Exploring the Amazon

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As noted by our own Peter Cohen, Amazon has launched a beta version of its Amazon MP3 music download store. I’ve taken a turn around the store and have to say, my interest is piqued by what it has to offer. A few impressions:

Mac compatible, iTunes friendly Outfits such as Wal-Mart and gBox sell music to the masses in DRM-free form, but they cater only to Windows users. Amazon MP3 is compatible with both Macs and Windows PCs. Just download and install the Amazon MP3 Downloader. You’re prompted to quit your browser. After doing so, the browser opens again (I used Safari) and along with a cheerful “Thanks!” Amazon gives you a free track—“Energy” by The Apples In Stereo (and yes, I believe this is a less-than-subtle message to iTunes’ overlords). Once downloaded, music is automatically added to your iTunes library. Album artwork is embedded in the tracks you purchase.

Previews Like the iTunes Store, Amazon’s store lets you preview 30 seconds of each track it offers. If you have Flash animation enabled in your browser, you can preview the track on the webpage. With Flash disabled the track appears as an MPEG audio stream into your iTunes Library, which then streams the preview. You can do something similar in iTunes by dragging a track from The Store into the Music entry in the iTunes Source list. The 30-second preview will be available as a protected MPEG audio stream.

Not as slick as The Store While the relationship between Amazon MP3 Downloader and iTunes is a harmonious one, that harmony doesn’t extend to Amazon’s music store. Shopping Amazon’s music store is much like shopping for any other item on Amazon. The MP3 music home page does list top and featured songs and artists and lets you browse music by genre and album price, but it’s nowhere near as polished as the iTunes Store. You’ll eventually find what you want, but not as easily as you would with iTunes.

Mmmm, savings…. It just so happens that today Joni Mitchell’s Shine was released. The iTunes Store sells it in its protected 128kbps AAC form for $9.90. As a popular new release, it’s among Amazon’s Top 100 most popular albums and sells for $8.99. And that $8.99 gets you a DRM-free MP3 album encoded at an average bit rate of 256kbps VBR.

Similar selection from majors While you’ll find EMI’s catalog at the Amazon store, the other major music labels haven’t jumped in with both feet. However, independent labels are there in good number and, unlike at the iTunes Store, the tracks offered by these smaller labels are unprotected.

Track and album differences Looking for Radiohead on the iTunes Store? You won’t find that band’s work there because they refuse to sell music by the track whereas Apple demands that artists allow their albums to be sold piecemeal. Amazon doesn’t appear to have that restriction. If you want Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief, it’s yours for $8.99. But you must buy the entire album, no per-track sales for this album.

On the other hand, if I care to purchase individual tracks from the Berlin Philharmonic’s recording of Brahms’ A German Requiem, Amazon allows that. iTunes will let me purchase only the fourth track separately (and, if I want it, 30 seconds of that track as a ringtone).

Worth watching At this point Amazon’s service represents all that’s good about variable pricing. It can sell new popular releases at a discount and because it doesn’t have a firm $.99-per-track policy in place, as does Apple, it can offer cheaper tracks if it cares to.

Of course variable pricing is a double-edged sword. At record labels’ prompting, Amazon could just as easily ask for higher prices for certain tracks and albums. The very existence of the iTunes Store will help keep that kind of thing in check, however.

At this point I’m going to keep a keen eye on Amazon MP3. If you have the option to purchase the music you want from either store, it’s tempting to put up with the inconvenience of Amazon’s interface to buy music less-expensively (and in unprotected form). If only for the sake of the kind of healthy competition that drives the iTunes Store to greater heights I welcome Amazon to the fray.

This story, "Exploring the Amazon" was originally published by PCWorld.

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