Tag Archives: amazon

Amazon AutoRip: great service, or devaluing music?

Or possibly both. Amazon’s AutoRip service means that when you buy one of a limited, but considerable, range of CDs, you get an MP3 version in your Amazon cloud player for free. Even past purchases are automatically added, which means US customers have received emails informing them that hundreds or in some cases thousands of tracks have been added to their Amazon cloud player.

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The service adds value to CD purchases in several ways. You get instant delivery, so you can start listening to your music straight away, and when the CD comes in the post, you can enjoy the artwork and play it on your hi-fi for best quality.

Amazon is differentiating from Apple, which only sells a download.

An infernal creature lies in the details though. Here are a few comments from Steve Hoffman’s music forum:

Got Auto-rip Pink Floyd’s DSOTM 2011 mastering of the DSOTM SACD that I bought in 2003.

and

I now have autorips of cd’s I no loner own…..interesting concept.

and

I now have autorips of CDs I bought as gifts.

These customers have done nothing wrong. They bought a CD from Amazon and gave it away or sold it, but it is still in their Amazon history, so now they have the MP3s.

Another interesting point is that Amazon appears to treat all versions of the same recording as equal. This is why I have included the comment about the Pink Floyd album above. Record companies have done well over the years by persuading fans to buy the same CD again in a remastered version, sometimes with bonus tracks. The Beatles 2009 remastered CDs are a well-known example. But if customers with unremastered CDs are now getting remastered MP3s automatically, this type of sale is harder to make.

The gift issue is more serious. The terms and conditions say:

Albums purchased in orders including one or more items marked as “gifts” at purchase are not eligible for AutoRip.

and intriguingly:

If you cancel your order or return this album, our normal order cancellation and product return policies will apply regarding the physical version of this album. However, if you download any of the tracks on the MP3 version of the album from your Cloud Player library (including if you have enabled auto-download to a device and any of the tracks on the MP3 version of the album auto-download), you will be considered to have purchased the MP3 version of the album from the Amazon MP3 Store and we will charge your credit card (or other payment method) for the then-current price of the MP3 version of the album (which will be non-refundable and may be a higher price than the physical version of the album).

Someone therefore has thought about the problem, though I predict unhappy customers, if they buy a faulty CD, return it, and find they have been charged anyway thanks to an auto-download feature of which they might not understand the implications.

Note also that many CDs are purchased as gifts without being marked as gifts in Amazon’s system. The idea of marking items as gifts is that you can have gift wrapping and get an item sent to another address, but if you plan to do your own wrapping, it is not necessary.

Here is something else. Audio enthusiasts are not happy with MP3s, preferring the real and/or psychological benefits of the lossless CD format for sound quality. For many people though, the audio is indistinguishable or they do not care about the difference.

What do you do if you receive a CD in the post, having already downloaded and enjoyed the MP3 versions of the tracks? I imagine some customers will figure that they have no use for the CD and sell it.  Provided they do not return the CD to Amazon, I cannot see anything in Amazon’s terms and conditions that forbids this, though I can see ethical and possibly legal difficulties in some territories.

The consequence is that someone may lose a sale.

Subscription is the future

My view on this is simple. The only sane way to sell music today is via subscription – the Spotify or Xbox Music model. The idea of “owning” music (which was never really ownership, but rather a licence tied to physical media) is obsolete with today’s technology.

Amazon’s new initiative demonstrates how little value there is in a downloaded MP3 file – so vanishingly small, that it can give them away to past customers for nothing.

Amazon.com sales stats snapshot shows why Microsoft is reinventing Windows

Anyone who questions the need for Microsoft’s radical reinvention of Windows need look no further than Amazon’s sales stats.

I was on Amazon.com checking out the specs for Samsung’s new Ativ slate, and happened to click the link for best sellers in Computers and Accessories.

On the morning of 17th October 2012, here is how the top 20 looked:

  • Six Android tablets including Samsung Galaxy Tab at number 1 and Google Nexus 7 at 3
  • Four varieties of Apple iPad at number 4, 7, 9 and 13
  • Two Apple MacBooks (Pro and Air) at positions 2 and 16
  • One solitary Windows laptop at number 10 (Dell Inspiron).

A mix of networking devices, screens and accessories make up the other eight places; I chose the entire sector because it puts tablets and laptops alongside each other.

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This is not about price. That Dell laptop is $429.99, little different from the 16GB iPad 2 at $399.99 and 42.5% of the cost of the MacBook Pro.

Windows still outsells the Mac overall. Gartner gave Apple just 13.6% of the US PC market (excluding tablets) for the third quarter of 2012. However, Windows is boosted by large corporate sales, where the Mac is still a minority taste; Amazon is largely a consumer vendor.

Further, Amazon’s figures change hourly and I may have hit a low spot; check out the current list yourself.

Finally, the large number of Windows laptops on offer dilute the ranking of any one – though there are a lot of Android tablets on sale too.

For Microsoft though, this is still a worrying list to see. Today’s Windows 7 devices are not what consumers want. Reinventing Windows for tablets was the right thing to do – though that does not, of course, prove that Windows 8 will succeed. Windows 8 pre-orders are not high on the list either – and yes, they are on the list; the Samsung Ativ convertible is currently at 60.

