Is it a Net VCR, a Net Walkman, or what? The new 3 1/2-ounce Audible MobilePlayer breaks the mold. In the new world of Net appliances, this portable player cuts the umbilical cord that binds people to their personal computers, freeing them to download audiobooks, language instruction, financial news, or National Public Radio's "Car Talk" and take them wherever they go--the gym, the car, the bike, the beach. Not only does the Audible Player download two hours' worth of edutainment (it takes 12 minutes with a 56k modem) from the Audible.com Web site, but it can also be plugged into corporate intranet sites. People on the road can catch up on training lectures, missed conferences, upcoming product launches, or the wise sayings of the company chairman. Audio content can even be automatically downloaded overnight.
Wayne (N.J.) startup Audible Inc. turned to San Francisco design house IDEO for help in creating a physical form for the new concept. IDEO wanted to differentiate it from similar-size portable CD players, cassette players, and radios. For inspiration for this quintessentially aural product, IDEO turned, naturally, to the ear. In the center of a spiral is the all-important play button, with fast-forward, rewind, and stop functions surrounding it. But because this is a digital product interacting with the Internet, there is one extra button not found on VCRs or Walkmans: a bookmark.
The Audible--gray with blue translucent buttons--seems at home in the office, unlike many razzle-dazzle consumer-electronics products. To the jurors, the device itself didn't immediately shout "Next Big Thing." They had to work at understanding what it does. Net appliances may need to be far more intuitive to use in order to fulfill their potential. But the Audible MobilePlayer is unquestionably on the frontier. It costs $199 for the system, which includes the Player, headphones, a Palm Pilot-like docking slot that plugs into a computer serial port, and software. The Audible connects to a car via a cassette adapter or through an FM station. Audibooks cost about $6.99 to download. This is something really new.