Caught on tape: Amazon's tech support not exactly ready to help users of its Unbox service

Caught on tape: Amazon's tech support not exactly ready to help users of its Unbox service

Summary: Relying on Microsoft's digital rights management technology (DRM), which was recently hacked, may not be the only challenge Amazon ends up facing now that it has launched its Unbox video download service.  Another one could be technical support since the service involves the installation of Amazon-specific software on customer's systems (not to mention the fact that DRM technologies have proven fallible in the past).

TOPICS: Amazon

amazoncontactways.jpgRelying on Microsoft's digital rights management technology (DRM), which was recently hacked, may not be the only challenge Amazon ends up facing now that it has launched its Unbox video download service.  Another one could be technical support since the service involves the installation of Amazon-specific software on customer's systems (not to mention the fact that DRM technologies have proven fallible in the past).

As I perused the Unbox area of, I noticed how there were quite a few technical requirements for it to work. Unbox is only guaranteed to run on certain systems with certain software and a handful of mobile devices. I can't help but wonder if Amazon is biting off more than it can chew. Being in the e-commerce business is one thing. But tackling software support? History has proven to the industry that technical support is not only really hard, but it snowballs into a far bigger cost center than anyone ever anticipates. Amazon no doubt has had to support its site for some time now. But locally installable software support en masse? It's a totally different beast.  

As such, I figured I poke around to see what exactly was available in the form of support from Amazon. A more graphical form of this can be found in an image gallery with captions and annotations that I've put together here on ZDNet (though it's not as detailed as this post).

As can be seen from the partial screenshot (right) of Amazon's Unbox help page (and in a bit of "don't call us, we'll call you"), there are only two ways to reach Amazon for technical support: (1) via e-mail and (2) via request for Amazon to call you.  Bear in mind that time could be of the essence when attempting to get help on something like a rental that expires in 24 hours. Or, what if you're about to get on a plane? In time senstive situations like these, e-mail is less than optimal. But, judging by the text in the "Contact Us" box which says "Talk to Customer Service by phone. Provide your phone number and we'll call you right away," there's a way to get more timely support.

Right away?  So, just to see how it worked, I gave it a try. I clicked the "Buy Phone" button and it led me to a Web page, a partial screen shot of which appears below:


Clicking the "Call Me" button results in a browser pop-up window in which I was prompted for my phone number and the time frame in which I wanted to receive my support call (choices were "Right now" or in 5, 10, or 15 minutes).  I picked "Right Now" and pressed the submit button, but not before queuing up my podcast recording gear to capture a recording of the call. The podcast can be downloaded, played back using the streaming player at the top of this blog, or, if you're subscribed to ZDNet's IT Matters series of podcasts, it'll be downloaded to your system or MP3 player automatically (see ZDNet’s podcasts: How to tune in). 

The phone rang nearly instaneously (it actually caught me by surprise) and as I picked it up, I thought to myself that it would be unbelievable if there was actually a human on the other end already.  As you might suspect by now, there wasn't.

In fact, as you can hear from the recording, I was passed through two recordings. The first of these said:

Hello, we'll be connecting your call momentarily, we look forward to speaking with you.

Then, I was switched over to another recording that went something like this:

Thank you for calling customer service. We are currently not available to take your call. Our regular hours are 6AM-8PM Monday through Friday and 6AM-5PM Saturday and Sunday Pacific Standard Time. Please try your call again later.

It was 6:15 AM Pacific Time. I always get Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time confused.  But maybe that accounts for why no one was there.  Daylight Savings Time or "summer time" is what makes it seem as though we have daylight until 9PM in the middle of the summer.  Normally (Standard Time), that would be 8PM.  In other words, 6:15 Standard Time ends up as 7:15 Daylight Savings Time which in turn means that 6:15 Daylight Savings Time is really 5:15 Standard Time (45 minutes early compared to Amazon's declared hours for Tech support).  Actually, this discussion is ridiculous.  It shouldn't matter.  It appears as though Amazon is trying to open its support center in time for start of business on the East Coast of the US (6AM Pacific Time is the same as 9AM East Coast Time) and it shouldn't matter what time of year it is.

When Amazon automatically hangs up the phone, the browser pop-up window transitions to a good-bye message.  I think my caption on that screen shot says it all. 

One footnote to this: The customer callback feature is only available to people in the US and Canada while nothing seems to prevent people outside those two countries from acquiring video downloads through Unbox. Given the complexities of DRM and the technical difficulties that could ensue and given the way customers can't their money back, there needs to be some verbiage on Amazon's site that this is really only for customers based in the US and Canada and that if you're not in one of those two countries, that timely technical support for the service is not available.

Topic: Amazon

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  • A smashing success

    David, you are being way too harsh. Nobody wants to watch their movies except during the day, so a problem with DRM/Service won't happen at, say 9PM on a Saturday night.

    You are also being way too harsh on DRM. it rarely ever fails, and for the 3 people it will fail for, well, they will understand completely that their lost time and money is better used in the complete success the RIAA will have at continuing to stamp out piracy.

    Also, I can certainly see my friends and family hunched around my office computer sitting on the floor as we enjoy a movie on a Saturday night. Doesn't everyone have theater seating in their office? Wait, better yet, lets all watch the 15" screen on my undocked laptop in the living room! This is a much better way to get/watch a movie than say, Netflix or driving 3 minutes to the local blockbuster. How anyone can balk at paying the same/more for the joy of watching a widescreen movie on a 19"monitor is beyond me.

    I see myself throwing out my DVD player and 37" LCD TV real soon, this is the killer video service we have all been waiting for.

