What if blind people like David Faucheux, who has written up the text-to-speech botch on Amazon’s new $80 basic model, could enjoy ebooks as easily as the man and girl in the above photo?
Or at least suffer fewer hassles?
Here’s to text to speech—not just for blind booklovers but also for others with disabilities, as well as for exercisers and commuters!
Ahead I’ll tell how Amazon can do TTS the right way for all Kindle users, especially blind people.
I’ll start with the documentation and interface remedies, such as the possible placement of an ear icon on the home screen to help control TTS functions.
Also, I’ll explore the business angles such as Amazon’s ownership of Audible books. That might be one reason why the company has de-emphasized text to speech in recent years (despite TTS’s third-rate version in the new basic Kindle and an audio adapter for current Paperwhite Kindles).
Yes, there are ways for Amazon to provide TTS on books whose publishers allow it, and make more money.
If the basic Kindle can become more of an audio creature than it is now, all kinds of new revenue possibilities could open up for Amazon without detracting from the traditional reading experience.
For example, Amazon could even use more thoughtful audio strategies to promote the sales of human-read audiobooks from its Audible division, as well as sales of digital music.
Meanwhile keep in mind the obvious: text to speech adds value to books for commuters, exercisers and time-short people in general. While possibly trying to protect the Audible Division and sales of multimedia tablets, Amazon might actually be reducing total revenue. It also may be lessening the competitiveness of books against rival media ranging from Netflix to video games.
In addition, I’ll mention a possible stick that Washington might eventually be able to use against Amazon if the company still refused to offer decent TTS, as well as other musts such as a greater range of typographical choices.
Ideally, however, enough juicy carrots exist for Amazon to do the right thing voluntarily—for example, more success in the K-12 market.
Getting blind people going with Bluetooth and other basics
We already know that TTS used with Bluetooth headphones would cost next to nothing for Amazon to include despite past arguments of Washington lobbyists.
The existence of the $80 Kindle basic with Bluetooth TTS already has demolished that pathetic excuse—along with size- and weight-related ones.
While a speaker would be nice and I miss that feature present in older Kindles, you don’t need one built in. Bluetooth speakers would be one alternative to Bluetooth headphones.
But how to blend a truly blind-friendly interface in with the existing Kindle basic via firmware and otherwise, and also accommodate the needs of sighted people who want TTS? I agree with Nate Hoffelder’s post in the Digital Reader: “The gold standard for accessibility is a device which a visually impaired person can use with no assistance at all.” Alas, I don’t know if ereaders can absolutely meet that standard, not with the complexities of user registration and WiFi setups. But Kindles can come much closer than they do.
As David Faucheux has noted, the issue isn’t just interface. It’s also documentation—and a nasty Catch-22. You can’t benefit from the basic Kindle’s existing audio guidance if you don’t know how to access it in the first place. And we can begin with the Bluetooth headphones.
If need be, Amazon could sell headphones (and speakers, too?) that offered especially seamless pairing. A bundling arrangement could be available both to blind and sighted people. Extra cost of the phones? Maybe $20. Needless to say, the Kindle could still work with other Bluetooth phones.
Inside the box containing the ereader would be very short instructions in Braille (along with instructions for sighted friends or family members for the benefit of blind people who didn’t read Braille—and ideally a pointer to a YouTube with helpful audio). They would tell blind customers to turn on the Kindle and the Bluetooth headphones in the order the devices preferred and tap the bottom of the screen. The Braille directions would also instruct them to tap a small sliver that ran across the very bottom of their home screen or whatever.
The tap would take them to a blind-optimized screen with a terrific audio tutorial and other guidance that Amazon could test on actual blind people. They could then switch on an interface for the blind.
If at any time they were lost, they could tap to hear help messages.
And if all this failed, the messages and links would give blind users the phone number and email of a special Amazon help desk for people with accessibility issues. Apple and Microsoft have such desks, as David Faucheux has pointed out. Why not Amazon?
Speed, pitch, volume, and voices selection options, as well as backwards, forward, and stop ones, would be reachable from the main screen while the blind users were reading. Sighted people ideally could switch on similar features for TTS through a setup screen.
The only voice on the basic Kindle now is too high-pitched for some older people to comprehend the words well. So those voice choices would help.
How to help sighted people enjoy TTS—and improve Amazon’s bottom line
But what about sighted people? Via a settings option, they could get rid of the little sliver at the bottom of the home screen or another screen that blind people tapped to reach the audio guidance and a special setup mode.
Meanwhile both blind and sighted people could benefit from an icon near the top of the basic Kindle screen—visible to the sighted as an ear.
