• 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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    14 Responses to “Amazon Unbox: What a Stupid Idea!”

    1. brent lee says:

      I agree! the Unbox is just another stupid worthless online store. And the un-amazon leaders did not think things through! Why am I suprized?

    2. William says:

      The funniest thing about Unbox is the device compatibility page. They have a list of about 8 players that will play the videos and a statement that devices with the “Plays for Sure” logo MAY work. Sounds like Amazon needs a “Might Play” logo.

      I think renting isn’t a terrible idea but the way Amazon is doing it kind of sucks. You only get 24 hours to watch once you start watching. As long as you downloaded the damned thing, they might give you a few days or a week!

      Can’t watch on TV, which is rather weak.

      I looked at some of the shows, and the selection looks pretty good but I think the looks can be deceiving. They have the British show “Keeping Up Appearances” but all you can do is rent 3 holiday specials.

    3. I think renting isn’t a terrible idea but the way Amazon is doing it kind of sucks. You only get 24 hours to watch once you start watching. As long as you downloaded the damned thing, they might give you a few days or a week!

      I guess they never heard of Netflix 🙂


    4. Ramis says:

      When you download music from iTunes music store, honestly, how many times have you actually burned a CD?
      You’re right, who would go through this download thing when you can buy the real DVD for a few bucks more?
      A lot of people have media center PCs. At the right price, it would be good for them.

    5. sqbate says:

      I have a feeling this service is going to seriously fail, especially if the rumours are true about the next Apple media event.

    6. justme says:

      I hope what Apple introduces on the 12th blows this out of the water, but after what I saw with the current iTMS video DRM/offerings, I have serious doubts…

      I can’t understand the concept of paying even $1.99/ea for low res video that even if it were high res, isn’t burnable to DVD…

      I’ve downloaded a few of the free specials from iTMS, but refuse to buy lower quality video than my favorite video podcasts offer for free… (Systm, Tiki Bar, TWiT.TV, MacBreak, Command N, etc)

      I’d like to see 540p videos offered… the 540p video would be good ‘nuf for connection to HDTV when the Mac was used as a mediapc, then have iTunes “automagically” downsize the same file for DVD burning and iPod use…

      If Apple manages to offer this plus a more “FairPlay” video service (burning to DVD is a must) I’ll be the 1st in line…

      I’m not going to hold my breath tho.. I think the “industry” is going to continue to make this type of thing completely useless and of little interest to the majority of people that would be interested…

      Just my $0.02US

    7. dcs says:

      Would it still be necessary to burn DVDs if you could stream downloaded movies to your TV from any Mac in your home via a new, HDMI output capable, “Airport Video Express?” Might this not be a way around restrictions on DVD burning imposed by movie studios concerned about cannibalization of DVD sales? Wouldn’t consumers prefer to get a complete audio/video server system, compatible with their new LCD or Plasma TV (even if it means shopping for a Mac the next time they buy a computer?) Of course being able to burn DVD’s would be icing on the cake, and an easier sell to consumers, but it might not be acceptable to the movie studios.

    8. TomB says:

      Agree 100%. Amazon has screwed this up big time from the starting gate. Think about the most annoyingly incompetent thing about Amazon’s CD business: there is no convenient way to listen to clips before you buy a CD. So, you either preview the CD in iTMS, or you go by reader reviews on AMZN. Or, you install cr*pware on your system, like RealPlayer.

      “I guess they never heard of Netflix”

      Is Netflix a money-making business? I’m just asking the question; I have no idea whether they are or not.

    9. jbelkin says:

      Yes, Netflix is profitable and adding users/customers at a rapid rate.

      I guess they have not noticed that in the age of the internet, anything multimedia related that is not Mac playable pretty much withers? If you don’t have Mac users (and Linux users), you have pretty much ignored the 15% that are 90% of the early adopters and early drivers … basically, it has to pass muster on a Mac (and really, the serious Linux users are all using Macs) and if it doesn’t work on a Mac or play on a Mac, you might as well just make it a Windows ’98 app and forget about making any money in 2006.

    10. TomB says:

      I guess they have not noticed that in the age of the internet, anything multimedia related that is not Mac playable pretty much withers?

      I always though it was the kiss of death when a vendor DROPPED Mac support; it’s a good indicator the product or company is struggling and likely to disappear.

      Yes, Netflix is profitable and adding users/customers at a rapid rate.

      Movies give my wife migraines; we don’t watch too many, and when we do, we tend to rent ’em at an old bricks-and-mortar video store, on DVD, of course.

    11. Peter says:

      When you download music from iTunes music store, honestly, how many times have you actually burned a CD?

      All the time. I have no iPod.

      I’m also amused at the “thousands of movies for sale, priced between $7.99 and $14.99.” Has anybody actually gone and looked at the store?

      Go to the the Unbox page, look at movies for purchase. Sort it by price, high to low. Besides that fact that it doesn’t work, you’ll see that the first page contains movies ranging from $35.99 to $16.69. The second page will show you movies ranging in price between $20.23 and $19.95. In fact, about 10% of the movies available are priced above $14.99.

    12. Faisal Ali says:

      When it comes to burning to DVD, there’s one thing that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere: Dual-layer DVD or Single-layer DVD?

      The commercial DVDs that we buy from the store are dual-layer. If they wanted to fit the movie on a single-layer DVD, then the movie would have to compressed down even more, at a loss of quality. What if you own an older Mac that only has a single-layer burner (like me)?

      I for one hope that if disc burning is supported in whatever it is Apple is planning, that they will at least give users the option to optimize the encode/burn process for either single-layer or double-layer discs.

    13. Winsor says:

      Let me see. Small discount over a retail store, but add the cost of a recordable DVD and the discount disappears or gets smaller. And it cannot be played on a DVD player. Whoa. That is attractive.

      Actually, I think videos are not near as likely to do well with sales by Apple, Amazon or anyone else. I only know one person who purchases commercial DVDs. Everyone else rents. Everyone I know who is interested in music buys. They are completely different experiences. Music is not used up with one playing. Most times a movie is used up with one playing.

    14. Terry says:

      Winsor makes a good point. video and audio are separate experiences. I don’t think you’ll see the numbers that you do in audio. You may see equivalent gross dollars. Unless, of course, you introduce kids and the fabulous “Disney Baby-sitter”.

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