At the recent Portable Media Conference, one of the larger exhibitors was Audible. Famous for audio delivery of spoken books, newspapers and magazines long before Podcasting was the buzzword du jour, they’ve been working themselves into the smartphone market mainly through Palm with their Over the Air enabled products. They are now bringing ‘Audible Air’ to Symbian Series 60, so I took time out to speak to Chia-Lin Simmons, Business Development Director at Audible, about the Audible Service and what Series 60 users can look forward to.
The mobile client, Audible Air, is part of the full Audible service (there’s no distinction if you’re using a PC based client or a mobile one, although your GPRS bill might spot the difference). Once you’ve joined the service and chosen your book or subscription, it is downloaded either to a PC Client (and then synced to a mobile player, be it a PDA, smartphone or iPod), or directly onto your connected device with the aforementioned Audible Air client. The service has a number of tariffs, starting at $15 a month, which allows you to download one book and one recurring subscription (such as a newspaper) each month.
So why look at Symbian? “We’ve been committed to spoken audio since 1995,” says Simmons, “and the mobile phone is one of the most persistent devices that’s always with you. Convergence is happening and everything is folding into the smartphone. If we want to look at the mobile space we need to look at phones and their unique nature. They’re subtly different to MP3 players [and iPods].”
The Palm client has obviously shown the way, but with a huge number of Symbian powered devices out there, are Audible targeting any specific device first? “We’re looking at Series 60 first of all,” reports Simmons. Which version of Series 60? “Version 2 of Series 60, the beta for that has already gone through the Symbian Signing process. We’ll follow up with a Series 60 version 3 platform as and when the market can sustain it.”
What can look forward to in the client beyond simple playback of the audible content? “The main one is the over the air download. You can part download a book, so if you know that your journey to work is thirty minutes, you might want an hour of content a day (there and back again). So the Audible Air client will only download an hour's content of whatever you’re reading. Say you get interrupted and only listen to 40 minutes, then at the next scheduled download it knows you have 20 minutes in hand, so only grabs enough to top you up to the hour mark again.”
“These scheduled downloads are highly configurable. You can set them to trigger in the middle of the night for example, when you’re not using your phone for anything else, and the network latency is much lower.” And this raises one big gotcha for Audible Air – if you’re using the over the air facility (and not syncing to the phone from the desktop) then the data charge is going to be enormous. For example, the CEO of Audible, Don Katz’ book is a pretty regular sized book. But at a six hour running time and 21MB of data that’s going to be pricey. Simmons says that “[Audible is] pretty sure that unlimited data plans are on the way,” and I hope that this confidence isn’t misplaced. It's also worth pointing out that syncing via the PC is still an option in the Series 60 client.
The beta for Audible Air on Series 60 is now available at www.audible.com/beta/ and it’s going to be open to the first 250 users. If they have an existing Audible account, then the Series 60 phone is going to appear as another device in their account - you can have up to five devices authorised at a time to play your Audible downloads. If you need a sixth then you need to substitute it for one of the existing five, but I can’t see a restriction on how many times you can do this substitution.
The beta test appears to be a final check in the real world, with the full version of Audible available for everyone before the end of the year. And what’s more promising for Audible than just the interest from end users is the interest from manufacturers. The service is being seen as a strong complement to any music services, and we all know that the industry is gambling on these music phones for 2006….