Books to go with digital talk service

July 31, 2000|By Mike Himowitz

While the online world was focused on the battle between Napster and the recording industry last week, a small but innovative New Jersey company called Audible Inc. came up with an interesting proposal.

Audible's business is digital talk, not music. As in talking books, newspapers, magazines, lectures and speeches. You can download a talking book from Audible's Web site (for a price, of course) and then transfer it to a portable player, which you can take with you when you're in the car, mowing the lawn or jogging. Some MP3 players, such as the Rio 500, can handle Audible's highly compressed format. So can the new generation of Pocket PCs.

As a lover of books on tape, which turn an otherwise boring hour in the car into an agreeable journey each day, I think Audible has a good idea. However, like most dot-com start-ups - particularly those in niche markets - the company is still in the red big time, and its stock has taken a beating since January.

So I was intrigued by an announcement that Audible was starting a monthly subscription service. Customers can download any two titles a month for $9.95 and any five titles for $19.95. If you're a really serious listener, or you have the world's worst commute, for $29.95 you can add unlimited access to the company's daily recorded digests of major periodicals and National Public Radio broadcasts.

At the low end, this strikes me as entirely reasonable. While I can borrow books on tape for free from the library, I still have to schlep there and back to borrow and return them. Since I'm occasionally forgetful, I wind up spending a couple of bucks a month on overdue charges. I also have to settle for whatever titles are on the shelf when I walk in the door. Some weeks it's a gold mine, other times it's a desert. All things considered, Audible's offer sounds like a good service at a fair price.

True, there are limits. One is copy protection. When you sign up with Audible, you register a particular PC and a particular digital player. The music files will only work on that equipment. If I try to make copies and give them to other people, they won't work. I can give or lend a real book or a cassette to someone when I'm finished, but I can't transfer an Audible book without parting with my player.

So downloading a digital book from Audible isn't the same as owning the original. I don't have the same right to dispose of it as I choose. On the other hand, I've never listened to a book twice, so there's no harm done as far as my personal pleasure is concerned. Since I'm paying a fraction of the cost of the real thing, the tradeoff may be worthwhile.

The important thing is that Audible isn't trying to rip off its customers, and I hope it succeeds. The recording industry should consider this when it decides what to do now that it has won federal court victory over Napster in California.

For decades, the industry has gouged the public with outrageously high prices for CDs that pack 10 or 12 minutes of real entertainment into an hour of junk that nobody wants to hear. That's one reason why millions of listeners have converted their favorite tracks to digital MP3 music files and exchanged them illegally over the Internet - using Napster and other services - with absolutely no feelings of guilt.

If Napster is shut down for good, or at least in its current form, the same music fans will find other ways to trade MP3s. Napster was an easy target for the industry because its system served as a central directory for its users. But there are other Internet file-sharing programs, such as Gnutella, that don't require a central server. They can be just as effective over the long run and create an almost impossible target for the industry's army of lawyers.

At the moment, however, they're not as easy to use or as well known as the phenomenally successful Napster. This gives the recording industry some breathing room to come up with a plan to sell its music online. But it has to come up with a scheme that doesn't have the smell of a rip-off.

For years, the record companies held the line against selling their music online because they had a huge financial stake in preserving a system that makes big money for them and the retailers who peddle their CDs. But that position was based on the assumption that the industry could control the technology that creates music and the system that distributes it.

Now it has neither, and its main reaction to the change has been to sue everybody in sight.

True, some record companies, including Sony and EMI, have been working on schemes to sell their titles online. The industry itself has been squabbling over something called the Secure Digital Music Initiative, a set of technical standards for copy protection of digital music files.

A handful of companies, including Liquid Audio and Microsoft, have come up with new digital file formats that enable some form of copy protection, and many of the portable digital music players on the market can handle them.

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