By John Gruber
Journey across Bhutan with Gray Langur. October 16-29, limited availability.
The new Amazon MP3 Store looks like no previous iTunes Store rival. The music is completely DRM-free, encoded at a very respectable 256 kbps, includes a ton of songs from major record labels, and offers terrific software support for Mac OS X.
When you purchase singles, you can download them directly via your web browser. When purchasing entire albums, however, Amazon requires the use of a helper application called Amazon MP3 Downloader. When you download it, you get a disk image containing an installer. Reminiscent of Google’s installer for Google Desktop for Mac, unfortunately, there’s no indication of what the installer is going to install. As far as I can tell, though, the only thing it installs is an application called Amazon MP3 Downloader in your top-level Applications folder.
When you purchase albums from Amazon, your browser downloads a .amz file, which opens in Amazon MP3 Downloader. Amazon MP3 Downloader then begins downloading the tracks from the album.
By default, tracks are stored in a new “Amazon MP3” sub-folder inside the Music folder in your home folder. Amazon MP3 Downloader also opens the files in iTunes, importing them into your iTunes library. This means, assuming you have iTunes configured to copy files when importing (which is the default), that you get two copies of the songs: one in the ~/Music/Amazon MP3/ folder, and one inside your iTunes library folder, which, by default, is ~/Music/iTunes/. This seems utterly reasonable.
There’s a very high “it just works” factor here. Music is easy to find, easy to buy, and easy to download once you have the Amazon MP3 Downloader installed. When you download music with Amazon MP3 Downloader, it simply shows up in iTunes, as you’d expect, with no manual importing or additional action required on the user’s part. Sync your iPods, and the new music shows up there, too.
The songs sound great and come with high-resolution album art. Singles cost $.89 or $.99, and album prices start as low as $4.99 — i.e. they’ve introduced variable pricing to sell music for less, not more, than the iTunes Store. When you search for songs from an artist whose entire catalog is not available through their MP3 store, Amazon provides a direct link to the artist’s catalog in their CD store.
Two million total songs is far less than the six million Apple offers at the iTunes Store, but it’s a pretty good start, and all of Amazon MP3’s songs are DRM-free. I’m not sure how many DRM-free iTunes Plus tracks Apple offers, but it certainly seems like far fewer than one-in-three, and thus far fewer than two million. So while Amazon can’t claim to offer the most songs, they might be able to claim the most DRM-free songs.
In just a few minutes of shopping, I found plenty of songs at Amazon that are only available from the iTunes Store with DRM. Given the Amazon MP3 Store’s audio quality, prices, and user experience, I can’t see why anyone would buy DRM-restricted music from iTunes that’s available from Amazon. And given that Amazon is quite a bit cheaper than iTunes Plus, you might as well check Amazon first. I plan to. (Amazon’s biggest shortcoming compared to iTunes might not be the selection, but the fact that it’s currently limited only to the U.S.)
The Amazon MP3 Store is clearly the biggest and best rival to the iTunes Store. It’s not a coincidence that they’ve eschewed DRM completely.