Odd as it sounds, the one thing Amazon, the world's leading e-retailer, needs is a better online shopping experience. For digital media, that is. The company rolled out its Instant Videos service for Amazon Prime premium members yesterday and once again called attention to how ill-suited its online store is for browsing downloadable media.
The new deal is a good one in theory for us Prime members who already get free shipping on most physical good purchases. For the same $79 annual fee you pay for the discounted services the company is throwing in Netflix-like instant access to thousands of movies and TV show. They claim in their press release and relentlessly re-reports of same that 5,000 videos are in the streaming media library. Actually, when I went into the Instant video site myself as a customer I only saw 1,669 movies and 484 TV shows. I am guessing that those 5,000 videos count individual episodes of Father Knows Best and Mister Rogers Neighborhood, among others.
Easy as it may be to slam Amazon for the scant collection on show here (recalling the earliest days of CinemaNow, actually), that really isn't the biggest issue. I am assuming that just like their MP3 library, the films and shows will come eventually. It is the damned interface that will keep me away. In both its music and video store, the interface that serves books so well just never seemed to fit for me with lean back digital media downloads. Drop into the TV series section and you get a wall of individual seasons of Mister Rogers (not that there is anything wrong with Mister Rogers) peppered with Rocky and Bullwinkle and a lot of BBC Shakespeare. It is a remarkably unbrowsable interface that translates especially poorly on the TV screen.
In my long history of ordering and testing Amazon products on every imaginable platform, I continue to be repelled by the experience even when the price and sometimes quality are superior to competitors. In the Web interface, Amazon's Instant Videos are just another part of the mega-cross-marketing machine that is Amazon. Somewhere in the book recommendations and such I was able to find a browsing history that I guess has to serve as their equivalent to "recently watched." On Netflix I may be working my way through several movies at the same time and want to see my recent viewing in order to pick one of them back up. And I am not even a great fan of the Netflix Web or app interfaces either. But Amazon seems ignorant or unconcerned about how most people would want to engage streaming media. The player itself is rudimentary at best, with not a hint of the thumbnail fast forwarding or in-player access to other episodes you see at Netflix or Hulu.
To be fair, I streamed Amazon's instant video through Google TV, which worked well, if you don't mind navigating the typical Amazon store page on your HDTV. The top resolution I could muster was 480p, and the detail was passable on a 60-inch screen. Roku yesterday announced the service was available on their set top box via the Amazon app.Amazon may have gotten a news cycle out of their video play, but it is going to be a good long time before Netflix has anything to worry about from them.