Amazon's weird, great place in the digital media market

Amazon is part of the media scene on every major device these days. Bully for them.

I wrote a feature for Lifehacker about when it makes sense to buy music and movies from Amazon. To summate, the answer was “Yes, it makes sense, and for some people it makes more sense than buying from Apple or Google.” Which goes to show you how hard Amazon has worked to sell music, movies, and even app on devices where it’s competing against the device-makers themselves.

Amazon’s MP3 store is impressive, both for its selection and for its pricing. There are timed, themed sales and ridiculously deep cuts on brand-new albums. I picked up Frank Ocean’s acclaimed Channel Orange for $3 on one such sale, though it’s still only $5. Currently, Channel Orange costs $12 on iTunes, and $11.50 in Google’s Play Store.

Android and iPhone devices, naturally, offer means of downloading and playing your purchases from their makers’ stores. Amazon created its own Cloud Player service and apps for each platform, so one can stream their purchased music over a network, or save tracks for later offline listening. Now they’ve done the same thing with their Instant Video store, which offers similar one-off and regular discounts as the music store. It’s a bit trickier with video, though, because no movie or TV studio is going to allow DRM-free downloads. So Amazon, again, has created its own web-based streaming service, and a just-released iPad app for Instant Video that has the awkward handicap of not including any links or suggestions about where you actually buy those videos you see there (in a browser, away from the app, per Apple’s rules). Still, you can watch what you’ve bought or rented, online or offline.

Which brings us to the strangest quirk of all: Amazon not offering a video app for Android devices. Amazon must have put some serious effort into getting a video app created, working smoothly, and approved for the iTunes App Store. Yet not only is Google’s Play Store more permissive and open to third-party stores and commerce, but Amazon already has a pretty good handle on Android development and video delivery on Android, having created, you know, their own Android-based tablet, the Kindle Fire. Does Amazon see the Android ecosystem as a place where their devices can claim some market, with their own Appstore, books, videos, music, and so on? If so, is the Apple device market something else entirely, a realm in which it’s better to just play ball? It would seem to run against what I believe to be their unofficial slogan of “Frictionless selling: whatever, wherever, as soon as possible.”

But even if Amazon is holding out for a likely ill-advised run at dominating the Android tablet market, I can’t help but cheer for them a little. They’re forcing the device makers to improve their offerings and stand by their marketplace principles. They’re not the underdog, by any means, but a nice little slice of lime in the soda.

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