(this article is a copy of a post of mine to tingilinde on 7/26/2003, which may or may not exist when you read this. the comment in the first line follows on this page)
more on buymusic.com
A few days ago I commented on the Windows online music service from Buy.com. Not having a Windows box, I wasn't able to comment on much other than what I could read on the page. As it happens I have a serious interest in this class of service, so I have asked several Windows users for their experiences and tried it over the shoulder of someone who had a new XP box.
I note that I have used and critiqued Apple's ITMS service - it is a solid first try that shows considerable clue understanding how people use music in this setting. It isn't perfect - there are many ways it could be enhanced and a few basic things are missing - but it works and its success has stimulated many others into trying (I know of a half dozen efforts at this point).
back to buymusic.com
The layout is ugly and navigation is lacking compared to ITMS. The songs download well (we tried a half dozen) although the licensing terms vary. There are real signs that this was thrown together with great haste and not everything made the deadline - there are numerous broken links and a general inconsistency to the place.
The actual act of buying is not transparent ... user agreements, entering all of your information and then going to a download page. There is no reason why a service needs to be so complicated.
Management of the music on the user's PC basically doesn't exist - you are on your own here.
We tried to burn the music to some CD-Rs. Two of the tracks burned well, but three didn't - each attempt produced a "coaster". Repeated tries to burn these three failed and each bumped the maximum number of burns category. We tried to use their tech support (email), but no replay has come in 36 hours. My guess is they are overwhelmed with questions and problems so, at this point, you are probably on your own.
The successfully burned CDs were then converted to mp3s to test transcoding between wma and mp3. Note that both codecs are lossy and source->mwa->wav->mp3 will sound worse than source->mp3 or source->wma. The test showed a noticeable degradation in quality (unfortunately I didn't have any of the standard source material used to push the codecs) ... turning up the bitrate on the mp3 step to 192kbps helped a bit, but the result was still worse than the original wma file. Both of us felt that wma->mp3(192kbps) sounded something like 96kbps mp3, but your results may vary and careful testing needs to be done. The weakest part seemed to be the addition of some artifacts on percussion. Additionally female voices sounded muddy. Transcoding is always a stupid thing to do if you worry about quality.
The service has the concept of a primary and secondary license. In theory the primary license has the ability to share music with one secondary device (say a work machine) and can write CD-Rs or transfer music to portable devices according to however the copyright owner has defined. We were unable to support multiple secondary devices. We were also unable to read files that were copied in a normal system backup (very strange). The rules suggest that you can not transfer primary licenses - if you get a new PC you (in theory) have to re-buy your music if you want primary access. I have sent mail asking for clarification on this, but haven't received a reply.
Joe (the PC owner) has three digital players. Two can handle windows media files and both claim to be SDMI compliant. We were unsuccessful in transferring music to either device and one of them crashed leaving the existing files damaged.
The quality of the music is variable. Some of it sounded fine, but one file was incomplete (buying it again indicated that the file was indeed broken) and two others sounded wrong -- like poor mp3 copies. I suspect conversions were done in batch without human monitoring (having done this sort of thing before for commercial quality).
So this strikes me as something that is unlikely to survive without major changes. The people involved probably reasoned that if they made a superficial copy of what Apple was doing, they would win due to the near-monopoly position of the PC. In rushing to service they missed numerous subtle and not to subtle points. This reminds me of the months following the success of the first iMac -- numerous PC makers repackaged PCs in colored plastic housings thinking that was the reason for the iMac's success.
There has been some initial bad press on the Net -- much of it from Mac users who offered screen by screen comparisons of buymusic and itms. Buymusic reacted by restricting access to browsers that claim to be Internet Explorer for Windows.
The worry I would have for Buy.com is that doing something this unpolished and customer unfriendly will create bad will with consumers that may transfer over to other parts of their online store.
Buy.com's CEO claimed he would be getting a million customers a day -- actually that wouldn't be a success as Apple's market share is so small. I think he needs something like five million a day to claim he has equaled what they have done. (the first cut at a number is more like 10 million, but a huge number of PCs are locked up at work at night and are unlikely platforms for the music).
Of course I may have misjudged what Windows users will tolerate - it is possible that they will be thrilled with what Mac users would consider a failing experience. Time will tell - but Joe was pretty annoyed with the service.