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.
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.