With Amazon’s announcement of plans to sell DRM-free music has come a measure of the hand-wringing “Look out, Apple!” reaction that crops up whenever a company, boasting an annual revenue that exceeds that of the local Pay-n-Spray carwash, unveils the next “iPod killer.”
La , may I say, and add a pointed dee dah .
It’s like this: Amazon will sell DRM-free music in MP3 format from some 12,000 labels. Among those labels is one of the majors—EMI. Yes, this is the same EMI that will sell DRM-free music at the iTunes Stores sometime this month. Amazon has provided no details on the price of the tracks and albums it will sell nor has it relayed such important technical details as the bit-rate at which the files will be encoded. No specific date has been set for the launch of this service.
Apple, on the other hand, has spelled out how its DRM-free downloads will work. DRM-free versions will be available for $1.29 per track. These tracks will be encoded in the AAC format at 256kbps. DRM-free albums will be offered at the same price as the copy-protected version. Apple will continue to sell protected versions of these tracks for $.99 per track—these tracks will continue to be encoded in AAC at 128kbps. DRM-free tracks will be available sometime this month. While Apple hasn’t said how many labels’ content will be offered in DRM-free form, Steve Jobs suggested that well over half the tracks at the iTunes Store would be DRM-free by the end of the calendar year.
Is this something likely to keep Apple’s overlords awake at night?
In case it’s slipped anyone’s notice, the iPod remains the world’s most popular and desired music player. The fact that Amazon will sell music compatible with this player does nothing to lessen the iPod’s desirability. Amazon becomes just another source of iPod content. Even so, some may choose to give Amazon’s downloads a miss for no reason other than convenience.
Anyone who’s purchased media from the iTunes Store understands how easy it is. Find the media you want, click a Buy button, confirm your purchase, and the media downloads to your computer and syncs to your iPod. Rinse and repeat. Or, with the Shopping Cart option enabled, choose all the media you want to purchase and when either you or your budget is exhausted, buy the lot with one click.
Without hooks directly into the iTunes application what can Amazon possibly offer that can match this convenience? More likely you fire up your browser, dash to Amazon, locate your music (and please, god, make this easier than it is to currently find other items on Amazon), click to buy, download your music to some folder on your computer, locate that music, drag it into iTunes, and then sync it to your iPod. Oh, and should you want an iPod-compatible movie, an iPod game, or the latest episode of your favorite podcast to go with your music, launch iTunes, access its store, find your non-music media, wonder why you’re shopping at two stores when you can do it all in one, return to your browser, and cancel your Amazon transaction.
Amazon can certainly offer incentives to make its media more attractive. It can play up the fact that its music can play on any music player, not just the iPod and those too-rare music players that support AAC. And it could offer its DRM-free tracks for significantly less money than the iTunes Store—say $.89 per track. At such a price a lot of people will be tempted, me included. Given that the music industry would like to see higher- rather than lower-prices for in-demand music, however, I’m doubtful this is going to happen.
Don’t get me wrong, I welcome Amazon’s music service—particularly if it offers downloads that the iTunes Store doesn’t. It’s just that I don’t see it as a particular threat to Apple’s interests.
If, however, the great minds behind services selling protected WMA files—and yes, I’m looking at you, Rhapsody, Yahoo! Music, Napster, and yes, even you, you pitiful Zune Marketplace, you—aren’t wondering if their résumés couldn’t use a little polishing, they might want to take the afternoon off to “attend to a few personal matters at home.”
I’m not suggesting that this is the last nail in the coffin for services offering protected WMA files, only that it’s the important one that keeps the lid on—the one that prevents Uncle Harry from spilling out onto the floor. Let’s face it, if you can easily purchase DRM-free downloadable content for your non-iPod music player, why on earth would you shop anywhere but Amazon?
Barring those tied to protected WMA this is good news for digital music consumers. It provides greater access to content, a bit of competition that could result in more expansive services and, perhaps, lower prices, and it turns up the heat on the major music labels to offer their content in unprotected form.
As we say here on the central California coast, it’s all good. I look forward to strolling around Amazon’s music aisles.