    • congrats to a master of sarcasm!

      LOL! Everyone who tries to write sarcasm should study your post as an example of how it SHOULD be done.
      • Thanks

        This kind of wrote itself though, the whole scene is absurd. :-D

  • The Movie wars are over and Apple has won!

    I was so excited about being able to download movies home to a media player/computer that I went out and purchased a ?Creative Zen Vision:M?. Please note, this is the player recommended by Amazon. In fact, they are offering $20 in free video downloads if you purchase it from (This fact will be important as you read my review).

    So, my shinny new ?Creative Zen Vision:M?. is on the list supported and my trusty Dell desktop more then exceeds the minimum system requirements. , yet installing the software took almost an hour. One I resolved the software conflict; I setup an account and purchased my first movie. Down load wind informed me that my movie would take about two hours so I cooked dinner, cleaned up the kitchen and settled in for a night of movies and TV classics ?NOT!

    As you may have guessed, the movie did not download as it said it would. So I call Amazon tech support. After about two hours on hold I?m that you have to tell the media player to down load your purchase movie. Ok, I thought this was a bit odd, you?d think that by forking over $15 of cold hard cash would cause for downloading to commence. Affter an additional 2 hours the movie downloaded, at this point it late and I'm too frustrated to watch the move so I head off to bed.

    The next day I tried to move the move over to my ?Creative Zen Vision:M? -the move won't transfer. This is the same player recommended by Amazon, the same player advertise prominently on with $20 of free video downloads. I check the specks on Amazon?s UnBox site a second time to make sure I have a supported player (who knows, maybe the marketing wiz kids screwed and put their push behinded the wrong player).

    According to Amazon?s web site my player is supported. So I called Amazon and after a long wait I get another rep that says even though the device is listed on the site as supported it's not a guarantee that it will work. What?!?!

    There might be a happy ending to my story; today I went to Best Buy and exchange my Zen player for an Apple iPod. I?m not happy about Apple?s DRM monopoly, but my desire to rent/purchase movies online, messured with the Best But sales person?s push that the Apple just works convinced me to give it a try. This is my first Apple product and I'm hoping it will work. Unfortunately iTunes offers few movies, and you can?t rent them either. However, if iTunes works I'll stick it out with Apple as I'm sure they get more movies.
  • Amazon no tech support and no movies?

    Less than 24 hours after it was officially launched, I installed Amazon's Unbox video downloader/player application on my PC. Having just recently purchased a Toshiba Gigabeat S (the black 60 GB model) I have been spending about as much time searching for and installing new content to it as I have spent listening to it. Before trying to use the Unbox service I spent about an hour reading the installation instructions, FAQ, and TOS. Oddly, I found almost no discussion of portable devices, much less any list of compatible devices, support or instructions for sync'ing and use. There were passing references to portable devices, but no real nuts & bolts walk-thrus, etc. one might expect from a mass-market, user-friendly service such as Amazon.

    Ultimately I decided to surrender to intuition. I launched the Unbox application and, after checking the Help file (in vain) I clicked on the "Devices" tab. There I found a message stating "Device not detected". I proceeded to connect my Gigabeat to my PC via USB cable, power it on and click the Unbox application's refresh button on the devices tab. The screen on my Gigabeat flickered to life but, instead of displaying the familiar "Connected" message (as is typical with Rhapsody, WMP 10, and Vongo connections) a previously unknown message to the effect of "Remove Media" briefly appeared and then disappeared. The Unbox application then showed my device as successfully recognized.

    However, somewhat less encouraging was the display showing 57 GB of available storage space. In a nutshell, Amazon's Unbox software formatted my Gigabeat hard drive without any warning or request for permission. The entirety of my roughly 50 GB multimedia collection had been unexpectedly deleted in less than 20 seconds from the point I connected my device. This included MP3s ripped from my CD collection, purchased from online music stores and downloaded & licensed from my Rhapsody-to-Go subscription, several hundred digital photos, and video files including movies ripped from my DVD collection, tv programs transferred from Tivo-2-Go, and feature films downloaded and licensed from my Vongo subscription. Collectively these files had taken untold hours to download, convert, and upload to my Gigabeat. All that was left is a still-unresolved problem with my DMR licensing rights that were apparently scrambled by the Amazon software. Despite spending half of my afternoon on the phone with tech support for Rhapsody, as yet I am still unable to download anything from my Rhapsody-to-Go subscription to my Gigabeat.

    I contacted Amazon's support department via e-mail and explained the sequence of events in detail. The response I received a day later apologized for any inconvenience and blamed the drive formatting episode on my having used a device not yet "thoroughly tested" or approved by Amazon. With that, they sent me a link to the "Approved Devices" page I was never able to find. I was suprised to find that only six (6) devices are currently supported and, thus, "guaranteed" to work with the Unbox software. I was even more suprised to see that my Toshiba Gigabeat S is, in fact, one of those approved devices. Notwithstanding the fact that I had mentioned the make and model of my portable device 5 or 6 times in my e-mail to Amazon support, they ignored this and, in effect, failed to offer any credible reason for problems occurring with one of their supposedly "tested" and "compatible" devices.

    Unless and until Amazon can either explain or resolve the spontaneous formatting of a preferred portable device, I plan on holding off any further use of the Unbox product. Unfortunately, the unauthorized Internet access and spyware-like behavior described in CNET's 9/08/06 Buzz Out Loud podcast (titled "Stay Away From Amazon Unbox") only compounds my skepticism for the state of the software at present. I hope this post helps others to make an educated decision on whether to use the Amazon software, too.