Quick take on Amazon's MP3 download store

Does Amazon's new MP3 Download Store have what it takes to make a dent in Apple's digital music dominance?

Amazon

It's been a busy week in digital music, to say the least. Today Zune 2 was announced , and Amazon finally launched its MP3 download service, though it's currently still in Beta.

I gave it a short try and found that overall it is a competent start. It's not a significant step beyond iTunes in terms of functionality or usability (more on that in a moment), though it's price/quality ratio is very good: 89-99 cents for 256kbps bit rate, DRM-free MP3s. Albums vary a lot in price, from a bit over $4 to $8.99 so far as I can tell. This is a good deal if, like me, you prefer a higher bitrate than iTunes has historically offered and you don't use an iPod as your main device. (I use a SonyEricsson W810 Walkman phone as my main device. I've had three hard-drive based iPods go south on me so I'm reluctant to get another, and I just like carrying one less device around. Plus it has a radio and I'm an NPR junkie.)

So what does the Amazon MP3 store do well and not so well?

Pro's:

  • It automatically puts stuff into iTunes for you if you use the Amazon downloader application. Tracks seem to be kept outside of the iTunes folder hierarchy. I actually like this as it means it's easy to find the unprotected tracks to put onto my Walkman phone.

    Track previews are of standard 30sec length with good fidelity, and fade in and out. Nice that you can preview a whole album at once (it moves automatically from on track to the next). Very responsive action of the previews.

  • The recommendations seem good and on-target so far from my limited experience. As it should it taps into CDs that I've bought in the past so it's not just relying on my short mp3 buying history.
  • The functionality and interface are much simpler than the iTunes Music Store, which in my mind is a plus. The iTMS has become very cluttered as more media types have got loaded on.
  • Album art is downloaded too, and shows up correctly in iTunes.

Cons:

  • I got separate emails for each track or album purchase--why can't I get a summarized report of a session like iTunes gives me?
  • The process for buying individual tracks is cumbersome. 1. Hit buy button. 2. Get taken to a confirmation page. 3. Hit "Back" button on browser to go back to the previous page and pick another track. They need some AJAX goodness to make this more efficient, and need to allow non-contiguous selection of multiple tracks to buy them all in one go.
  • To make the process most efficient you have to first install the small Amazon Downloader. This worked OK in Safari, however in Camino the tracks didn't automatically start downloading for me, I had to double-click the icon in the Camino download window to kickstart the Amazon Downloader. Once going the UI was decent enough and integration with iTunes was flawless.
  • The look of the store is Amazon standard, which IMHO is utilitarian but not very attractive. Music is treated like everything else on Amazon, whether you're spending a lot or a little.
  • When I do a search and get dozens of results back, I can't sort by album, song title, artist, etc. This can make it pretty hard to find a specific song.
  • Strangely they are not pulling in user reviews from the CDs of the same albums. Hopefully this will change as it makes no sense to have a separate stock of reviews for MP3s.
  • Music selection is pretty slim right now. Even though 2 million songs sounds like a lot, you quickly realize it isn't. Do a search on U2, for example, and you get a bunch of covers, but nothing original. Amazon has both EMI and Universal and it claims thousands of other labels, but there are obvious large gaps. Presumably this will fill in over time. But for comparison, remember that the iTunes Music store launched with only 200,000 songs and itt took quite a long time to feel like it wasn't plagued with gaps, and given the current state of maturity of the market Amazon should be able to fill it much faster.

The two biggest question marks in my mind about whether Amazon will be successful with this venture are:

1. Will they actually continue to put effort behind it? Lately Amazon has been in serious fast-follower mode, and throwing in every gee-gaw and feature that seems to be popular elsewhere. You like wiki's? We got 'em! Carousel navigation for no obvious reason? Check! You can almost imagine Amazon as an extension of Jeff Bezos' short attention span. To be successful in this area they are going to have to stick with it, which is going to require effort and deal-making that Amazon doesn't typically do.

2. Can they pull together the strengths of their customer network and massive mine of data, and then layer game-changing functionality on top of it? A me-too entry is not going to be enough to make a major dent in Apple's dominance. Leveraging their strengths is a good start for Amazon, but I'm more sanguine about whether they can get beyond their current fast-follower approach to really do something fresh and attention-grabbing.

(Cnet blogger Michael Horowitz also has a review of the service. Unlike him I had to confirm my login info before being able to make a song purchase.)

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About the author

    Adam Richardson is the director of product strategy at frog design, where he guides strategy engagements for frog's international roster of clients, envisioning and creating new products, consumer electronics, and digital experiences. Adam combines a background in industrial design, interaction design, and sociology, and spends most of his time on convergent designs that combine hardware, software, service, brand, and retail. He writes and speaks extensively on design, business, culture, and technology, and runs his own Richardsona blog.

     

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