The ear icon would appear on the home screen and, when people tapped in the proper place to summon up a command menu, on other screens. The ear would lead to a screen with adjustments for speed, pitch, volume and voices selections, and navigation if there was no way for these options to appear on the page displaying the actual text of the book.
But the Ear screen could offer plenty more. Among other possibilities, both sighted and blind people might see/hear links to:
–Well-done promotions for audiobooks of the titles the customers were reading or listening to at the time. They could download samples of the narrated voices to determine if the humans truly added value compared to the text to speech. Some of the TTS voices are amazingly humanlike, but accomplished narrators and VIP narrators can still win out if people hear actual samples and maybe even see a photo. I didn’t just buy Elizabeth Warren’s biography an an ebook—I wanted to hear her read it. Audiobooks can also come with author interviews and other extra. On a Kindle Chronicles podcast, Audible CEO Donald Katz told of new features he and his people were adding to audiobooks.
–Other audiobook possibilities involving the same writer or topic or genre. Amazon might allow a few paid links to augment the naturally occurring ones. Just please keep the clutter down.
–Music downloads, with provisions for automatic deletion of songs not played within a certain time, so the file would not overwhelm the Kindle basic’s storage. The deleted songs, of course, could still be downloaded through a cloud storage arrangement.
–Lists of audiobooks and other audio items accessed or purchased recently.
I know Amazon has gone on and on about the Kindles being specialized reading devices, but consider that TTS and audiobooks, when used properly, are very much a form of reading. As for music enjoyed when users are not in the TTS mode, it can actually enhance the reading experience as opposed to distracting from it, the way social media does. Amazon should worry less about keeping the Kindle a read-only device and more about avoidance of social media distractions.
So where would the ear icon go? Look at the partial screenshot below from the new basic model.
Notice the space to the right of the search icon, the magnifying glass, second from the right on the second level? Well, it turns out that the space is there strictly for decorative purposes. You can’t type your search word into the space. When you tap on the magnifying glass or the space, you go on to the actual second screen where you can enter your search term.
Eureka! Amazon could either reduce the decorative space on the home screen to the right of the magnifying glass or get rid of it entirely to make room of the ear icon. The interface designers also could shrink the word “Search” and place it under the magnifying glass.
I’ve tried hard to make the case that TTS would simply be good business for Amazon—notice all the specifics here? But I’ll also remind CEO Jeff Bezos of the possible negatives here, and not just continued bad PR in blogs like TeleRead and the Digital Reader. As I’ve noted before, the Federal Trade Commission has published a pamphlet titled Competition Counts: How Consumers Win When Businesses Compete. I am not a lawyer and don’t know if the pamphlet’s language applies to Audible or other Amazon properties or activities, but here’s the relevant language:
What kinds of business practices interest the Bureau of Competition? In short, the very practices that affect consumers the most: company mergers, agreements among competitors, restrictive agreements between manufacturers and product dealers, and monopolies. The FTC reviews these and other practices, looking at the likely effects on consumers and competition: Would they lead to higher prices, inferior service, or fewer choices for consumers? [Bold added.] Would they make it more difficult for other companies to enter the market?
Hello, Amazon? Is it possible that the pamphlet might cover your purchase of Audible and your eventual de-emphasis of TTS for sighted people? Simply put, making the Kindles extra-TTS friendly might just be a terrific form of anti-trust proofing. If the FTC believes that consumers are not suffering, whether the issue is pricing or availability of TTS, the agency’s Bureau of Competition is less likely in the future to initiate suits against Amazon. The same of course would be true in the area of typographical choices. They are quite limited on Amazon’s Kindles despite countless pleas from me and others (a sin that the company possibly is getting away with due to such factors as its use of proprietary DRM). But it is the lack of decent TTS capabilities where Amazon just might be more vulnerable on antitrust grounds.
Amazon in 2008 acquired Audible for $300 million. The next year, it introduced text to speech, complete with a loudspeaker, on the Kindle 2. So far, so good from an anti-trust perspective. But could some corporate bean counters have eventually gone on to decide that Amazon could make more money without TTS being available on the E Ink Kindles? Not just because of Audible but also because Amazon wanted to push the sale of Fire multimedia tablets through which it could move videos? The Fire came out in 2011. Then—and here’s where it gets interesting—the first Paperwhite appeared without TTS in September 2012. Fires have merits of their own, but they are no substitute for a lightweight E Ink machines, which could offer both TTS and comfortable screens for sighted users. Whatever the reasons, despite all the blessings for the first Kindles and the glories of successors, consumer choice has suffered under Amazon; and the ereader market is woefully lack in innovation, including the TTS-related kind. Amazon itself now owns Ivona, one of the leading TTS companies.
