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[Words in your ear]

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

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By Janelle Brown

May 3, 1999 | "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 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. 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 online store, download them to your PC and then transfer them to your player via a docking system.

The 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).

 Next page | Turn your commute into an uplifting experience -- as long as it's not too long a trip


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