Thursday, September 27, 2007

Amazon's Unveilings

Full disclosure: I worked at Amazon this summer, for those of you who didn't know, and I was not a part of creating the new mp3 store or the new site navigation. I did see the new navigation, and had some time to play around with it, but I didn't actually tell anyone about it or blog it, for that matter, because it wasn't public.

Amazon finally opened their music store, and I was pleasantly surprised. My earlier impressions of it were that it would end up being an unfortunate mess, but I think they've really come a long way since what I had been hearing about it. All the music is totally free of DRM and features UMG, EMI, and tons of indie labels. The only reason they're missing Sony BMG and Time Warner, I imagine, is that they haven't let go of DRM yet.

There are a few reasons why I really like it and have faith in it. You can basically download the music from anywhere, you just need a browser. Strangely, you need a downloading tool to get an entire album, but this is nice because it doesn't require additional software (though I wonder if Amazon is working on an iTunes-like player to supplement this) to get a random song. This means that smartphone users could probably download music from Amazon MP3 and sync with their computer later, so this would even better compete with iTunes. I like how easy it is to preview tracks: you can forward through them after hitting "Play All", you can hit the play button next to each track, and it's much more responsive than iTunes is. These previews aren't just available for an album or artist, they're for search results also. The pages overall are clean, and the album pages have direct links to the CDs in case you want to buy those instead (the CD pages now have the same preview functionality, much better than what it was like before). To top it all off: the top 100 songs at any given time are $0.89 (with songs usually priced at $0.99) and the top 100 albums are $8.99. Overall, it's an easy shopping experience.

There are some problems though. For one thing, if albums can cost as much as $11.99 (maybe higher, I haven't browsed thoroughly), won't they be as much as the hard CDs? Then all you're saving on really is shipping. You can't re-download tracks once you've bought and downloaded them once, which isn't that big of a deal since it's not like you could on iTunes and if you could then you could just give out your account information to friends and they could all have your music very easily. I'm sure they are tracking your purchases for recommendations though, which is another thing they should flesh out more (and knowing Amazon, I'm sure they are). Why do we need software just for album downloads? That's weird. It's kind of like Down Them All: it only appears when you click to download a song or album. It sounds like bad design, to be honest, that you can't download full albums from the site, but maybe there's a better reason or maybe it's something they'll hammer out now while in beta.

Why are their odds good? They're Amazon. They have a huge brand name, they have really smart people, and they can probably personalize, recommend, and cross-promote stuff better than iTunes can without being obtrusive and, hopefully, while staying fast, convenient, and cheap. I think they're very well aware of the business model, so I believe in them.

I have to go pretty soon, but real quick: Amazon has started a Web Lab for their new global navigation. Basically, only a portion of visitors will see the new design, and they'll use data from these visitors' clicks to determine if it's good or bad or needs tweaking or what before they roll it out. I was at first very stubborn about the new design, but it didn't take me long at all to embrace it whenever I went back to the current Amazon site. It makes a lot of things better and easier. You always have access to the entire site in the corner of the screen, the top bar gets a lot smaller, you can see what's in your cart without clicking to it, etc. They put a lot of time, thought, and effort into this design, so don't discount it as some overnight impulse change or anything. They're really focused on making the site easier to navigate, faster to use, and more visually appealing. If you manage to see the new site, definitely play around with it. In my opinion, it's their largest overhaul of the UI since first opened its doors over 10 years ago, and it probably actually is.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Stay Tuned

Ok, I totally have to blog about Amazon MP3, but I have a Finance exam in about 10 hours so just wait a bit. I just need to get this exam out of the way...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Piracy Beats Legitimacy?

I know, I kinda fell off again. I have pretty bad luck, let me tell you. Every week bad stuff just seems to happen. Last week, I was consumed with interviews for NSC and that was followed by a crisis for someone dear to me, and then I had a project due at midnight last night.

