In the tech industry it's a well-established fact that major US companies will sometimes test a service in other, international markets before introducing it to domestic customers. That's why the news that Amazon will begin offering prepaid internet access for smartphones and tablet computers in Japan is so intriguing.
According to Japanese business journal the Nikkei (subscription required), Amazon will begin selling the prepaid cards sometime this month. The company will sell subscriber identity module (SIM) cards for 1,980 yen (about £16), which will allow up to 500MB of data usage. The report also notes that Amazon is the first foreign company to ever offer such a service in Japan's highly competitive Internet access market.
Interestingly, although the report states that actual Internet access service will be provided by local player Japan Communications Inc., which uses NTT DoCoMo's high-speed LTE backbone, the company itself denied any new service development via a brief posting [PDF] today on its website, in Japanese. However, the rather vague denial doesn't actually deny the specifics of a deal with Amazon or Docomo. This non-denial denial is a fairly normal occurrence in Japan when product news leaks before any official announcement. Despite the company's contrary statement, its stock experienced a rare jump following the news, a sign that the Japanese business community is prepping for something big.
Last month, during an interview with the Nikkei, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos hinted that a "seamless service" from Amazon for smartphones and ereaders in Japan might be in the offing. But when pressed for details, Bezos would only say, "stay tuned for later this year". That time may have finally come with rumours swirling for months that Amazon would launch its Kindle device in Japan, in partnership with Docomo, sometime this spring.
Nevertheless, the most interesting wrinkle to the story is that the prepaid SIM cards will work with unlocked iPhones and other smartphone and tablet devices, in addition to the Kindle. So while this prepaid data service would certainly help Amazon deliver its e-book service in Japan, it could also serve as a significant test of a new prepaid access model for US Amazon customers in the near future. Amazon already provides a robust suite of cloud computing services (EC2); could this be the beginning of Amazon as an internet access company? Amazon has not released a statement regarding prepaid SIM cards in Japan. So, as Bezos would say, stay tuned.