I just set up an account for my daughter with audible.com, and downloaded a book for her to listen to on the bus. The good news is that is appears to be all set up now, and ready to download to her iTouch. The bad news is … everything else.
We spent nearly an hour buying a single audio “book”, and getting it copied down to her computer. The problems were nearly all related to digital rights management, though I’d class them in two groups: fundamental, and incompetent.
The fundamental problem is that DRM makes downloading and using media much more difficult. It restricts which programs and devices you can use it with. Further, is it any surprise that downloading a program whose fundamental purpose is to prevent proscribed uses of a media file makes it more difficult to successfully use that media file? In the case of audible, we had to download a program to my daughter’s laptop that insinuated itself into firefox and itunes in unspecified ways, so that she could download the Audible files she had paid for to her laptop, and thence to her iPod. This program failed to install itself properly the first time — apparently it doesn’t check to see whether itunes is running, but fails mysteriously if it is. When we tried to download the book we had paid for to her computer, we kept getting mysterious error messages. These went away once we reinstalled the software.
The problems of incompetence were mostly caused by a user interface that tries to pretend that the challenge is easier than it actually is. The Web site makes a big thing out of the four simple steps required to get going with Audible. Step 1 is “Pick a plan”. We didn’t want to sign up for a plan, so it took us a while to figure out that you can buy books without a plan. Step 2 is “Download Audible software”. In the description it says “You can also use ITunes to download audio …”. We decided to go that route initially, before figuring out that apparently the audible.com software is required in addition to iTunes. It didn’t help that the iPod Touch is not listed in the “supported devices” list, so we had to guess which software we need. Step 3 is “Purchase and download”. Our problems with this step are described in the previous paragraph. Step 4 is “Transfer your audio to your AudibleReady device”. Here the solution was easy: we just had to figure out that Audible had created a new sort of “playlist” in iTunes, and that we had to tell iTunes to sync that playlist with the iPod Touch. A common step in iTunes — but it would have been nice for Audible to walk us through that step.
A very frustrating hour later, my daughter is pretty happy with having her book ready for the bus. I’m much less happy. Audible seems like a company that is going to fail if they don’t figure out these user interface issues. What, then, will happen to the DRM that requires a “phone home” to install the book on a different device? (Yes, even the iPod Touch will one day seem outdated.) Even though I’m eager to listen to “books on pod” while I exercise, I refuse to buy these DRM-crippled alternatives. Yes, convenience is worth a lot, but more important to me is the principle that media that I buy must be usable for me into the murky future, independent of the survival of any one company, format, device, or business model.
What do you think?