Amazon Silk: fast cloud-powered browser, or a new way to mine your data?

Amazon announced its new range of Kindle devices today and the web is buzzing with debate about the impact of the new Android-based Kindle Fire tablet on Apple and others.

Amazon knows how to pile high and sell cheap, and can make money from content even if it gives away the hardware, so it is a strong contender in this space.

The real innovation announced today though was in the web browser. Amazon announced Silk, which splits the browser between your Kindle Fire and EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud).

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Amazon’s point: it can hold a massive cache of web content on EC2, as well as performing common-sense optimizations like scaling images to an appropriate size before sending them to your device.

Is this really new? Much of it sounds familiar, if you know about caching and proxies. Nevertheless, Amazon is in a strong position with its large cloud resource, and can design the web browser specifically for its cloud proxy. In addition, it knows the exact size and capability of the device. And perhaps its smart engineers have come up with better ways to cache. One feature is predictive caching – sending down the page it things you will visit next, before you actually go there.

There are some hard problems, as I have found in trying to optimize my own web site. Caching dynamic content, so that PHP script does not get executed by every browser request, is an obvious thing to do; but web pages draw content from multiple sources, including scripts that serve ad content that is meant to be targeted for the specific viewer. Optimizing that is harder.

It does also occur to me that a side-effect of Silk is that every single bit of browsing you do will go through Amazon and could potentially be mined for data about your browsing habits. Amazon, naturally, is well-placed to send you related ads from its own retail site. Amazon has not mentioned this aspect, but I am sure it has been thought about.

The rise of the eBook is a profound change in our culture

The Association of American Publishers has announced that in February 2011 ebooks ranked above print in all trade categories. Note that these figures are for the USA, and that in revenue ebooks are well behind print – $164.1M vs $441.7M. It is also worth noting that print sales are falling fast, 24.8% year on year, whereas ebooks are growing fast, 202.3% year on year.

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This does sound like a reprise of what has happened in the music industry, where broadly speaking physical formats are heading toward obsolescence, download is growing, but the overall pie is smaller because of the ease of piracy. There is perhaps another more subtle point, that when the marginal cost of production is near zero, prices too tend to race to the bottom in a competitive market.

Books are not equivalent to music. Physical books still have advantages. They have zero battery requirements, work well in sunlight, some have beautiful pictures, you can write on them and fold back the corner of a page, and so  on. There are more advantages to ebooks though, in cost, weight, searchability, interactivity, and freedom from the constraints of a printed page. Years ago I was in the book publishing industry, and convinced that ebooks would take off much sooner than in fact they did. Much money was wasted in the light of false dawns. I remember – though it was long after I was involved – how some booksellers invested in Microsoft’s .lit format, readable on PCs and Pocket PCs, only to discover that there was little market for it.

What changed? It was no single thing; but factors include the advent of high-contrast screens that are both low-power and readable outside; the appearance of dedicated tablet-style readers that are lightweight but with book-sized screens; the marketing muscle of Amazon with the Kindle and Apple with the iPad – though the iPad screen is sub-optimal for reading – and some mysterious change in public perception that caused ebooks to transition from niche to mainstream.

Books are not going away of course, just as CDs and even vinyl records are still with us. I think though we can expect more high street closures, and libraries wondering what exactly their role is meant to be, and that the publishing industry is going to struggle with this transition just as the music industry has done. Ebook growth will continue, and as Amazon battles its rivals we will see the price of the Kindle fall further. Apple will lock its community more tightly to iTunes, as its policy on forbidding in-app purchases that do not go through its own App Store and pay the Apple tax plays out.

That is all incidental. What I am struggling to put into words is what the decline of the printed word means for our culture. You can argue that it is merely a symptom of what the internet has brought us, which is true in its way; but it is a particularly tangible symptom. No longer will you be able to go into someone’s room and see clues about their interests and abilities by glancing at bookshelves.

I am on a train, and by one of life’s strange synergies someone has just sat down next to me and pulled out a Kindle.

I do not mean to be negative. Much though I love books, there are now better ways to store and read words, and while the printed word may be in decline, the written word has never been more popular. I am in no doubt though that this is a profound change.

Amazon introduces its cloud player – but Spotify makes more sense

Amazon has introduced its Cloud Drive and Cloud Player. Cloud Drive offers 5GB of online storage free, with further storage available for a fee. For example, an additional 15GB costs $20 per year, and you can have a full 1000GB for $1000 per year.

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Having said that, a note in the FAQ says that:

The 5 GB free storage plan is available to all Amazon.com customers, however further upgrades to the storage plan are currently unavailable in the following countries

where the list is of countries in Europe including the UK.

The Cloud Drive looks nicely implemented except that there is no provision as far as I can tell for sharing. It is an odd omission, unless Amazon sees Cloud Drive as mainly for storing personal music and media purchases and wishes to discourage breach of copyright, so I am guessing this is the case. This does make rivals like Microsoft’s SkyDrive more interesting for general cloud storage though, particularly as you get 25GB free with SkyDrive.

