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  • Amazon Unbox: What a Stupid Idea!

    September 8th, 2006

    As tech writers were predicting in recent days, Amazon has jumped into the video download arena with something with the name “Unbox,” where you can download both films and TV shows. It seems, on the surface, to be a neat idea, although other companies are already doing it. What’s more, the fact that Amazon is a major presence in Internet sales ought to be a harbinger of good tidings for video buffs.

    Supposedly thousands of movies are available for sale, priced from $7.99 to $14.99. If you’ve visited your favorite discount store lately, you’ll see that this represents a modest discount over what you’d pay for a retail, boxed copy with all the extras, alternate endings and what-not. You can rent a copy for $3.99 and TV episodes will be $1.99, each.

    But with all the hype, a few things are being forgotten about this new venture. The first, of course, is that Mac users need not apply, since it not only requires Windows Media Player, but uses Microsoft’s digital rights management scheme, so you’re stuck with Windows. All right, that’s something you have to expect, since the chance of Apple licensing its digital rights management to Amazon are at the low end of zero.

    But even forgetting that limitation, here’s another, one far more serious: You can play it on a compatible PC or video playback device, but what about a DVD? Amazon’s online instructions state: “You can store your downloaded files on a DVD or other removable computer storage device for the purpose of backup in the same format as the original files. However, any DVDs that you burn with Amazon Unbox files will not be readable by a DVD player.” That’s right. Amazon is offering DVD-quality content that you can’t play on a regular DVD. Does that make sense to you?

    The writers sucking up to Amazon so far are wondering how this will impact sales of physical DVDs, and whether brick-and-mortar retailers such as Wal-Mart might suffer. I’m more interested in how Amazon, which should know better, came up with such a lame-brained marketing scheme to begin with. I also wonder how many people are actually going to want to waste time download movies that are hobbled in this fashion, when they can buy a copy, even from Amazon, for just a few dollars more.

    Now let’s look ever-so-briefly at Apple’s standing in all this.

    Understand that nobody outside of Apple or its partners knows what sort of “Showtime” presentation you’ll see next week when it meets the press to reveal its plans, except that it’s clear that some sort of movie downloading service is part of the action. The question is not just the number of studios participating and how many titles are available, but whether you’ll be getting a better deal than the existing videos available from iTunes.

    Now, I can see paying the existing price of $1.99 for a TV show that’s of VHS quality and watching it on a computer or iPod. But if it’s going to involve near-DVD pricing, as many expect, I can’t imagine that Steve Jobs would sign up for a deal that didn’t include the ability to burn a DVD of that video that would play on a regular player.

    I suppose one could argue that this is Amazon Unbox is still experimental venture, that they are testing the waters and may eventually find the most logical marketing scheme, particularly if they don’t get a whole lot of customers right away. They may also be constrained in their contracts with the movie and TV companies, who don’t seem to understand what people want to watch and how. They must imagine we all have Windows computers around, hooked up directly to our TVs, just waiting to watch the latest stuff downloaded from one site or another.

    Whether it’s the fault of the entertainment industry, or the retailer, or both, Amazon Unbox is not going to stop people from downloading videos from peer-to-peer networks. Lest we forget, you can copy the pirated stuff onto a DVD.

    I also doubt that it’ll make much of an impact compared to sales of the real thing, although I expect there will be a flurry of activity from folks who want to give it a chance and haven’t considered its limitations.

    As for me, even without the Windows-only issue looming large, I think the whole misguided venture out to be put out of its misery.

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