Understanding more about Amazon Cloud Player and storing music in the cloud

Last week saw the UK launch of Amazon’s Cloud Player, a service enabling Amazon users to play their music stored in the cloud (through Amazon’s Cloud Drive) from any computer or Android device connected to the Internet. The service was launched in the US back in July, and now Amazon’s UK customers will be able to experience the same service. These are the main propositions that the Cloud Player is promising to offer:

  1. Your Music. Everywhere. – Seamless access to one’s music is rapidly becoming a ‘given’ when it comes to offering music services. Irrespective of the device one is using – smartphone, tablet, PC or ebook reader – users expect to be able to access music wherever, whenever. No surprise then that this is the main underlying promise of the Cloud Player: your music is available on a range of devices (e.g. Android, iPod, iPhone, Sonos, etc.) and the experience will be consistent across all of these devices and platforms.
  2. Import your music collection – Like iTunes Match and Google Play, Amazon’s Cloud Player will enable users to upload their own music collections, with Amazon matching the music on your PC to their 20m track catalogue. This means that music purchased from Amazon or iTunes or from ripped CDs will be matched against Amazon’s catalogue, upgraded (to a better audio quality where possible) and made available through the Cloud Player.
  3. Secure and easy to use – Amazon promises that for all the MP3 songs and albums users purchase or have purchased in the past will be automatically saved to Cloud Player, which means you’ll have a secure backup copy of the music you buy at Amazon. The ‘secure’ and ‘instant’ aspect are key to any service of this kind. I haven’t used the Cloud Player yet but this would be main challenges to any product or service which promises a great user experience. Is is easy to use? Does is ‘just work’?

I haven’t yet tried the Cloud Player, but reading user and expert reviews gives an interesting insight into this new service. The main thing that struck me is that users are restricted from buying songs through the Cloud Player app on Apple devices (think iPhone, iPad and Mac). This means that one can use the Cloud Player for listening and streaming on an Apple device but not for buying music. I know I’m biased (since I work for 7digital, a competitor of iTunes and Amazon Music) but this defeats the purpose of using a service that promises to work ‘everywhere’.

Main learning point: I guess the main caveat to this blog post is that, as I say, I work for a (smaller) competitor of Amazon in 7digital. At 7digital, we always try to concentrate on a consistent user experience that ‘just works’ irrespective of the device or operating system one uses. Services like Amazon Cloud Player are good solutions for anyone who wishes to ‘consolidate’ his/her music collection. I guess the main downside of using the likes of Amazon and iTunes is that they are pretty ‘vertical’ which means that their products only work totally seamlessly and as intended on their own devices and operating systems, which has bearing on the overall user experience.

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Will Bardowl become the Spotify for audiobooks?

I recently came across Bardowl, a British startup that is looking to become the ‘Spotify for audiobooks’. Bardowl provides a streaming service for audiobooks, currently only available as an iPhone app. This new service is looking to upset established audiobook download business Audible (owned by Amazon). How is Bardowl looking to do this?

  1. Streaming – Bardowl streams audiobooks directly to your (iPhone) device rather than downloading audiobooks (like Audible does).
  2. Subscription – Users will pay £9.99 per month for a Bardowl subscription which entitles them to unlimited streaming of audiobooks (applying exactly the same model that the likes of Spotify and Rdio use). In comparison, Audible offers a subscription model for its download products, with users  paying £3.99 per month for any audiobook download.
  3. Social features – Bardowl users are able to extract 30 second clips from an audiobook (think of a favourite quote or a good line) and to share these with others via Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. As a user, I can select and share a quote that has already been generated by another user or simply create my own.
  4. Instant streaming – An important factor in Bardowl’s future success will be the overall user experience, particularly thinking of the instantaneousness with which users can stream their audiobooks (after purchase) or the ease with which a user can continue to listen to a chapter even when he has lost 3G or Wifi access. Bardowl says that the app saves chapters in the “cache” so that users can listen to a book for up to 3 hours even without a signal. I liked the app’s “sleep timer” function, whereby a user can set the time after which the app should pause play. This feature will come in handy for those users who tend to listen to their audiobooks before going to sleep …
  5. Catalogue (1) – Like with all these subscription-based streaming services, the breadth and depth of Bardowl’s catalogue will be critical to its success. Typically, users expect the assortment of audiobooks to be pretty comprehensive; if what they are looking for is not there, they are likely to go and look elsewhere. It will be interesting to see what happens when Audible launches its own subscription-based streaming service; I can imagine that this Amazon owned competitor will have a head start on Bardowl when it comes to breadth and depth of audiobook catalogue.
  6. Catalogue (2) – At launch, Bardowl only offers business audiobooks but is looking to extend its catalogue soon. Publishers like Penguin, Macmillan, AudioGo, Wiley and audio-focused publishers Summersdale and Creative Content are already on board. As much as I enjoy listening to “The Maverick” by serial entrepreneur Luke Johnson, the group of people who share this pleasure is likely to be to be fairly small in comparison to, let’s say, people wanting to listen to bestsellers like “Fifty Shades of Grey”.

Main learning point: it will be interesting to see if Bardowl can indeed become the ‘Spotify for audiobooks’. I believe a lot will depend on Bardowl’s ability to quickly ramp up its catalogue as well is cross-platform reach (think tablets and different mobile operating platforms). Irrespective of what happens with Bardowl, I defintely think it is a very interesting service with a lot of potential.

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DRM free ebooks!? It is going to happen …

Last year I wrote about J.K. Rowling, author of the immensely successful “Harry Potter” series, breaking out of the traditional publishing mould by offering Harry Potter ebooks through her own site. Another interesting recent development within the ebook world is digital publishers slowly starting to drop digital rights management (‘DRM’) from their ebooks.

