There has been a lot of buzz recently about the impending arrival of Amazon in India. It would seem that the possible (and limited) opening up of retail in India has got them going in a major way. Reportedly they are already on the way to setting up their warehousing, logistics and are hiring in India in anticipation of an early 2012 opening. As an appetizer, Amazon UK is already offering free shipping on select products to India (how the heck do they manage that?) and I’ve found that stuff I picked up from them is about 15% cheaper than Flipkart can manage.

Obviously this will potentially have a huge impact on the e-commerce scene in India, and is probably why we have so many e-commerce firms throwing “silly-money” at TV advertising and absurd discounts on products recently. And it’s going to affect marketplaces like substantially as small retailers look for a new platform that brings them buyers and sales. Remember, this is a company that’s revolutionized retailing in ways that Walmart did in the decades before. Amazon’s dominance and excellence are a result of obsession with detail that covers every aspect of the purchase experience and the process of decision-making and logistics that enables it.  But the impact of Amazon can be much more than that. While physical goods are the largest part of retailing, Amazon has the ability to have a large impact of another fast-growing part of our consumption experience in India.

India’s ongoing Cripple-ware Revolution
Over the last few years we’ve been purchasing tons of digital-content capable devices in India. But the catch is that most of them do not offer the complete set of features that the hype tells us about. Whether it’s is the Apple iPhone or iPod without iTunes, or the Amazon Kindle which doesn’t allow several international magazine and newspaper subscriptions in India or Netflix whose website says, “Sorry, Netflix is not available in your country… yet”.

Frankly it’s bordering on ridiculous because this is a revolution that has largely left India out so far. With most digital content players, the feeling seems to be that India is not ready yet, either in terms of the licensing, laws, or the consumers themselves.

Come on Amazon... Bring it!

Come on Amazon… Bring it!

This would still be tolerable if the digital content consumption technology wasn’t being sold in India. But this isn’t the case — because the hardware for this is already on sale in India for quite some time now and is being promoted extremely aggressively. But until the digital services that are a part of the core experience of media consumption are unlocked in India, most of these millions devices are effectively feature-restricted. Think about it — doesn’t hardware MINUS Digital Services Access EQUAL Cripple-ware?

Considering that we already pay a premium to buy these devices because of duties (I can’t see any evidence of systematic discounting), how does it make sense to get what is essentially a feature-limited device? How important can iCloud become to us unless it provides the complete set of services that it will to US consumers? And should we live the hype about these crippled products (minus the services), when we’ve already got bandwidth bottle-necks to dampen our experience?

The fundamental promise of digital technology has been that it can deliver its benefits almost anywhere and at almost any scale. But in India we’re still experiencing a “digital-services embargo” that makes a lot of the transformative technologies we are buying inaccessible. An iPod or iPhone without iTunes is just half-a-gadget. A Kindle that doesn’t let us subscribe to magazines in the US is just half-a-reading-device. And a Smart TV that can’t use many of the best online media sources is much less-than-Smart in my view.

How Amazon can Provide a Cure
The reality is that until we have simple, seamless, global and affordable media access in India most of the current generation of digital devices we are buying aren’t really worth their full price. And where Amazon can change all this is through the digital, robust and scalable platforms that they have already created for digital content delivery. Without the need for us to hack, crack or unlock them.

Sure, I am looking forward to their ability redefine e-commerce experiences in India with their ability in logistics management — and this will happen as the regulations in India allow it. But much more importantly I hope they find reasons and ways to unlock their digital services for consumers in India – for all kinds of media. Between Amazon’s Movies, Instant Video, Cloud Drive, Cloud Player and Kindle they clearly have the ability to do this (half of the cloud services seem to run off their technology anyway).

For a business that has so clearly benefited from the ‘first-mover’ advantage in e-commerce and book retailing, shouldn’t it be a priority to become a first-mover in unshackling restrictions in digital content access? To not just transform the way we can buy physical goods in India, but to lead the way by transforming (or curing) the digital media consumption experience in India?
 I’m not suggesting it’s easy, but it’s possible and it’s important to us. And I hope they get it.

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