Why Amazon Prime Gives You More Than Netflix

Almost everyone I know has a Netflix account.  Except for my family.  Instead, we have Amazon Prime.  One of the biggest features of Amazon Prime is Instant Video, a Netflix-like streaming video service.  I’m not sure if Instant Video’s library is quite as good as Netflix, so if you’re a TV and movies buff, Netflix may be the way to go.  However, as a fairly casual TV viewer, Instant Video is pretty good.  The thing is, Netflix only offers streaming video.  “Well of course,” you might be saying.  However, since Amazon has such a deep media ecosystem, Prime also gives you access to lots of other things.  Besides Instant Video, there are three main draws to Amazon Prime.

1.  Free Two-Day Shipping
This feature will save you lots of money.  Amazon already offers free shipping deals to their customers.  However, you have to spend $35 or more (yes, it used to be $25), and it’s only standard shipping.  With Amazon Prime, you get free two-day shipping with no minimum order.  This is really great, because when I need to buy something online, Amazon is the first place I look.  I’ve never been one to actually pay for expedited shipping, but it sure is nice to have.  One caveat: Prime shipping only applies to items sold by or fulfilled by Amazon, so it doesn’t apply to third-party Amazon sellers who don’t have their orders fulfilled by Amazon.  To be fair, this restriction also applies to the $35 free shipping for non-Prime customers.

2.  Prime Music
Prime Music is a Spotify-like streaming music service that is included with Amazon Prime at no extra cost.  As I said before, Amazon is able to do this because it has such a deep media ecosystem.  Netflix would have a hard time getting into the streaming music business, since they would have to start making deals with record labels, and then put all that music on their servers.  Amazon, in contrast, already sells digital music on their Amazon MP3 store, so they have less hoops to jump through.

3.  Kindle Owners’ Lending Library
The Kindle Owners’ Lending Library allows you to borrow and read thousands of books for free as a Prime Member.  The catch?  You have to own an actual Kindle (Kindle apps don’t count).  This is a shame, because I would love to make use of this service on my iPad.  If you’re not a Kindle owner but you really want access to all those books, you can make use of Amazon’s new service, Kindle Unlimited.  Amazon just recently launched Kindle Unlimited, a service that allows you to borrow and read thousands of books on any device.  Kindle Unlimited costs $9.99 per month, a cost separate from your Prime subscription (you aren’t required to have a Prime subscription, but even if you do, you still have to pay the extra $10 a month).

All that discussion leaves one question left to be answered.  How much does all this cost?  Amazon prime is $99 per year (it used to be $79).  This works out to $8.25 per month.  Netflix starts at $7.99 per month, so the pricing is almost identical.  However, when you factor in the extra features Amazon gives you (including free shipping on other things you buy), it really seems to give Amazon the edge.  Now if only there was an Instant Video channel on the Apple TV, so we didn’t have to AirPlay from the iPad every time we want to watch something.  ••

Update 11/6/14: Amazon recently announced that Prime members also get unlimited photo storage in Amazon Cloud Drive.  This is yet another reason why Amazon Prime gives you more than Netflix.

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My Wishlist for the Apple TV

My family owns two Apple TVs.  The Apple TV is a $99 set top streaming box that connects to your TV.  It can display content from iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and so forth.  There’s also a great feature called AirPlay, which allows you to stream from your iPhone, iPad, or Mac directly to the TV (this is basically the only feature my family uses).  All things considered, it’s a great piece of hardware.  But it could be so much more.  Steve Jobs once famously said that the Apple TV was just a hobby for Apple (since the market wasn’t quite ready for it).  Times have changed, however, and Tim Cook has said that the Apple TV isn’t just a hobby anymore.  There are lots of people hoping for big improvements to the Apple TV this fall, so here’s my list of features I’m hoping for.

1.  Third-Party Channels
Right now the Apple TV has different “channels,” which are very similar to apps.  For example, there’s a Music channel, a Movies channel, a Netflix channel, and the list goes on.  However, the only way for a company (such as Netflix) to get an channel is to work directly with Apple.  There is no SDK (software development kit) for developers to make channels on their own, and no store to download channels from.  In order for the Apple TV to really hit it big, this SDK and store need to happen.  For example, there is no Amazon Prime Instant Video channel on the Apple TV.  Therefore, we have to AirPlay from the Instant Video iPad app in order to use the service.  This works well enough, but it’s hardly ideal.  Opening up an SDK would also open up a whole new world of innovation.  Allowing developers to think outside the set top box could result in some really cool things, such as Apple TV games that use your iPhone as the controller (to be fair, some iPhone apps can already do this, but I’m sure it would work better if the Apple TV was more heavily involved).  Unfortunately, I don’t think this feature is going to happen this year.  If Apple intended to release an Apple TV SDK, they would almost certainly have to do so before the hardware was launched, so that there would be good channels available on the store the day it hit the market.  The perfect time to do this would have been at WWDC.  Since we didn’t see an SDK at WWDC, I don’t think we will actually see third-party channels this fall.

2.  A Real Cable Deal
My family has Dish Network.  Generally speaking, we’re happy with it, but there are a ton of channels we never watch.  As the Macworld Podcast’s Chris Breen noted, it would be awesome if Apple could partner with, say, Comcast, and have an Apple TV exclusive cable package.  This package would be relatively small, having only the most popular 30 or 40 channels (Discovery, History, AMC, etc.), but it would also be relatively inexpensive.  The key feature that really sets this apart from Netflix, however, is that it would also include locals channels – which of course includes local sports.  Live sports are arguably the biggest thing holding many people back from ditching cable entirely in lieu of Netflix.  I think my family would seriously consider switching to this Apple TV package.

3.  Supersized Today View
In iOS 7, there’s this really cool feature of notification center called the Today View.  Basically, it shows you your calendar, reminders, stocks, and the weather.  Even better, in iOS 8, third-party app developers will be able to create Today View widgets, to give you even more info (like sports scores).  Since the Apple TV is connected to a large screen, I think it has huge potential for this kind of glanceable information.  What I’m thinking of is a huge dashboard that you can look at first thing in the morning.  Instead of waking up and having to check four different apps to see how your day is going to pan out, you could just see one big screen on your Apple TV.  This would be similar to what morning shows do on The Weather Channel.  They have their main show playing in the majority of the screen, but there’s other stuff on there as well.  At the bottom is a news ticker; on the sidebar, a brief weather summary and flight delay information.  I would love to wake up and turn on the TV to see this dashboard.  I want a breaking news ticker on the bottom, and weather and traffic on the sides.  In the middle could be lots of boxes scrolling my texts, emails, Twitter feed, and so on.

And finally, I hope as much of this as possible will happen through software updates, and not hardware updates.  As cool as these features would be, I find it hard to believe my family would spend $200 to replace the two Apple TVs we already have.  Especially when most of us would probably benefit from watching less TV in the first place.  ••