For whatever it’s worth, Amazon is not oblivious to antitrust concerns and has even hired antitrust lobbyist Seth Bloom. As reported in the Seattle Times:
Amazon has been the subject of antitrust investigations in Europe and, according to news agency Reuters, in Japan. In the U.S., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has accused Amazon and other big U.S. tech companies of trying to lock competitors out. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has no love for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has said that the company has “a huge antitrust problem.”
Trump is simply vindictive—he’s out to ruin Jeff Bezos, not look out for U.S. consumers who are suffering from a dearth of widely marketed readers with good TTS (even Warren at this point might not be considering the TTS and typography issues). I myself would much rather that possible antitrust concerns related to accessibility be handled in an amicable way. How about it, Jeff? Care to consider the TTS solution I’ve spent the last few hours laying out?
If antitrust law can’t be used as leverage to get Amazon to restore TTS for all, and improve typography, then another possibility arises.
Especially if the Democrats regain control of the Senate in the current election and the House follows in time, the legislative environment in D.C. might eventually be just a little friendlier toward a possible Ebook Accessibility Act and funds to enforce it.
Of course, if Amazon really wants good PR, it will actually support such a measure while serving as an accessibility model for smaller competitors.
The application of moral suasion to the behavior of Amazon or any for-profit entity is probably an exercise in futility. The best that will come of this is a carefully orchestrated string of half-measures and verbal sleight of hand (spin).
A more effective tactic, I think, would focus on the enactment of legislation that outlaws the imposition of artificial scarcity on reading. That would include siloing as well as proprietary DRM and potential defendants would include publishers as well as Amazon, Apple et. al.
Once the eBooks have been freed from their fetters, eReaders that can do all that readers require will arise. They may not be free but they will be capable.
@Frank: Thanks for caring about this issue. Whatever it takes to turn Amazon and others around! I’m trying moral suasion. If Amazon ignores me, that’ll make the case all the stronger for an Ebook Accessibility Act when the legislative environment allows it.
Sorry David, you mean well but you’re wrong. The Democrats aren’t going to fix any of the ills of high-tech. There’s no money to be made there.
You’re fail to understand one of the most basic features of American politics. When you hear a Democrat talk about taxing the rich or protecting consumers, what they’re engaging in classic political triangulation. One message is for ordinary people, who think the party cares about them. But the real message is for those who’d be targeted by those taxes or regulation. It’s a protection racket. “Pay and we’ll write loopholes that protect you.”
That’s why, vitually without exception, Silicon Valley is pouring its money into Democrats. They’re paying for protection and, with Hillary in the White House they’ll certainly get it.
Incientally, it’s also why the Democrats pour so much hate on the Koch brothers. They’re among the few major corporate executives who oppose crony capitalism, as you can see in a book written by Charles Koch:
For an illustration of the opposite, check out how Apple, Google and others paid off Irish politicians to create a special tax-loophole, only available to giant corporations, that lets them pay taxes well under 1%. A guy barely getting by with his Glasgow grocery pays perhaps 20% in taxes on his sales to his neighbors. Apple, one of the wealthiest corporations on the planet, pays virtually nothing selling their products to those same neighbors. That is crony capitalism. Obama practiced it on a massive scale. That’s the essence of Hillary’s politics, domestic and foreign. “Pay to play,” it is called.
That’s also why the Obama administration is taking the side of Apple et al in the EU efforts, not merely to get Apple and the rest to “pay their fair share of taxes,” but to essentially pay any taxes at all. Only very silly people think today’s Democratic party is about helping ordinary people. It isn’t.
Changing topics there’s an excellent reason parents should be pushing to see key features added to epaper readers. There are excellent reasons many may not want to have their kids using more full-featured tablets. You can find the story here:
This remark in the article I find particularly revealing:
There’s a reason that the most tech-cautious parents are tech designers and engineers. Steve Jobs was a notoriously low-tech parent. Silicon Valley tech executives and engineers enroll their kids in no-tech Waldorf Schools. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page went to no-tech Montessori Schools, as did Amazon creator Jeff Bezos and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.
Many parents intuitively understand that ubiquitous glowing screens are having a negative effect on kids. We see the aggressive temper tantrums when the devices are taken away and the wandering attention spans when children are not perpetually stimulated by their hyper-arousing devices. Worse, we see children who become bored, apathetic, uninteresting and uninterested when not plugged in.