So on to the Cloud Player. There are two versions, a web player that is part of Cloud Drive, and an Android player which is part of the Amazon MP3 application. My first attempt at using the web player failed – US customers only:

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However, when I uploaded some MP3 files to the Cloud Drive they played fine in the Cloud Player:

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I tried the Android player briefly. It worked well with MP3s already on my device, but I have not yet attempted to sign into the Cloud Drive.

There is no player for Apple iOS and when I visited the site in mobile Safari even the web player did not appear, though this may be another UK/USA issue.

Naturally Amazon is encouraging use of Cloud Drive and Cloud Player with its MP3 store. The idea is that you no longer need bother to download MP3 files. Just store them in Cloud Drive, and play them wherever you are, though download remains an option either on purchase or later from the Cloud Drive.

A few observations. Cloud Drive is a welcome feature, though it is nothing new and crippled by lack of sharing capability. Other applications built on Amazon S3 cloud storage do include the ability to share files.

Cloud Player enhances the Amazon MP3 store and I suppose is worth having, though I am sceptical about this model of music purchase. Once you have moved the focus of music storage from local drives to the cloud, and playback from the local network to cloud streaming, then a subscription model that offers everything available on the service makes more sense. This is what Spotify does successfully, though I appreciate that not all music is available on Spotify, and that some countries including the USA cannot use it.

I wonder what happens when you store an MP3 purchase in Cloud Drive? Does Amazon really store a separate copy for every user, or does it simply link to its master copy so that it appears to be in your personal space? The latter would save storage space; and the idea shows that technically it might not be difficult for Amazon to transition from a model based on individual track purchase to one based on all-you-can-hear subscription.

Agreeing this with the music labels and making financial sense of such a deal is another matter; but I hope that this new Cloud Player is a step in that direction.

Amazon Kindle goes social with Public Notes, Twitter and Facebook integration

A free firmware update for Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader adds several new features, including an element of social networking.

The features are as follows:

  • Page numbers for easier referencing, for example in essays, reviews and discussions. Page numbers must be included in the digital book for this to work. It is not clear how many titles include them; Amazon just says “Many titles in the Kindle Store now include real page numbers”.
  • New newspaper and magazine layout with a “Sections & Articles” view. Each section has its own article list for easier browsing.

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  • Public notes with Facebook and Twitter integration. This is the feature that makes Kindle reading social. You can attach notes to a passage and make them publicly viewable by other readers who choose to follow you, either on a note-by-note basis, or by making an entire book public through the Amazon website. You can also register a Facebook and Twitter account and have specific notes and ratings posted to those who follow you on those networks.

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The advantage for Amazon is that these features should promote books through viral marketing.

It comes at an interesting time, since Apple’s new subscription rules may make it difficult for Amazon to continue supporting iPhone and iPad with free readers. Apple is insisting on a 30% cut of the revenue for all titles purchased through apps, forming a financial barrier for competitors to its own iBooks service.

If Amazon can cement loyalty to Kindle though social network integration, that could help it maintain market share.

 

iPhone plus Amazon app = shopping revolution through magic of barcode scanning

Amazon has added barcode scanning to its Apple iPhone shopping app. It is an amazing feature. Here’s why.

Among the questions that shoppers ask themselves, two of the biggest ones are first, is it any good; and second, is it good value? Barcode scanning helps with both of these. The scenario is that you are in the shop looking at a book, CD or DVD – or almost anything really, from kettles to MP3 players – and you wave your iPhone over it. Up comes the entry for that item in Amazon’s store, where you can see the rating, read customer reviews, and check the price both new and used.

OK, there is a little bit more involved than waving the iPhone, but not much. Here is how it works. Tap the Amazon app on the iPhone, then Search.

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Tap Scan a barcode and hold the iPhone over the barcode.

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You adjust the size and position by moving the iPhone until the code is roughly central between the guide lines. At this point, the guide lines turn green.

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No need to tap; the app will now look up the item and show you the results. Tap the right-pointing arrow for more detail.

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Confession: I am sufficiently an Amazon addict that I have done this in shops even before the advent of the barcode feature. One reason is price-checking. We all know that you pay a premium for the instant gratification of bricks and mortar shopping; but how bad is it? This will tell you instantly.

That might not help if you need a gift at the last minute, but the reviews might. I use this for video games, or for CDs that I have not heard or DVDs/Blu-rays that I have not seen. It has saved me from some expensive mistakes.

Of course reviews are subjective and some are likely planted by publishers, authors or competitors; but there are usually enough to give you some idea of the range of opinions.

It is also handy for electronic devices. Is that MP3 player any good? How does that iPod dock sound?

When I was at school we learned about the concept of perfect competition. One of the requirements for perfect competition is perfect information – for example, knowing the price charged for an item in every outlet which sells it. We are a long way from that, but thanks to the Amazon marketplace, where third-party sellers compete, we are closer than we were. The barcode feature in the Amazon iPhone app makes it easy to access that information while shopping, which is a big feature.