This isn't an electric shaver, it's a talking book

Jan Libbenga on a device that allows you to download digital audio files from the Net and play them anywhere
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The Independent Culture
When Sony introduced the Walkman in the early Eighties, the portable audio-cassette player became an instant success. Although it was designed for playing music, it also stimulated the market for audio book publishing.

The American Audio Publishers Association (APA) puts estimated annual sales of spoken audio products at a stunning 60 million units. It's a pounds 2bn industry, and it has boomed 30 per cent since the early Nineties.

But although audio tapes are a bit old-fashioned these days, attempts to replace the cassette with digital technologies, such as minidisc and digital compact cassette (DCC) have failed.

Now a sleek device that looks like an electric shaver may change all that. The Mobile Player from Audible Inc stores and plays back super-compressed spoken word files downloaded from the Internet. Audible's Web store (http://www. audible.com) offers over 10,000 hours of spoken audio programming from more than 70 different publishers. You can listen to business seminars, history, sport, comedy and radio broadcasts without having to stop by bookstores all the time to pick up new works. Audible Inc has literature, too; it offers works by Ezra Pound and William Faulkner in their own voices. Prices vary from $1 to $3 per hour of content.

An hour of chatter takes about nine minutes to receive with a regular modem. You have to download the audio files first to your PC and then use a docking station to load the material to the player. The ergonomic design makes fast-forward, pause and bookmarking features easy to use.

You can listen through headphones or tune any FM Radio to a frequency transmitted by the unit up to a distance of about 10 feet. The player can also capture streaming Web audio. In the old days, whenever you clicked on an audio link on the Web, you had to wait until the audio file was transferred to the hard disk. With streaming audio, the file begins playing virtually straight away.

Many radio stations use this format - called RealAudio - for live Internet broadcasts. Trouble is, you can't record them. With the Audible Player you can. Corporate intranet users can also access RealAudio files and play them back through the AudiblePlayer. Training material, executive management announcements and product updates can be delivered to mobile workers.

"The problem with online audio isn't the technology," says Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research. "It's people's behaviour. Computers are a visual medium. Audio works a lot better in a car - but of course cars don't get the Internet."

Audible was founded in 1995 by Don Katz and Tim Mott. Mott is the co- founder of both Macromedia and games company Electronic Arts. Katz's background isn't in audio, either: he has a masters' degree from the London School of Economics and wrote about business and technology for magazines such as Rolling Stone and Outside. He got the idea for the Internet "Walkman" while he was researching a book about the digital revolution. The venture capitalist Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (which funded Apple, Compaq and Netscape) got interested and, along with other partners, invested in the company. Even PC manufacturer Compaq made an investment in Audible.

Other companies have already copied the idea. US telecoms giant AT&T has developed a device that will store and play back digital songs through its a2bmusic Web site (http://www.a2bmusic.com) and Audio Highway sells a unit similar to the Audible Player.

Despite stiff competition, Don Katz is driving towards tens of thousands of customers, in particular the estimated 84 million Americans who drive alone to work each day and the 40 million mobile workers who spend most of their time on the road. Audible believes it will create new opportunities, in particular for business publishing, where titles that can't generate profitable sales as books are often abandoned. According to Don Katz, all that material can now be "liberated".

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