Review: Audible for iPad
A year ago, I wrote a post about 10 app-enabled services that I thought should be ashamed of themselves. Since then, several of the services on the list have gotten themselves off the list by improving their apps, but one service hung around for long enough that I eventually dedicated an article to how much the app annoyed me: Audible. The Amazon-owned audio book giant has been around for years, but its app offerings have been several steps below piss poor. Audible just released an update to the iOS app that added iPad support, so obviously I was very curious to see if it was finally getting off my list.
The quality of the Audible app has been so bad that I’ve more or less stopped using the service myself. At one point, I had two platinum accounts running at the same time, meaning I went through at least four books per month. Lately, I’ve gone through about four books per year, and part of the reason is the app. Audible isn’t exactly the cheapest service out there, with individual books running you as much as half a year’s subscription to Netflix would, so I think I’m entitled to expect the app to be half decent.
New look, same functionality
With high hopes for what was awaiting me inside, I opened up the new app to see if Audible was going to redeem itself to me. At first it looked very good; the intro screen, login screen, and main menu all look very nice after this update. Gone is an app design that frankly looks like something for Android 1.5, and a much cleaner UI has taken its place. Graphics are now very front and center, both in terms of thumbnails representing the book, and in terms of backgrounds for the playback screen and introduction. Everything looks more modern, and just having the layout fit the iPad is a major advantage.
Unfortunately, that’s really all there is to this update.
My core gripe with Audible has always been the very fundamental functionality issues with the app, rather than how it looks- although the latter also needed a boost. While the design is now updated, this is still the same app as before, with very little being new in terms of functionality.
Take for instance book sorting. Quite a lot of books are part of a series, and one of my all time biggest gripes with Audible in any form is that it seems completely unaware of this fact. There’s no way to sort by series, books aren’t named in a way that makes them group by series when sorting by name, and most books I have that are part of a series don’t even list the book number in the title!
Imagine trying to watch a TV series by just having a ton of episodes as video files, each being named by the name of the episode, without any season number, episode number, or even series name! To say that it’s annoying is an understatement, and I find it amazing how Audible is this freaking clueless. Keeping up with book series is the only reason I still use Audible at all, but actually trying to keep up with books in a series on Audible is anything but easy. I have to manually pay attention to when new books come out, with no way of seeing new releases, subscribe to series, or anything like that.
It’s such an obvious and basic feature that seeing the company continue to ignore it year after year is like seeing someone drive a car without wheels, never seeming to notice that it’s not working too well. Then, when you think they’re actually going to do something about it (this update), they go ahead and spray paint the car red, get back in it, and continue driving without wheels.
Another continuing issue is how Audible doesn’t create file chapters the way the author created the book chapters. The narrator might very well announce that you’re on chapter 34 of the book as the Audible app shows a total of 7 chapters, which is just confusing. It could at least be called something else on the Audible side then, instead of choosing the one word guaranteed to be used by most books. This doesn’t really have anything to do with the app per se, and would require a massive operation to “fix” old releases, but I just want to point out that throwing a bit of paint on a system that has been this backwards and stupid for years does in no way magically make it awesome.
I will give Audible credit for finally putting a playback position sync system in place. I’m not sure exactly when this was implemented; since the Android app supports it and it wasn’t updated, it wasn’t in this update. Either way, it’s great to finally have that feature in place.
Audible still seems to hates power users
For all the years I’ve been an Audible member, I’ve been convinced that someone high up at Audible absolutely hates power users. The reason is that the listener plans reward people who don’t use the service a lot, and punish those that do. There are two options for plans that give you X amount of books each month for a certain price. $15 buys you one book, $23 buys you two.
And that’s it.
If you listen to more than two books per month, you have the option of either buying the book at its “discounted” member price (which is not by any means cheap), or buy packs of 12 or 24 book credits for $150 or $230, respectively. No matter what you do, it very quickly stops getting cheaper the more you read. The $23/month plan works out to $11.50 per book, the 12 pack works out to $12.50 per book, and the 24 pack works out to $9.60 per book. Back when I ran two platinum ($23) plans at once, I did so because dropping $230 on audio books in one go was simply too much. I would have loved to have paid $9.60 per additional book, but a lot of people’s personal finances would take issues with a one-time $230 expenditure.
Moreover, even paying less than $10/book eventually becomes expensive. When I went through so many books each month, I did so because I had a job that allowed me to listen to audio while working, and audio books were a welcome change from music and radio/podcasts. Still, I could go through several books per week, and it ended up becoming expensive. Audible doesn’t really have anything that screams “we love you, power users,” like for instance a $50/month deal for 8 books or so.
Then again, even that would be expensive. In a day and age where $10 gets you a subscription for unlimited streaming of audio or video for a month, Audible’s prices are just ridiculous. Like it or not, an audio book service competes as much with a music or video streaming service as it does other audio book services. A streaming subscription plan to Audible would be very interesting to me, and I would start listening to more audio books and watch less Netflix. I don’t actually expect that to ever be an option, however; Audible just isn’t a service that seems capable of changing with the times.
The thing is, that when a service becomes too expensive for you to get everything you want, you might just end up moving away from it altogether. That was what I did, and today I don’t have any monthly plans at all. Audible wasn’t willing to cater to me when I wanted to throw money at it, so I took my money elsewhere.
Again this is an issue that doesn’t really have anything to do with the app in itself, but it’s one of those underlying issues that make me want to stay away from Audible altogether. I know that Audible doesn’t have a plan for me if I start using it for all it’s worth again, so instead I barely use it at all.
Hell-bent on not giving Apple a dime
Amazon is hell-bent on not giving Apple a dime of any books it sells, and that also goes for Audible. As a result, the “more books” section of the app is just an image with some text on it, saying that Audible has a ton of books. That’s it. The reason why this is so is that Apple requires apps that access digital content to either also offer it through the app, or not say a word about where to get it. Instead of giving Apple 30% of any purchases made through an iOS device, Amazon has therefore instead decided to not offer the option to buy books from the app, or say a word about where to get them.
I can see why Amazon is doing what it’s doing, and I don’t agree with Apple’s policies on taking a piece of the cut like that. However, a world’s worth of good reasons for putting square wheels on a car doesn’t make the car run any better. You still end up with an app that has a ridiculous place holder instead of a place to get books, and while that doesn’t really bother me personally, it does make the app incomplete.
For many, the iOS app is a way to access Audible on iOS. However, there are also a ton of people out there- potential Audible customers- for which Audible and this app are one and the same things. iOS is simply so wide spread that services that existed long before the first iPhone came out can find new life as an iOS app. This has a lead a lot of (somewhat) similar services, like the magazine service Zinio, to offer its normally external content through in app purchases. It’s going to vary from service to service whether that’s the right decision, and Amazon has landed on “no.”
The bottom line, however, is this: There are a lot of very casual iOS users whom I would have suggested Audible to if the app had been a self contained audio book service. Once you need a separate account and have to buy books separately from a website, the ease of use falls drastically. I’m not judging Audible/Amazon’s decision one way or another here, I’m just stating a simple fact.
The Audible iPad app is a new app for a service that in my opinion is old and outdated. It’s a new coat of paint on top of a rusted pile of scrap that is only popular because it essentially has a monopoly on audio books. A lot of people love Audible, and there’s a lot to love with the selection of books it has, but personally the entire experience is ruined by a few very massive issues that just kick the legs out from under the entire service. This app did nothing to change my view of Audible, because it didn’t really do much except change things cosmetically.
The wheel-less car drives on with a new coat of paint.