Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Amazon Takes a Small Bite Out of the Apple

I'm a Mac guy, and I've loved all things Apple since I got my first computer back in college. When it came time to buy an mp3 player, there was never any doubt that it would be an iPod, and my first online mp3 purchases naturally came from the iTunes Music Store.

But that doesn't mean that I'm not open to new things, so I read with great interest earlier in the week that Amazon is now offering downloads as well, at a new portal on their site. These DRM-free mp3's will play on any player, and most songs are priced at 89 cents (that's a dime below iTunes).

Blogger Megan McArdle tried it and liked it earlier in the week, and so, in the interest of research (yeah, that's it--it has nothing to do with beefing up my already ginormous CD collection), I decided to try it as well. My verdict? So far, so good.

The process is rather simple; it installs a widget into your web browser (in my case, Safari) that helps with the downloads, but, once it's loaded, the process is simple. The download process itself is pretty speedy, and I can't tell any difference between the sound quality of the mp3's vs. the iTunes files, and Amazon sends them straight to your iTunes folder once they're downloaded.

Since Apple makes much more money from selling iPods than it does selling music, the emergence of the Amazon service won't unduly hurt the iTunes store (except maybe with those who want their music all DRM-free, all the time), and there's certainly room for two such services out there. While comparison shopping, I found out that a specific CD might be available at one store but not both, and when it is available at both, it may be cheaper at one or the other. A little competition never hurt anybody, especially when it makes more music available out there.

The one thing that I still can't quite get past, though, is this whole thing of buying music strictly in digital form. Maybe it's the fact that I've lost my entire iTunes library in two previous crashes on the Ancient and Venerable iMac (though my current MacBook obviously allows me the backup option of burning all my purchased music onto CD's, which I do anyway in order to listen to them in the car). But I think the biggest thing is that I just like the idea of a CD as something tangible--something that you can hold in your hand. My digital purchases have come about because they were either immensely cheaper or unavailable in a traditional CD format.

I also like being able to read the liner notes on a CD. As a jazz listener, I like to be able to read the backstory of the recording and find out who's playing on all the tracks, since jazz recordings are notorious for having special guests and even multiple rhythm sections on the same album. I'm sure that, somewhere down the road, the same technology that allows a CD's cover art will eventually allow the liner notes to be accessed as well (and if Apple did this, they could call it iLiner--heh). I also will certainly buy actual CD's from guest artists at the college and other people whose shows I go to see, because it would be most unsatisfying--not to mention insulting to the artists--to have them sign my burned copy that I made for the car.

So I don't think I'll ever completely stop buying traditional CD's, but Amazon's entry provides another serious alternative when going the digital route.

And in other high-tech news: Is this the future of car audio? Blaupunkt has come up with a receiver that doesn't play CD's--only mp3 and WIndows Media files.

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