“Buy our addictive stuff for your kids, cripple their minds and perhaps even push your schools to buy our stuff. But we’re keeping our kids away from them.” That’s what Silicon Valley billionaires are saying.
That illustrates an interesting cultural shift that’s only just began to be noticed. Very wealthy people used to retain an interest in their own countries and the well-being of its people. Now they don’t. They sneer at that as nationalism. They import ill-suited immigrants to drive down labor costs. And they send their work wherever in the world the labor is cheapest. In short, they maximize their already great wealth at the expense of their own citizens. Indeed, with them, being a citizen of a country is sneered upon.
That’s why Steve Jobs kept his kids low-tech while getting rich selling that same tech to you for your kids.
@Michael: Jobs was an idiot about ebooks. He thought they weren’t worth Apple’s trouble. If he’d been smarter on this particular matter, Apple could have been Amazon. Same idea applies about his kids and tech, as well as in the case of like-minded parents. Screens themselves are not evil. If a parent, I’d keep a kid off Facebook as long as I could. But I would not only give him or her paper books, I would also give the child a Kindle or Kobo E Ink reader. More importantly, I would interact and ask questions and answer his or her own. I’m excited about the idea of national digital libraries and the encouragement of ebook literacy and family literacy. Imagine all the little Southern towns with limited collections of public library books books, but a lot of eager young minds.
As for the possibility of a legislative remedy like the Ebook Accessibility Act, who knows for sure if the Dems will support it. But chances are far higher than with do-nothing Republicans or absolute ignoramuses like Donald Trump.
Whether the issue is the DMCA or Bono or non-ebook-related matters like taxation in general, I’m far from the biggest fan of Washington and the status quo. I wanted Bernie Sanders to win and thought that the DNC and others tilted the pool table! That said, given the existential dangers that Donald Trump poses, especially nuclear ones, and especially since I’m near D.C., well within H-bomb range, I’ll do my best to see Hillary Clinton elected.
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.
Is the basic Kindle really the correct tool for TTS? Maybe it can be made to do the job, but it might be better to choose something else. For example, if a wanted to hang picture nails into a wall, I could use the butt end of a screwdriver, but a hammer would be the better choice. It seems like Amazon is trying to placate rather than coming up a solution when it retrofits the cheap Kindle. I doubt it would ever pass muster.
The Amazon Echo might be a better choice. It is all voice driven, so should good for the blind and vision impaired. It can read some of my ebook purchases. While I only experimented a few minutes with a few books, the voice sounded OK. My first generation fire also has fair TTS, but it requires sight to set up.
In the end, I don’t think there will be one device to do everything.
I have been totally blind all my life, and a computer user since 1984. I do not need to be able to speak to inaccessible devices; I need them to speak to me. Even with my iPhone, I rarely use Siri.
Thanks, Kathy! Tell us about your challenges using the iPhone and other devices, including a Kindle if you own one. How could they better help you with decent text to speech and otherwise?
I myself am sighted, but I suspect that much-improved speech recognition as well text to speech can help blind people. Speech recognition would be good in terms for stuff ranging from email (on tablets, phones, etc.) to making notes in books (on lots of devices, including Kindles when they finally got the processing power–which they lack now). I myself use my iPad’s speech recognition constantly for dictating email. But in my opinion the accuracy probably is not good enough yet for blind people—maybe I’m wrong about that. At any rate, I constantly have to fix errors.
Dragon speech recognition on my desktop is a bit better. I’m about to install the latest version.
@Geemont: Thanks, but remember that tablets are not the same as E Ink ereaders. For example, a child with attention deficit issue might be better off with an ereader without social media distractions, but with TTS to help him or her get into books. What’s more, I’ve shared specifics as to how the new basic Kindle could be far more accessible than it is now.
Adding audio capabilities to the Kindle lineup has everything to do with accessibility, and nothing to do with supporting media playback or TTS on Kindles in the future, even if that is a theoretical possibility. Amazon surely has long had the usage statistics and market research to conclude that people overwhelmingly prefer to do this on their smartphones and tablets, rather than on devices like the Kindle. And that trend has only strengthened. Competitors Kobo and B&N reached the same conclusion and never bothered to have audio capabilities on their e-readers in the first place.
But unlike them, Amazon is now well-positioned to sell Kindles into K-12 market, as they now have the required compliance with ADA, and have made peace with advocacy groups like NFB.
Accessibility features were (and are) available on Kindle Keyboard (via ‘Voice Menus’) but the earliest touchscreen Kindles were not powerful enough to implement a screen reader. But every Kindle from Voyage has been, specifically they all have 512MB RAM needed to keep voice data in memory for fast voice response while maintaining good overall responsiveness.
