Words in your ear

Audible's digital Walkman delivers on-demand spoken-word programming -- but only in limited doses.

By Janelle Brown
May 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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"Audible is about deploying powerful technologies to allow a current renaissance of the spoken word to transcend the restraints of time and place. We envision the Audible.com store as a digital warehouse for a thriving culture of eloquence. The idea here is to offer words that create simple pleasures, profound emotions, insight and the capacity to be better at anything you want to do or be."

This is the introductory sound file that greets every new Audible listener -- part of a five-minute presentation by author and Audible founder Don Katz that is at once hyperbolic and ambitious. The speech leaves no doubt about Audible's goal: To turn the digital world into a cultured, thinking place. Put aside that N'Sync MP3 file, children, and tune in to a reading of Dante's "Inferno," the headlines from the Economist, or even Charlton Heston intoning passages from "The Old Man and the Sea."


Audible describes itself as an "end-to-end system for secure delivery and management of premium audio content via the Internet." In English, this means that Audible is selling not only audio files, but also a portable device that plays them. To use the most modern of digital references, the Audible player is a cross between a Rio MP3 player and a Rocket eBook. It's a digital download device that lets you grab audio books, radio shows and news reports off the Web and store them in a portable player to listen to at your own convenience.

Like both the MP3 player and the digital book industry, Audible wants to revolutionize media distribution using the Net and turn a tidy profit while it's at it. At the same time, the company hopes to, as Katz puts it, "hearken back to the best of spirit-raising preachers, to backwoods stump politicians, to golden-tongued Yankee peddlers crowing the sound of a new world into the frontier and to a glorious tradition of tale-telling that harks back to the epic poets of old." It's a grandiose goal, and an interesting product -- but with still-fledgling technology that may scare away the National Public Radio crowd that Audible covets.

Audible.com sells two products: the MobilePlayer, and the Audible audio files themselves. The MobilePlayer is basically a glorified Walkman, except that it's sleeker -- tiny and ergonomic, designed to fit in the palm of your hand -- and stores content using flash memory. To get content into the MobilePlayer, you must buy files from the Audible.com online store, download them to your PC and then transfer them to your player via a docking system.


The Audible.com store itself offers a cornucopia of notable audio files. According to a company spokesman, the most popular items are the hundreds of audio books -- the same kind of books-read-aloud you might buy on cassette tape -- but you can also pick up popular NPR content (including "Car Talk" and "Fresh Air"), grab audio headlines of the news from a number of newspapers and magazines and listen to taped speeches and conferences. You can tune in to motivational lectures that improve your business skills, listen to self-improvement books, or take in tapes of Shakespearean performances. Audible offers 15,000 hours of content at prices ranging from $199 for year-long package subscriptions to $1.95 for a single taping of, say, the day's news.

Audible sells two different versions of its MobilePlayer: a two-hour version, which costs $149, and a brand-new seven and a half hour version, which goes for a whopping $299. The two-hour version is targeted toward the commuter, and the MobilePlayer comes not only with headphones but with an adapter that will allow it to plug into your car's cassette deck. You can also "tune" your radio to pick up the content from your MobilePlayer, although this system is sometimes difficult to adjust (beware the shrieking sound when your radio isn't perfectly tuned in).

Audible is great for commuters who are also avid listeners. I, for example, immediately signed up for a daily delivery of Fresh Air, the Terry Gross interview show, which I always seem to miss. Each afternoon, Audible would send a reminder via e-mail that the fresh version was ready for pickup, which I'd then promptly download into my MobilePlayer and toss into my bag for my bus commute. I also subscribed to the daily business headlines from the Wall Street Journal (in case you're wondering, the voice of the Wall Street Journal is a stilted-sounding young man), and ordered an audio book of "Angela's Ashes" (which, with its 15-hour length, should only take me a month or two of commuting to finish).


Although the sound quality is not optimal -- on par, or worse, than an AM radio station -- it was nice to be able to tune in to my favorite NPR shows at my leisure. And, as Katz promised, I felt like I was becoming cultured; after all, I was sitting on the bus listening to the Wall Street Journal and interviews with Spalding Gray rather than idly staring at the graffiti on the seat in front of me. The experience definitely qualified as a "simple pleasure" (though those backwoods stump politicians were absent).

My initial complaint about my two-hour MobilePlayer was that it simply didn't store enough content. I couldn't take it on a road trip unless I was hauling along a laptop in order to refresh the content every two hours. The seven and a half hour version is better equipped for such use, but is still not long enough for a major road excursion. Also, although the interface for the MobilePlayer is simple -- a number of big blue buttons allow you to rewind and fast forward, bookmark segments or scroll through audio "headlines" -- it's also too opaque: A digital display that showed you what you were actually storing on your player would be better.


But more problematic is the utterly convoluted software for downloading your content to your MobilePlayer. There are three different programs involved in the download and upload of fresh audio, and each one seems to have a mind of its own. You may have six or seven pieces of content that you want to cram into your MobilePlayer, and organizing schedules and space and updates for that content is a balletic feat best suited for those who are good at complex math problems. Better instructions might help, too: Although your MobilePlayer can apparently automatically download your daily subscriptions, I failed to make this operation work despite my study of the two instruction manuals.

The main appeal of Audible is, essentially, that you can listen to audio on demand, instead of having to hit the bookstore to pick up an audio book or sit by your radio and wait for your favorite show to come on. But this, unfortunately, is still only a small advantage over the current analog options; and the Audible content management system is too limited and confusing to make it a worthwhile investment for any but the most busy and literary of technophiles.

This is, of course, a problem for most of the new portable content devices on the market; the technology still doesn't offer totally intuitive content transfer from the Web. Unfortunately, the cultured customers Audible is targeting may not have the interest or patience to deal with the technical roadblocks the product puts in their way. Audible also faces a problem in convincing consumers that it's worth shelling out a couple hundred bucks for a new piece of electronic equipment. Who needs yet another device to haul around, when your radio and Walkman can, essentially, serve the same purpose?


(According to Audible's recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings, a mere 3,900 customers have downloaded content from the Audible site, and the company had a total revenue of $376,000 last year. Still, Audible has backing from a number of big names -- including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Hambrecht & Quist, Compaq, Intel and a recent $11 million investment from Microsoft.)

In response, Audible is now pushing its subscription content into other people's devices: The company is already converting its New York Times daily readings into MP3 formats for distribution on MP3.com, and will offer a portion of its content in MP3 format for upcoming MP3 players from Diamond and Creative. As an even bigger boon, portable Windows CE devices from companies such as Casio, Compaq, Philips and Hewlett Packard are now shipping with Audible software included. The CE portables will store and play Audible content just as the MobilePlayer does. However, these devices currently hold about eight megabytes of RAM, and each hour of Audible content requires about two megabytes -- so unless you plan on keeping your CE device relatively empty of phone numbers and e-mail, you'll get only a token hour or two of audio playback before your handheld computer runs out of storage space and battery power.

Still, this seems like the direction that makes the most sense for Audible's audio-on-demand business. Perhaps the future will bring us one multipurpose portable device with endless amounts of storage space that can play on-demand MP3 music, radio and Audible audio files, and perhaps even display digital books. (Heck, toss in a cell phone for good measure.)


Right now, though, all these different products still seem to be competing for the attention of a fledgling early-adopter audience. As inspiring as Don Katz's cultural "renaissance" may be, Audible offers more prospective promise than current utility.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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