The main thing about DRM is that it is meant to stop piracy and to stop people from sharing content. However, DRM also makes it harder to read an ebook across different devices, limiting users to a single technology to read ebooks with.

This BBC post explains this problem very clearly: “At present a user who buys a DRM-encoded book via Amazon, for example, can only read it on one of the firm’s Kindle e-readers or a device running one of its Kindle apps. They cannot transfer the title to a Sony Reader, Kobo eReader or use it with Apple’s iBooks.”

Last month, sci-fi publisher “Tor” announced that it will release all its digital titles DRM free as early as July 2012, citing author and reader requests as the main reason for this bold move. Tom Doherty, president of Tor, explained about his readers that “they’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately-purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another.”

Going back to J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore site; she also chose to offer her ebooks DRM free (mind you, this only applies to ebooks sold through her site directly). The only thing she did do instead was inserting a digital watermark to prevent users from copying her books illegally. The question remains how many other, less ‘niche publishers will start releasing their ebooks without DRM protection. It is interesting to note in this respect that Tor  is part of Macmillan, a publishing giant, who seem to have gone for a strategy whereby DRM is dropped on a small scale first, to then roll it out across a much larger catalogue of – more mainstream – titles.

Main learning point: it will be interesting to see how many other, more mainstream publishers will follow Tor’s lead. One could argue that the effectiveness of DRM protection in light of battling piracy is limited and that therefore a better user experience should prevail. The publishing industry seems to be going for a ‘softly softly’ approach where DRM free ebooks are introduced gradually, which makes a lot of sense. From a purely personal point of view, I welcome any move towards DRM free ebooks since I think it will force publishers to rethink their anti-piracy measures and improve their readers’ user experience at the same time.

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How robust will Netflix’ business model turn out to be? – Part 3

Just as I thought that the Netflix saga had come to an end with my blog post a few weeks ago (in which I wrote about Nextflix’ CEO Reed Hastings’ announcement to split the business into two separate units), the story has taken another twist. Last week, Netflix reversed its decision to split its business into two parts, streaming (Netflix) and DVD rental (Qwikster) and became a single unit again.

In a very succinct blog post, CEO Reed Hastings wrote: “It is clear that for many of our members two websites would make things more difficult, so we are going to keep Netflix as one place to go for streaming and DVDs” but he did not offer any further explanations as to his reasons why.

What could those reasons be? Let me just speculate for a minute:

  1. Reed Hastings is speaking the truth – Netflix users genuinely struggled to have to use two different sites. Call me cynical, but surely a problem of this nature would have come to light in early stage user testing or forum groups?
  2. Too much change in one go – Perhaps the pace with which Hastings wanted to introduce business change was simply too high for most Netflix users. An official Netflix statement read: “We underestimated the appeal of the single Web site and a single service.” Nevertheless, make no mistake, online streaming does remain Netflix’ core focus going forward, despite this retracted spin-off.
  3. Unexpected amount of “churn” – The number of people who terminated their Netflix subscription as a direct result of the announced split was simply too high and was putting the overall business revenue at risk. I’m not sure if this was the case, but Netflix users still got a shock when Netflix was unified again, whilst keeping two separate price schemes for DVD rental and streaming respectively.

Main learning point: even though Netflix and its CEO were halted in their tracks to split up the business, there’s no doubt that Netflix strategic focus will be on streaming in the years to come. I’m sure that when the time is right (and Netlix’ users are ready) Netflix will spin off its DVD rental business and concentrate solely on online content streaming.

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Pottermore and the digital publishing extravaganza

ebook publishing is taking off in more way than one. Back in April the Association of American Publishers reported triple-digit growth in ebook sales. Earlier this week Louise Voss and Mark Edwards became the first “indie authors” to top the UK ebooks chart.

Finally to top it all off, JK Rowling, author of the iconic “Harry Potter” series announced yesterday that she is launching the digital version of her work on her own site and leaving her publisher in the cold.

All these interesting developments that are currently happening in the digital publishing industry, where should I start?

  1. Sign up to the digital transformation or lose out – Established publishers like Random House and Penguin are in the process of becoming a digital content provider (as opposed to just a supplier of physical or digital books).
  2. There is more to come though – Publishers are slowly starting to make content available on multiple media, in multiple formats on multiple platforms (think apps, audio, video and games).
  3. Self publishing – The recent success of authors like John Locke, Mark Edwards and Louise Voss clearly shows that authors do not need a big publisher (and its marketing budget) to be successful.
  4. Cut out the middleman – J.K. Rowling is taking self-publishing to the next level by creating her own “Pottermore” online bookstore. Even though Bloomsbury, her publisher, is said to get a set percentage, online ebook retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Nobles are likely to miss out on all the action.
  5. New tools and players galore! – Tools like Kindle Direct Publishing make it easy to publish and sell your own books. Crickey, even ebook signs can now be done online! If you still need assistance, for instance to create your interactive promotional site or to convert your book into an interactive game, agencies like Smashing Ideas and Think are more than happy to help out.

Main learning point: I learned that the face of traditional book publishing is changing rapidly. Publishers can either adapt and fully embrace this change or ‘undergo’ things halfheartedly and view it all as necessary evil. As for the latter option, the record industry made that mistake and are now paying for it dearly. I say: “bring on exclusive John Grisham content through his own interactive site, EA launching “The Last Juror” game and him throwing “The Innocent Man” videos on YouTube!”

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