Amazon's MP3 Download store--a book report

The good news is that I did end up with a couple non-copy-protected MP3 songs. The bad news is that Amazon expects you to install software.

Many people love iTunes, but installing the software on a Windows computer that you depend on is a mistake, from a Defensive Computing standpoint. I say this for two reasons. For one, iTunes is a large complex program and installing any such program is risky, Windows being what it is. In addition, iTunes includes QuickTime, which has been fraught with security bugs. And personally speaking, the fact that I must use iTunes to play music purchased from Apple, rules the whole system out for me.

So, when I heard about Amazon's new MP3 Download store selling normal, ordinary, plain vanilla MP3 songs, I tried it out. The "store" is in beta though, and it shows.

The good news is that I did end up with a couple non-copy-protected MP3 songs. The bad news is that Amazon expects you to install software.

Any time you install software on a Windows machine, there's a risk, one larger than many people realize. So, defensively speaking, I always prefer not to install software. Especially beta software. Then too, if you're using a computer that belongs to your employer, it may be against the rules, or impossible, to install software.

So, I didn't install Amazon's "MP3 Downloader" software, and found my shopping options limited. The most glaring limitation is that without the software you can't purchase an album--all you can do is purchase individual songs. And, if you're looking at a list of songs in an album (or any list of songs for that matter) you can't purchase multiple songs at the same time. Purchasing three songs, for example, requires three different transactions.

User experience


When I first entered the MP3 store, I was greeted with "Hello, Michael Horowitz. We have MP3 Downloads Recommendations for you." But, clicking on the link resulted in: "Sorry, we have no recommendations for you in this category today." Such is beta software.

Initially, I wanted to purchase songs from a particular rock group, and finding the group was easy enough. But they have been performing for years and their portfolio of songs numbers 412. Navigating through these 412 songs was brutally cumbersome.

One of the songs I wanted had an original version from 1971, a remastered version from 2001 and a host of live recordings. I would have happily purchased a studio and a live version, but Amazon works against you here. You can't list the songs in alphabetical sequence--which is needed to sample each rendition and pick a favorite or two. The only possible sort sequences are "best selling" and price, which means endless paging back and forth to find all the instances of a song. Fuggedaboutit.

To get around this, I tried limiting the list to just one song, but this isn't possible. If, for example, you search for "teacher" you get songs with the word teacher anywhere in their name, not just those named simply teacher. In addition, you get artists such as the Moravian Teachers Choir and albums with the word teacher in their title.

Then it occurred to me not to search "MP3 Downloads" (it's the default) but rather to search "Song Titles". Alas, beta software being what it is, this returned many songs without "teacher" anywhere in their name. And, as you might have guessed by now, searching for "teacher" within Album Titles returned all the albums by the Moravian Teachers Choir, regardless of the album title.

To find a single song, the closest you can come is to search for both the artist and the song title. If, however, the song title is also an album title, the search results include all the songs from the album.

Dangerous design decision


To close on a defensive note, the process of purchasing an individual song was too easy. By this I mean that after clicking the "Buy MP3" button for a song, I purchased the song without having to enter my Amazon user ID and password, let alone a credit card number. This was a first for me--all the many Amazon purchases I've made over the years required entering at least a user ID and password.

The danger here, of course, is that anyone can walk up to your unattended or unlocked computer and buy music charged to you. If you have an Amazon.com account, you may want to log off whenever you're done making purchases. To do so, go to the Amazon home page and near the top where it says "(If you're not Michael Horowitz, click here)" click there. The price of security is always inconvenience.


Update: October 2, 2007. For more on the issue of making purchases at Amazon without having to enter a password, see Defensively shopping at amazon.com

Update: October 8, 2007. Brian Krebs in the Washington Post wrote about a new set of bug fixes for QuickTime. See QuickTime Security Update for Windows. Defensively speaking, I wouldn't install QuickTime on a computer used for important work.

About the author

    Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

    He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.

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