Still, I wanted to crank out a small post in the new format I decided to move to. At the heart of what I want to talk about is this article. When it's easier to pirate stuff than get it legally, what do you do? I mean the advantage with movies to buy the real DVD from a bootleg copy is better quality, and it's more reliable, right? And with books it's just a lot more convenient than trying to copy a book you borrow from a friend or something. With TV shows, do we have that? It turns out that not only can you get high quality copies of popular shows, as we all knew, but it's easier than ever now for non-techies. The program described in that article will literally just pull new shows you your computer as they're available, and there's no restrictive DRM on it or anything! Why would you turn to iTunes, which NBC has abandoned, has only comparable quality, and is strapped with DRM?

Basically, the studios need to use their heads and collaborate with Apple or another major player (who else is there that big though?). They need to hand over more content, and Apple needs to compete better with pirates. When it comes to digital media, it's beyond just delivering content, it's about making it faster, easier, and better quality than pirated copies at an affordable price. They're failing to do this, and their success is limited and will stay limited until they try to progress. How long has iTunes had video now? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it was the Fall before last. So why hasn't it gotten much better?

To top it off, Winamp is bringing the heat with the support of mp3 blogs for you to stream your libraries as you listen to them. Oh, and it makes it easier to host an mp3 player, much easier than back in the pre-Napster days. I haven't used Winamp in forever and even I'm tempted to get this new version. Who knows, I may try it out later tonight. Not territory iTunes will enter anytime in the forseeable future anyhow, it focuses too much on simplicity whereas Winamp focuses on the music geeks.

I love Ars, so I'm plugging their iPhone Touch review. It's a great read, as always.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Touchy Touchy

There it is, the new iPod Touch from our friends at Apple. It's literally the iPhone minus the phone, but you can see for yourself. Apple made an announcement on Wednesday that could be construed as ruinous as it was amazing. They decided to drop the iPhone price to $400 (only an 8GB model now), and strip off the phone part of it to make this new iPod available for only $300, in addition to revamping most of its iPod line. Considering that it only has 8GB, that's a big pricey, but you can double the capacity for another hundred bucks. I love Apple's strategy: making you feel warm and fuzzy about handing your money over to them by selling it you at a ridiculous price at first and then stripping it down for a much cheaper, but still high, price. What's you're clearly paying for here is the style and design, but that's arguably what you pay for in all Apple products, I suppose. I'm not here to trash this new iPod though, because I think it's something that was bound to happen and will do extremely well. The iPhone is an amazing mp3 player. If you're ok with not being too fancy though, you can get an 8GB iPod Nano for $200, and a 4 GB for just $150. Here's where I think they fell short: why do you need two Flash-based mp3 players at the same capacity? Why wouldn't they put more capacity in the Nano rather than doing a re-design? Did it really need a fatter screen to play video and have a visual interface like the iPhone?

One can't deny though that their iPod line looks pretty damn cool now. It's pretty and what's really nice is that they've really fleshed out the gamut of prices. Heck, they even have the jukebox market covered with the iPod Classic at a paltry $249 for 80 GB and a hundred more 160 GB while sporting a visual interface almost identical to the new Nano. Some say this is dumb, but I think it's smart. You have to have a hard-drive based mp3 player to keep it cheap but with a large capacity.

The worst thing they did though was to have such a big change so early and the best thing they did was the iTunes WiFi store. Ok, so I know that the Apple marketing guys are brilliant and they always have a plan, but why would you alienate iPhone first adopters so early? We all knew it was going to have to happen at some point, but if you did it in like mid-October then surely no one would criticize Apple as having made the price artificially high at launch or anything like that. I know it's been a little over 2 months now, but that's not a long period of time for technology to advance them to cutting the price by a third. At least they're going to give early adopters a $100 rebate. Plus, if they had waited a little longer they could start selling these other iPods and opening the WiFi store the day of the announcement, and maybe even put more capacity on the Nano (theoretically). So why, Apple? Why did you shoot yourself in the foot? They have to have something up their sleeve here. There's something I'm not seeing, and it's driving me a little nuts. I'll try hitting up some tech podcasts and see if any of the other pundits have reasonable ideas. Could they really be planning for something bigger just before the holiday season? Because it looks like all their cards are on the table, unless they're going to have new laptops or something out in November.

