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Amazon launches beta version of DRM-free music store

The online retail giant finally unveils its long-awaited music store. In a double punch to Apple, it's DRM-free--and cheaper.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
2 min read

Remember when Amazon.com was just a bookstore? On Tuesday morning, the online retailer launched the public beta of its much-anticipated rival to Apple's iTunes Store: Amazon MP3, which features over 2 million songs free of digital rights management copy protection, which means they'll play on any computer, music player, or music-enabled cell phone.

Because of Amazon MP3's DRM-free focus, that means the selection isn't as wide as the iTunes Store's. Several major-label conglomerates, like Sony BMG and Warner Music Group, have not jumped onto the bandwagon and hence aren't offering their music for sale in Amazon's new store. Nevertheless, the retail giant has played up the fact that there are still 180,000 artists represented from 20,000 major and independent labels, including several prominent indie labels that are offering their music for the first time in "naked" format.

Each song is encoded at 256kbps, the file quality that Apple offers for its DRM-free iTunes Plus premium music selections, which it sells for $1.29 apiece rather than its usual 99 cents. Amazon's pricing for Amazon MP3 ranges from 89 cents (including the top 100 best-selling songs) to 99 cents; albums are priced from $5.99 to $9.99.

It goes without saying that Amazon is aiming squarely at Apple, and it's attempting to hit the digital music monopoly where it hurts--with regard to pricing, file quality, and versatility, all of which have come under scrutiny by critics. But this could also be a painful blow for eMusic, the online music store that has made a small name for itself by selling exclusively DRM-free music.

While the iTunes Store started its digital download empire with music sales, Amazon has already operated a movie download store, Amazon Unbox, for a year now. Unbox was off to a rough start at first, but tweaked features, partnerships with companies like TiVo, and a solid selection have improved the company's reputation for media downloads.