Monday, December 24, 2012

Does ease of use matter? Amazon hopes not

During the peak of the Steve Jobs era, Apple’s competitive advantage was a unique combination of three factors:

  • creating or re-inventing product categories, whether the GUI PC, MP3 player, smartphone or tablet
  • elegant industrial design; and
  • superior ease of use.
The goal, of course, has been to sustain the obscene gross margins that have been part of the company’s DNA for 30+ years, enabling it to plow back money into R&D to create the next great thing.

Of course, neither its competitors nor customers are content to let it enjoy those margins in perpetuity. Windows 95 was demonstrably inferior to Mac OS, but it was good enough and ran on cheaper hardware available in a wide range of models from dozens of companies. The "good enough" knock-off nearly killed Apple until the late great Steve Jobs came back and saved the company.

The company still loses its way now and again, as when I try to get its buggy mail client or crash-prone web browser to work in the real world. (The company is best when it controls the end-to-end experience and worst in the wild-and-woolly world of semi-open semi-standards.)

Still, I get reminded now and again how terrible its competitors are. Last year, I spent a week as an Android user before giving up, while my teenager still has a love-hate relationship with her Android phone (to the point that she uses her aged iPod Touch more than the newer and nominally more capable phone).

And then there’s my awful experience with Amazon today and their special Xmas Eve sale on a slew of MP3 albums — $1-2 each for album downloads by Legend, Red, greatest hits by Abba, Carpenters, Johnny Cash, Hall & Oates, Bob Marley, Simon & Garfunkel, Taylor Swift.

I’ve been buying (or at least downloading) Amazon MP3 files for four years, and the experience on the Mac has always had its quirks. The initial model was pretty simple: click and download an MP3 file (like you’d download an installer or PDF). But for multi-songs, they made you install their downloader to parse .amz files, which generally worked well once you had it — at least until today.

Then I spent my $3.98 for two albums (Johnny Cash and Simon & Garfunkel) and still have no songs to show for it. The web client insisted that I install their super-duper special downloader, even though the downloader was currently running on my machine.

In the old Amazon model, tech support would show you a hidden back door to re-download your songs. Now, all your songs become part of the “Amazon cloud player” and you have to manually select each song (not an album) and then apparently register any device to download the songs. As I write this, I’m still waiting to hear from Amazon tech support as to how to get my songs — it’s a busy day for digital downloads, so I may not get an answer before I leave home to start our family celebration.

As with most users, I don’t care whether I get my songs (if I can get them) between Amazon or Apple: it's the same content either way, just delivered in a different format via a different channel. So that leaves price and (at the margins) ease of use.

Apple still has a superior experience for music downloads, although their commanding lead for US music downloads probably has more to do with their head start and dominant MP3 market share. Conversely, Amazon’s dominance in book downloads is more likely due to its readers than a superior product or ease of use.

So Apple’s opportunity is to keep (or gain) market share based on ease of use. Amazon got me to try their MP3 service by offering free songs, and I will continue to take their free songs (as with the dozen free Xmas song I downloaded in the last hour). But if the price is the same, I’ll go with ease of use, and for downloading songs Apple still has Amazon beat.

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