Amazon officially pulls back the curtain on its long-awaited music store this morning. As expected, the key selling point is that all of the files are in unencrypted MP3 format, which means they’ll work on Apple’s iPods, iTunes, and every other music player and service as well.
That same feature means that Amazon has only landed cooperation from two of the four major music labels: EMI Group and Vivendi’s Universal Music Group will sell much of their music via the service, while Sony-BMG and Warner Music Group (WMG) are sitting this one out for now. That gives the store an initial catalogue of 2 million songs, compared to Apple’s 5 million. But the labels have been begging for a real competitor to break Apple’s iTunes stranglehold on the digital music business, so if Amazon can make headway it will be hard for Sony and WMG to stay away.
We’ve given the store an accelerated test drive this morning (once we found it, that is — Amazon buries its beta offering deep in its home page). Snap judgment: It’s no iTunes — but it doesn’t have to be. And most important, it does indeed work with iTunes, which makes it different than any other music store to date.
The downsides: The store doesn’t work nearly as quickly or smoothly as iTunes, almost certainly because it is browser-based. Navigation is clumsy, and getting a good sense of what’s in the store is pretty tough — it’s a hunt-and-peck operation. Amazon wants you to install its own MP3 downloader, which you’ll need if you’re buying an entire album. And its catalogue isn’t as robust as iTunes’, even when comparing offerings from the same labels: EMI, for instance, sells the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed via iTunes, but Amazon only seems to have the Stone’s later-era music. Update: We should have remembered — EMI only controls the Stones’ music post 1971 music, beginning with Exile on Main Street. The earlier stuff is controlled by Abkco Music, which apparently hasn’t signed on with Amazon.
The upside: The songs Amazon does sell are usually priced at 89 cents to 99 cents a piece (though some cost more), they download reasonably quickly — and they work on iTunes. You haven’t been able to say that about any other digital music store up till now, and it’s potentially a huge deal: Amazon can now offer music as an impulse purchase to its customers — and provide the labels with their first realistic Apple alternative. Release