they’re all committed to a long term game plan to phase out free, universal public education and replace it with corporate control of our schools.

    Parents, you think you’re frustrated NOW with the occasionally bad teacher, or one who just has zero chemistry with your child? Just imagine how much worse it will be if every “school” is now a private business—but one supported by your tax dollars, which will partially be returned to you in a cute little annual “voucher”, that, at first, will pay for 100% of your new, private “school’s” annual cost, but after a few years you’ll be paying for half or more, every month. All for this nifty “freedom of choice in education—that phony bill of goods we went for back in the teens.

    About that time, expect your kid or grandkid to come into the room where you’re making the electronic payment and asking you, “Hey, was it really true that schools were free for every kid, when you were my age, no matter how much money your family had? Why don’t they still do that, dad?”

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Though clearly Amazon is not a startup anymore, and this comment has little to do with the column, it’s a common refrain from those who conflate edtech startups with education reform. One can occur without, on in some cases, in spite of, the other. And there are good and bad actors in both camps, such as “reformers” who focus on politics versus learning. But that’s the topic of another column elsewhere: https://www.edsurge.com/n/2013-12-20-frank-catalano-stop-the-hype-and-hysteria

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