I introduced Dave Winer to Don Katz last night, knowing it would be an interesting conversation (which, ironically, happened during a fire drill at Gnomedex). Anyhow, Dave says Don “yelled at him in public,” which isn’t what happened—granted, I work with Don and he’s a close friend, but I do have the experience of 20 years of watching conversations and Dave’s report is remarkably off base.
Dave began the conversation saying he had been a happy Audible user until two months ago, when both his PC and portable player crapped out and he had trouble reloading his audio. Having changed computers and players more times than I can count since I became an Audible customer, I know the problem he was talking about: Audible needs to reset an account occasionally because it becomes impossible (because a PC isn’t available to deactivate) to authenticate more devices. You just call and Audible takes care of it.
Dave didn’t call. He complained publicly, which he has a right to do. Don Katz agreed he has a right to blog about his complaints, but he insisted that Dave had not availed himself of the support that would have solved his problem in seconds. Dave took what Don said to mean he should not have blogged the criticism, but what Don said was that what he blogged was unfair.
Dave went on to say that he was willing to pay $50 for the CDs of an audio book so he could take those discs and rip them to MP3 instead of paying $11 per book (which is what Audible charges on its most expensive monthly subscription service), regardless of the list price of the book. Many Audible titles are available on disc for much more than $50, but it’s cheaper to get the digital copy precisely because Audible offers the publishers assurances that their creative property will be “safe.” There are, of course, ways to defeat any DRM, which are basically as simple as ripping a CD, but Audible has combined reasonable pricing with reasonable use of security to make the market for audio content real.
I asked Dave if he would have any problem with Audible’s security features if they were more promiscuous, offering playback on many more devices. He replied with two different answers: DRM is just wrong and that had he not run into the DRM that day, he’d have no problem with it. This is a remarkably disingenuous answer, since it says, basically, that almost all the time Audible had managed to be pleasing to use. The one time he ran into a problem, Dave quit the service and dismissed the value of calling for some help. As a developer, has Dave Winer failed to believe the support he offered his customers was valuable and, if they didn’t take advantage of that support before bad-mouthing him has he considered that “fair” and their right?
Anyhow, Dave then began to lecture Don on how much money he made and, so, he is able to buy discs and rip them so that he need not suffer under the yoke of DRM. Don tried to explain that he was concerned about making quality audio available for a reasonable price—with improved navigation and playback features, too—but Dave was on a holy roll that, frankly, came off as kind of elitist. He could afford to make the choice he had, which he can and has a right to, but to blast Audible for having navigated the troubled waters of digital distribution to bring audio to the market was dumb. Dave ignores the fact that for most people inexpensive access to downloadable audio is a good thing, because they don’t bill at Dave Winer rates (which Dave explained in detail).
Dave said Audible was going to pay a high price for using DRM, and Don replied that the number of customers who have quit over the years because of DRM has been a “rounding error.” Dave insisted that this couldn’t be true, because he was representative, but he represents a tiny minority of users who apparently don’t value ease of use and access to inexpensive audio. Dave repeatedly said “I am your customer,” and Don replied “You’re an ex-customer,” so they were both right. However, Audible is focused on people who aren’t enjoying an unconstrained income.
Finally, here is the thing that bugs me, as both a creator of “content” and a technologist: Dave assumes that delivery technology is the essential value-add in the content value chain. He has described how he did “all the heavy lifting” and now the market was ready to blossom; at the same time, for many with content, delivery has been a frightening problem, because it becomes synonymous with “piracy” in practice. I’ve worked with Audible for years, as they developed a business model content producers could live with and customers could love—they succeeded years before the music industry. There is much, much more to audio listening than finding and playing the program. What we call DRM is also the foundation for auditing advertising in free programs and, even, simple things like having a file that remembers where you left off your listening and restarts at that point in the program. The “security” aspects of Audible’s technology are going to fade and the services it enables for producers and listeners are going to start to take the fore, but Dave’s going to miss that angle because he’s on a high horse.
So, that’s what happened when two pioneers met and one decided he was infinitely superior than the other. It was funny and sad, but when I read Dave’s rendition of the meeting, it is infuriating.