First thoughts on Downpour: DRM-free and beta-testing (updated)

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First thoughts on Downpour: DRM-free and beta-testing (updated)

Posted on 2012-10-11 at 10:32 by Sam

Downpour is a new multi-publisher DRM-free digital audiobook (and physical audiobook) website and iOS app launched by Blackstone Audio, with titles from Recorded Books, Hachette Audio, and more. The site is a bit slow at times (note: it is still in Beta) but it is certainly usable, though a link here and there is wonky (when browsing Science Fiction titles, which are by default and always by default sorted by title, try clicking to sort by release date and you’ll instead get the page for Captain’s Blood by William Shatner). Overall it is set up quite a lot like, with a-la-carte purchases of digital downloads and monthly “credit” based plans, and the addition of physical audiobook listings.

The iOS app misses some of the higher-end functionality (swipe control mode, listening badges) and some miscellaneous features (bookmarks, annotations, etc.) but for what I need it to do (download, play, and delete, and on rare occasions listen at 1.5x speed) it just works. Playback continues in background mode (when I am multi-tasking or with the screen off or locked — and the Downpour app does set the lock screen to the book cover, which I like) and responds to most handset controls (play/pause, forward double-click, and back triple-click) but not to fast-forward (hold on second click) or fast-reverse (hold on third click) for seeking through the audiobook. I very rarely use any of these missing features, and so I’ve started using the app (and site) for a growing share of my audiobook purchasing and listening. I’d only recently started using Audible’s “bookmark” feature to mark the position I start listening to before falling asleep, to help assist in “now where did I leave off…” playback position recovery in the morning, so that might be another one I’d look at — fast-forward and fast-reverse are also mainly ones I use for “now where did I leave off…” questions. I do find myself missing the “go back 30 seconds” feature from the Audible app, though, so that might be one for the Downpour engineers to poke on. Update: There is both a “go back 30 seconds” and “go forward 30 seconds” gesture, see the Disqus comments below. So maybe what we really need is some in-app documentation…

The app remembers playback position across sessions — closing the app and re-opening it, my listening position is restored.  It also remembers playback positions across multiple audiobooks. (Without these two features, and the background mode and handset controls mentioned above, I wouldn’t be using it.) Unlike the built-in iOS music player, but like the Audible app, the Downpour app does not resume playback automatically after a phone call ends. One small issue is that after closing the app, re-launching it returns me to the bookshelf rather than the last played book automatically. Another nitpick in checking out the Downpour app’s feature set was that on-screen display settings (whether to show the position slider and speed control) were not saved across sessions. (Another is that selecting a different audiobook from the Downpour app library stops playback of the currently playing audiobook, but doesn’t automatically start playback of the newly selected audiobook, though I haven’t decided whether I like this latter “feature” or not.)

App wishlist, first thoughts: First, see the “go back 30 seconds” feature above. Second, though this is a bit random, I would very much like to use this app to play my own library of MP3-CD audiobooks, transferred to my phone. (The iOS music player’s lack of remembering playback position in a playlist or album makes MP3-CD playlist listening so frustrating that using Chapter and Verse to build an M4B is right on the edge of worth the effort.) I’m not sure yet about downloading the entire audiobook in one part — for longer audiobooks, being able to download one 8-hour part at a time (as Audible breaks audiobooks “into parts to make the download faster”, don’t ya know) makes space management on my phone (always full of pictures) more, er, manageable. But then frustrating when I’m ready for the next part and no-where near a WiFi connection. So, maybe that’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other.

Anyway. Why am I, a 11.5-year Audible customer shopping around for apps? I took a look at Tantor’s app late last year or early this year, but it wasn’t nearly ready for prime time. (I haven’t checked it out since, and it appears to have been discontinued.) The main reason is that the audiobooks I buy from Downpour are DRM-free, and there was an app to try out, and after using it a bit, I found that it worked well enough to use. (Simply Audiobooks and others have DRM-free audiobooks, but no apps. It looks like there’s a very recent thread about someone building an app for eMusic, but nothing concrete to check out yet.)

The main drawback is that while Downpour doesn’t appear to have any titles which Audible doesn’t have, it doesn’t have many titles which Audible does have — including the long list of excellent titles from Audible Frontiers and Audible Inc. and Neil Gaiman Presents and Brilliance Audio and other Amazon-owned imprints, which it seems unlikely will ever be available at Downpour. But, while I’ll still be using Audible for titles I can’t get elsewhere, I’m making the switch now for the purchases where I can get a DRM-free audiobook. Now to wait for book 2 of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations to show up (books 1 and 3 are available) along with Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Deada, nd Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper’s Building Harlequin’s Moon…and hey, since this is DRM-free, where is my Cory Doctorow library?

Further notes: A random wishlist for the future of Downpour:

  • more royalties to audiobook creators than the Audible/ACX default 25% — I have no idea on the current terms or how to publish on Downpour, which leads to:
  • an ACX-style audiobook creation exchange and publishing portal which lets creators keep more of their rights and more of their sales
  • affiliate relationships with the IndieBound bookstores, similar to the Kobo ebook net revenue split, and while I’m at it:
  • finish up that in-progress Android app, so Downpour will work on the Kobo tablet among other devices
  • bring on more publishers, like Iambik, Crossroad Press, Buzzy Multimedia, Tantor, Dreamscape, AudioGO, …
  • maybe: integrate with Goodreads to display reviews, add “to read”, etc. (It appears Downpour does allow reviews by visitors who have not purchased the audiobook they are reviewing, but there are scant reviews and ratings so far.)
  • a coming soon section where I can add the titles to my wishlist and be notified when they are published
  • let me add authors to a list and be notified when new audiobooks are published
While I’m all “pie in the sky” dreaming:
  • split Blackstone and Downpour — vertical towers are bad
  • even more pie in the sky than that: split and the app — or at minimum open source the Android app, or manage some kind of community source project (goal: allow me to point the app at my Tantor library)
  • provide a lightweight mobile website for browsing, adding to wishlist, etc.
  • maybe: enter the libraries market to provide some competition for Overdrive
  • not a problem now, while I only have a few titles, but when/if I get to hundreds I will need better library management both online and in the app
  • integrate with Kobo for a “Whisperlink for Voice” and “Immersion Reading” experience (probably there are patents in the way for that)
Update: After using the app a bit more over the weekend, some more issues and random notes:
  • Overall progress? Give me total hour length of book and progress so far -- even better let me update progress in Goodreads directly.
  • Something weird about handset controls after some minutes of iPhone sleep -- goes back to iOS music, loses playback position to previous playback position, and loses settings like 1.5x speed. This is a big deal for me. (Note: I'm on iOS 5.1.1 -- haven't and don't know if I will update to iOS 6 as I'm planning to move to Android soon.)
  • A "whispersync" like feature doesn't necessarily require Kobo or tying in with any ebook reader -- could at least sync progress on multiple devices (phone, tablet).
  • Maybe combine Kickstarter and ACX for something like an audiobooks preorder/pull service? Or some other way of letting rights-holders know that we want their books made into audiobooks. (And then notifying us when the audiobook becomes available.)
  • A better built-in "coming soon" listing of audiobooks coming in the next months from multiple publishers, letting us add them to wishlist and notifying us when they are available.
  • Another controls oddity: the "go back 30 seconds" gesture will not cross track boundaries, which is annoying when the line I want to hear again is the closing line of a chapter.
  • Another control issue: the forward button does both forward and play
  • Another control issue: the back button does both back and play, AND goes to the previous track always, even if a full minute into the current track
Posted in regular | Tagged downpour, miscellaneous