While there may be issues with the current VoiceView implementation, there is every reason to expect that Amazon will address these:
“The new Kindle has not yet undergone evaluation from the National Federation of the Blind, but the association’s director of communications Chris Danielsen said the NFB regularly meets with Amazon for the improvement of accessibility in e-book readers, particularly for educational purposes.”
Full article: http://www.techtimes.com/articles/166571/20160623/amazon-reveals-new-80-kindle-thinner-lighter-and-with-bluetooth-audio-support-for-blind-users.htm#sthash.NBrBFijr.dpuf
@TomS: Thanks. Spoke to Chris Danielsen within the past seven days. If NFB has tested the new basic Kindle, he doesn’t know of it. I’m sure David Faucheux’s post and mine will be helpful to NFB. And to Amazon, too. With detailed input, it can design better firmware for the basic Kindle and also improve future hardware. Remember, David and I didn’t just criticize–we went to a lot of trouble to offer constructive suggestions and even tell how improved TTS and other changes would fit in with Amazon’s business models. Think of this as an opportunity for Amazon, not a burden on it. As for what the competition is doing or not doing, keep in mind that with Bluetooth Amazon has a chance to change the rules of the TTS game. Don’t go by news releases. Stick to what’s actually happening. And above all, please put yourself in David F’s place–we’re talking about real people with real needs.
I am sympathetic with David F, but it would be presumptive to think that I could put myself in his place: I have eyes that more or less work okay, have previous experience with VoiceView on the Kindle Paperwhite (as well as familiarity with Kindle interfaces from K1 on), VoiceOver and TalkBack. I have owned several Bluetooth headsets and speakers and used BT for file sharing, networking, etc. I have a hobby of exploring accessibility features whenever I get a new gadget or a new reading app. I cannot put all of that aside. For me, Kindle was easy and intuitive to set up for VoiceView. One data point, but assuredly an outlier. I don’t count.
David F, from what I can gather from his post, started with little of this, so of course it would be frustrating. Too much to take in. I get it. I wish I could help, it is frustrating to read about his frustration. But again, it is one data point.
(Will you be following up with him to report on his progress or lack thereof?)
Before concluding ‘things are a mess’, we need many more data points representing the people Amazon hopes to target with this device. It is curious that NFB has not reviewed it after a couple of months, given the press releases touting their cooperation with Amazon. Maybe there are NDAs involved.
I love TTS, but am skeptical that 1) Amazon will restore ‘traditional’ TTS to Kindle, and 2) that many people would care if they did.
As for audiobooks on the Kindle, the experiment failed: it was the worst audiobook player ever, even in its day. I tried to love it, and just could not.
Amazon devices combined probably account for less than 10% of Audible’s overall consumption; dedicated Mp3 players, computers, and tablets combined about the same; leaving ~80% for smartphones. Obviously these are wild ass guesses on my part, but it would explain why the Audible player on Fire devices is manifestly inferior to the Audible apps for iOS, Android, and Windows (even ‘failed’ Windows Mobile 10!).
Reblogged this on Matthews' Blog.
@TomS: Of course I’m encouraging David to stick with the Kindle, and I’m rooting for him to succeed. Needless to say, if there’s progress, I’ll be thrilled to write about it. Of course, that won’t help the other blind users or would-be users of the basic model—except indirectly by adding to the store of knowledge on Kindle accessibility.
Meanwhile, please trust David and me. From an accessibility perspective, the Kindle Basic is a mess without doubt. First, the TTS interface is more complicated than it should be for the blind. I’ve described if you things Amazon could do to remedy this. Second, Amazon itself has conceded that the interface is not appropriate for sighted users. What about seeing people with dyslexia and other problems who could benefit from TTS? Or exercisers or commuters? Don’t we want to get kids both moving and exercising? Third, the Kindle is a disaster for certain people who are not blind but who suffer from visual impairments. I can jump up and down and swear that’s true based on personal experience. I’m not low vision, but I do have a contrast sensitivity issue, and if Amazon is doing such a great job, why must I use Calibe to boldface the books I’m reading to enjoy them to the max? Why should we need more data points, except to further establish ways in which Amazon isn’t serving users?
My intention here is not to bash Amazon – in fact, the opposite. The more knowledgeably it can address the Kindle’s accessibility shortcomings, the more comprehensively it can correct them and sell more hardware and books and earn well-deserved goodwill.
(Speech recognition-related glitches corrected.)