Surely this is a product that only a marketing team could love: Playaway has introduced an audio book player preloaded with a single audio book that’s essentially a “play and dispose” device. This, by itself, isn’t necessarily a bad idea (other than environmentally) but there’s a whole facet to this product that is poorly thought out: its economics.
First off, fair disclosure: the company sent me one of these Playaway players with the audio book The Kite Runner (by Khaled Hosseini) doubtless hoping that I would be enamored of it and write lots of positive things about the Playaway here on my weblog. Ah, well, that’s not quite how it’s worked out…
There are some things I really like about the Playaway nonetheless, and lots of things to not like about this product. Let me preface this by observing that I have a lot of mp3 players, including five iPods, a Dell DJ, and many other devices that can also play mp3 audio files, like my trusty Sony PSP. I also have lots of headphones for testing, so I’m pretty sensitive to audio quality.
Good: It’s small and convenient
There’s no question, this is about the size of five credit cards stacked together and it’s very easy to slip into your pocket. The controls are also easily managed, with the “play” button serving as a play/pause/on/off switch, all at once. Easy!
There’s also no hassle with charging the device as it operates off a single AAA battery which is preloaded (and they include a spare, conveniently enough, along with cheap earbuds).
Good: It’s far easier than ripping audio books from CD
Having the audio content preloaded is darn convenient, as I said. If you’ve bought a six-CD audio book and gone through the hassle of ripping it to your computer then copying that content to your audio player, you’re well aware of what a pain this can be. With the Playaway, there’s nothing to do, it’s just ready to go.
Bad: The audio quality stinks
I admit, I have a sample of one audio book so perhaps the others are better, but I was pretty disappointed at how hollow the narrator’s voice was when I started The Kite Runner and having a slight echo didn’t help either. The Playaway FAQ says “Playaway audio is of equal or greater quality to digital downloads available today, due to proprietary audio processing, production and leading edge codecs” but my personal experience is that both my own audio rips and audio downloads from audible.com are of noticeably higher quality.
Bad: It’s too expensive
This is where I really don’t understand the business model behind the Playaway. To buy the 12 hour unabridged Playaway audio book of The Kite Runner runs $39.99 (undiscounted). The same 12 hour edition through Audible.com costs $19.58 for members and $27.95 for non-members. In paperback, I can buy the book for $8.00 at Amazon (new) and the audio through Amazon for $20.98 as a download, or the unabridged on CD for $26.37. Prefer the Apple iTunes Music Store? You can buy the unabridged audio of The Kite Runner there for $25.95.
I can get the same audio CD version for even less through eBay: typical completed auction prices are $10-$14, including shipping. For $30, would you go through the fuss of ripping a few CDs and copying the files onto your player? You know you would…
Good/Bad: It’s an mp3 player
Maybe the important difference is that it’s a self-container player. But once you’re done with the audio book, what do you do with it? Libraries aren’t set up to receive them as donations and the used market for Playaway devices is tiny (eBay only has three matches for Playaway, Dress Your Family and The da Vinci Code).
Listen to four or five of these Playaway audio books and you’ll not only have spent roughly a $20/audio book premium for the player (that’s a total of $80-$100 premium) but you’ll have a box full of used audio books just sitting on your shelf, with minimal resale value too.
Bad: Basic Mp3 Players Are Darn Cheap
How cheap are Mp3 players nowadays? Surprisingly you can buy a reasonably functional one for well under $50. For example, Buy.com features the Mach Trio 512MB Mp3 Player with Voice Recorder for $39.31, and Amazon.com offers the Nextar 256MB Mp3 Player for $27.50. Add a little bit to your budget, and you can buy a slick new Apple iPod Shuffle that’s not much bigger than your thumb for $79.00.
They’re not a sexy new iPod nano, but neither is the Playaway player. More importantly, they’re one time purchases that can be reloaded time and again as you finish up one audio program and would like to move to the next while the Playaway just gets tossed into that box on your shelf.
Fixing the Problems
I wanted to like the Playaway as I always enjoy seeing companies innovate in the marketplace, pushing boundaries and taking advantage of cool things like the dramatic drop in the cost of Mp3 players. But truth be told, I just don’t like the device and don’t see that it’s going to be a success in the marketplace.
I think there are a few insurmountable barriers: first, the price of the audio books is too high. The company needs to give us an incentive to try this new technology: if The Kite Runner, including player, was only $19.99, then I might be more eager to check it out versus utilizing one of my ubiquitous Mp3 compatible devices (and, for that matter, how long do you think it’ll be before the Verizon V-Cast service offers audio book downloads to your phone anyway?)
The second way they could make these players far more appealing is to offer you the ability to reload them through some proprietary download encoding. Subsequent audio books could then be priced 50% less, or even lower, since you already have the player. Can you use it as a general purpose Mp3 player? No, that’s not their business. But can you gain an advantage by being willing to plug in a mini-USB and run some special software? You bet. And the big win: if you don’t want to fuss with that, then just go and buy another preloaded Playaway device. Now consumers have choice and the market penetration goes way up.
Or, my third suggestion: take a page from the Netflix playbook and offer trade in value. If I could send back The Kite Runner and receive a 33% credit on its original cost against a subsequent purchase, that could be the single easiest way to breath some life into this company…
With the Playaway priced and designed as it is today, however, I think this might be one of those “good idea, bad implementation” companies so you might just want to grab one up as a souvenir and reminder of the crushing logic of economics in the technological world.