Downloading Books From the Web Makes for an Audible Pleasure
By Michael J. Himowitz

(FORTUNE Magazine) – I've been hooked on books on tape for years. Instead of swearing at commuter traffic or suffering the tedium of long trips, I've been entertained by the likes of Russell Baker, Lawrence Block, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Zane Grey, Homer, Stephen King, John Le Carre, Louis L'Amour, and Jonathan Swift.

So naturally I was intrigued when I heard about Audible Inc.--an Internet startup that bought the digital rights to thousands of these recorded books, lectures and speeches, financial periodicals, and publications like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal--and delivers them to buyers over the World Wide Web.

To hear them, you'll need the Audible Mobile Player, a 3.5-ounce, hand-held digital recorder that downloads the books from your computer. The base model, with two hours' worth of memory, sells for $99 if you commit to buying $120 of books during the course of a year. A new 7 1/2-hour player will be available soon for $299, with no minimum purchase requirement. You can listen to Audible's player through headphones, hook it up to your car's tape deck with a standard cassette adapter, or broadcast the audio directly through an unused channel on your FM radio.

In practice the system worked as advertised. I unpacked the mobile player, hooked its docking cradle to the serial port of my computer, installed the Windows 95/98 software, and registered with Audible's Website in less than 15 minutes. After browsing through the catalog online, I entered my credit card information and downloaded several titles, including Jeffrey Archer's The Eleventh Commandment. At $7 for most abridged books and $10 for unabridged versions, Audible's downloads cost less than half as much as the tape editions and about 25% less than tape rentals.

Because recorded books contain voice only, they can be highly compressed; in fact, Audible says its proprietary technology provides six times the compression of the MP3 scheme commonly used for music on the Web. Even so, a six-hour abridgment of Archer's novel occupies about 12 megabytes, which means downloads can take a while over dial-up connections. To deal with this issue, Audible allows you to buy a title at any time and to schedule the download at night while you're sleeping or whenever it's convenient.

With audio files squeezed this tightly, don't expect CD-quality sound. While the voices are easily understandable, they lack resonance and timbre, particularly when you're using the player's FM broadcaster. I had better results using the cassette adapter, but both were acceptable.

Audible also provides a reasonable compromise between your rights as a buyer and the book publisher's right to prevent piracy. You can register two computers for download and playback, but the files are encrypted specifically for your hardware. That means you can listen to a book as many times as you want, but your book won't work with someone else's computer or mobile player. Obviously this setup isn't as flexible as owning a tape, but it's much cheaper and it allows you to back up your files for safekeeping.

The most serious limitation of Audible's system is the current player's skimpy two-hour memory. It is fine for daily use but not for a long trip (unless you're willing to have your laptop ride shotgun while wired to the player and feeding it information). Once you're home, Audible's clever transfer software figures out what you've listened to and "tops off" your player with new material when you slip it into the docking cradle.

Audible eventually wants to get out of the hardware business altogether. To that end, it's making deals to incorporate its software in new models of hand-held computers that run Windows CE, which have recording and playback capability. (Already, owners of Windows CE devices can download the player software from Audible's Website.) Audible is also working with other companies to make its content available in a secure MP3 format.

Even with its faults, I like the Audible system. With an up-to-date selection of recorded books at a reasonable price and a minimum of hassle, the current two-hour player is great for daily driving. If you're on the road for long periods of time, I'd stick with books on tape until Audible releases the 7 1/2-hour player this spring. For information call 888-283-5051 or surf to

--Michael J. Himowitz