Ok, well now back to what they did right: that WiFi store. Totally genius, and a long time coming. I wonder if Microsoft is kicking itself at all knowing that this should've been then. It should've been their gravy train. They totally dropped the ball on the Zune and handed it right over to Apple. Apple took that ball and filed a patent, and ran with it. The iPod Touch and the iPhone will both soon be able to buy music (not video content, yet) wireless, and when you dock to your computer it'll sync up so that your iTunes will also have the music. Quick, easy, and pain-free. Of course, it's stupid that you have to pay another buck to convert songs you bought into ringtones, but I'm sure that's for royalty purposes. Anyhow, people bored on buses or in class can now use that time to quickly hand over more money to Apple, which they can now use to keep labels on board since no other mp3 player does this. Smart, huh?

Of course, not everything is well with the iTunes music store. NBC isn't happy. Apple claims that they want to double the price of shows, whereas insiders retort that Apple actually wants to cut prices in half. Things are so heated that NBC has even turned to the DRM-restrictive Amazon Unbox for more flexible pricing. Now I love Amazon, but Unbox still has serious issues. For having so many developers who love Linux, it amazes me that Amazon Unbox doesn't support Linux because they're using that stupid Microsoft DRM technology. Anyhow, Apple must be out of its mind to think that they can cut prices in half. We'll see what happens though, but I think they'll find that these studios are even less open-minded than the record labels are.

The New Format

Hey gang! So, I've been gone for a while, I know. I assure you that it was not my intention to abandon this blog, but things got hectic. Through only my own fault I did something stupid and added all this extra work onto myself. Things with NSC have been crazy busy. I have all this work to do for school. I think I've made some of the people I love dearly hate me. It's been kind of an intense and kind of a crazy start of the semester.

In a lot of ways, it's nice to be back in Austin. I've missed this place so much. When I walked around campus for the first time in 3 months, I couldn't help but smile at the little things. Shivers ran down my spine when I went to the Rec Center for a workout. I felt all warm inside to walk down into Taylor basement. I felt happy again when a certain person came over to study. I have a full docket of 15 hours though. Foundations of Finance and of Marketing don't seem too difficult, but all my CS classes will be challenging: OS, Computer Vision, and Network Security and Privacy. I feel like I'll enjoy that last class the best though. I'm worried about how much I'll like Computer Vision, but we'll see. It's a bit more math intensive than I would've preferred.

Overall, I don't know how I feel though. I feel like my feelings are clouded my all these other things that have been going on. I'm scared of a lot of things, but I'm optimistic about others. I went to Copa last Thursday and I was really bad. Hell, maybe I was never good at Salsa. But you know what? I'm not done. Not by a longshot. Even if it kills me, I will one day be the kind of dancer that girls will long to dance with. I'm not done with anything. I can be a better student. I can be a better speaker. I can be a better person. I can be more loveable (probably =P). I can be more fit. I can be a better cook. I can be a better driver. I have all these lofty goals in front of me now, but I can get through it all, I think. I'm done selling myself short.

Unfortunately, my life has definitely gotten too busy for me standard blogging schedule. What I've decided to do is to change the format of the blog to where I blog about a few things whenever I think they're interesting to talk about. I'm not going to talk about everything interesting anymore, I'm going to pick out the best stuff and talk about them when I can make time for it. In fact, I'm going to talk about the Apple announcement right after I wrap up this post. This is the only way I can keep this blog together, because I don't want it to disappear. I fear somehow that it may take a part of me with it, and I can't afford that.