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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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