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Amazon MP3 Takes on the iTunes Store has launched a public beta of Amazon MP3, a digital music store that provides DRM-free downloads of over 2 million songs from 180,000 artists and 20,000 labels. In comparison, Apple says the iTunes Store now contains over 6 million songs.

According to Amazon’s press release, most of Amazon MP3’s songs are priced between $0.89 and $0.99, with more than 1 million songs in the current catalog available at $0.89, a full $0.40 less than Apple’s iTunes Plus songs. Most albums in Amazon MP3 are priced between $5.99 and $9.99, again a bit cheaper than albums in the iTunes Store, which generally check in at $9.99.

All songs in Amazon MP3 are encoded at 256 Kbps, which is comparable to iTunes Plus songs, although in theory, the iTunes Plus AAC format could provide better quality than the MP3 format used by Amazon. Because Amazon is using MP3 and avoiding DRM entirely, songs purchased from Amazon MP3 are playable on any device, including the iPhone and iPods, along with Macs, PCs, and music players from other manufacturers.

Individual tracks can be purchased directly from a Web page, but to buy an album, you must first download and install the Amazon MP3 Downloader, available for both Mac OS X and Windows (a 615K download for the Mac version). Reportedly, a Linux version is in the works.

In my testing, the Amazon MP3 Downloader worked acceptably, but it was a distinctly clumsier experience than purchasing from iTunes. Clicking a Buy button on the Amazon Web site downloaded a document to my Desktop. I believe the Amazon MP3 Downloader was supposed to open it and download the actual song, but I had to double-click the file manually, likely because Amazon wasn’t expecting that I’d be using a browser other than Safari (I generally rely on OmniWeb). Once opened in Amazon MP3 Downloader, the song was downloaded to an Amazon MP3 folder in the Music folder and then sent over to iTunes, which, at least for my setup, means that it was duplicated, since I keep my iTunes Music folder on a server for shared usage and copy music to
that folder when adding it to my iTunes Library.

Songs I purchased were encoded at between 208 Kbps and 256 Kbps using variable bit-rate (VBR) encoding, and the free sample song was encoded at 280 Kbps VBR. Sound quality was certainly fine to my ears, though I’m no audio connoisseur. The metadata was complete and album artwork was either included or picked up automatically by iTunes.

Not Too Shabby — Amazon MP3 is the first online music store besides the iTunes Store that hasn’t left me cold. Its advantages are very real:

  • No DRM. No consumer likes DRM, and although Apple wouldn’t comment when I asked them for statistics on how the DRM-free tracks from EMI have sold in comparison with the DRM-encumbered versions of the same tracks, Amazon has done the right thing by eliminating it across the board. Hopefully Amazon’s move will give Apple some leverage with the music labels to make more DRM-free tracks available. On the other side of the equation, the labels may be trying to use Amazon MP3 to pressure Apple into allowing variable pricing, but considering how much lower Amazon’s variable pricing is, I can’t see Apple changing.
  • iPod compatibility. Thanks to the lack of DRM, and in particular, Windows-specific DRM, songs purchased from Amazon MP3 will play on an iPod, something that has never been true for a mainstream online music retailer (other than Apple) before. (And by “mainstream,” I mean a retailer who is licensing music from major labels.)
  • Low prices. I don’t have a sense for how price-conscious the online music market really is, but with many tracks priced below even the cost of Apple’s DRM-encumbered tracks, and albums priced even lower, I could see budget-driven consumers or those who buy a lot of music preferring to purchase from Amazon MP3 over the iTunes Store.
  • 1-Click shopping. People do not like creating new accounts for shopping, but there’s no question that some people shop from Amazon over other venues purely because it’s such a known quantity after years of easy ordering. Ordering via Amazon MP3 isn’t as easy as from the iTunes Store, but it’s not far off.

I don’t think Amazon MP3 will be putting the iTunes Store out of business by any stretch of the imagination. It’s competitive, thanks to the lack of DRM, low prices, and ease of shopping, but it’s clumsier than using iTunes, and everyone who has an iPod will be using iTunes anyway to sync music, so it’s not as though Amazon can ever get as close to the iPod as Apple can. The good news is that by releasing an online music store that doesn’t suck, Amazon has given Apple some real competition, and where there’s competition, there’s innovation.

Of course, the next question is if Amazon will translate these advantages in Amazon MP3 (no DRM, Mac-compatible, integrated with iTunes) to their Amazon Unbox video download service. Were that to happen, the iTunes Store would have significantly more competition.

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