It is amusing that was positioned to try to address SimpleDB's problem of "pricing complexity". These aren't those complicated "Machine Hours", they're "Capacity Units"!
As someone who has grappled in the past and is grappling again with the issues of pricing a database-as-a-service though, this is very much a non-trivial issue. If you have nice scaling characteristics and you want to charge the minimal price, your price isn't going to be predictable. Essentially, what Amazon have done here is to set a cap and then charge you the cap irrespective of actual usage, which seems to be the model that's winning on the cloud.
Capacity Units strike me as a big improvement (for the user) over Machine Hours, because it's very clear how a given usage pattern will translate into Capacity Units. I can predict how many Capacity Units I'll need. I've gotten badly burned over seemingly simple queries using unexpectedly high Machine Hours in SimpleDB.
My understanding is that DynamoDB's Capacity Units are just a query throttle, and you get charged based on the throttle you set, whether or not you use that capacity. It also looks like you can still have one query that consume many, many Capacity Units (e.g. table scans).
SimpleDB's Machine hours are basically the same units, but without the throttle.
So, from a technical and value viewpoint, it's a huge step backwards (pay for capacity rather than for usage), but I'm learning that psychology is perhaps just as important here.
It seems like what you really want is a throttle with per-query charging, to cap your bill. Probably you'd much prefer not to be forced to pay your cap every month, but I don't think that's being offered.
(Edit: Downvotes? Am I wrong here? If so, please contribute to the discussion and tell me why!)
True, it's pay-for-capacity and that's worse for the user. On the flip side, the constant factor seems to be about 20x cheaper (caveat: this is based on my personal experience with SimpleDB; since Amazon doesn't seem to explain how "box usage" is computed, I don't know how broadly applicable my experience is).
The big plus for Capacity Units is that Amazon actually provides a deterministic model for figuring out what you'll be charged for a given query.