This week, the blind and visually impaired community got a surprise, one that we’ve been waiting for for a long time, and one that, it’s safe to say, most of us weren’t expecting. (This would be why it was a surprise, right?) Amazon announced that its Kindle app for iOS now had new accessibility features, thus making the app usable by blind and visually impaired iPhone users. They also promise improvements to accessibility on their other platforms. You can read about it at this link. I downloaded the app, with a great deal of excitement and anticipation I might add, and it appears to be everything they say it is, with access to not only the reading of books, but also highlighting, Emailing excerpts, notes, looking up words in the dictionary, and searches. In short, this app seems to have done it right, rather than doing it fast.
The day after Amazon’s announcement, I got an Email from this press release. I thought I was responding to an Email list–it was early still, and I was still waking up, but I instead seem to have Emailed instead to either the NFB’s other PR person or to the guy that runs iBooks and the Nook reader from Barnes and Noble. I think, though haven’t looked in a while, that it may well be better than KNFB’s own Blio, which should probably embarrass somebody. So, specifically, what improvements would we suggest?
In this Email, I neglected to mention Kobo or Google Play books, both of which have at least some access features, or at least, work to some extent with commending of a far inferior implementation in 2009, this current press release almost sounds angry that Amazon did anything about the problem.
I’ve played a bit with this newly accessible Kindle app, and it’s good. It was done right. Where’s the acknowledgement of that? Why commend a half-baked effort that is unsuitable for more than the most casual reading on one hand, but practically spit at a stellar example of what can be done on the other? Could it be because Amazon did it without asking for the NFB’s blessing or input first? In fact, it looks like they may not have asked for anyone’s input, as this came as a real bombshell of an announcement with no leaks.
Really, those of y’all in the national office, would a “Good work, guys, thanks” and virtual pat on the back really be that difficult? Would it hurt you so much? It would certainly do a lot to raise your PR standing in the community. Absolutely do not back away from the stance that access to Kindle on other platforms is necessary, even vital. Please don’t. Such access is critical, and we should not rest until we have it. I have no quarrel with that. But would some recognition of a good effort in which you did not have a hand really be so bad?
By way of full disclosure, I am an active member of the National Federation of the Blind. I have been one for over 20 years. Until a more effective membership organization that mirrors my own philosophy of blindness comes along, I expect to continue to be thus affiliated. That said, I fully expect that this post will not make me very popular among the leadership.
Update: The NFB’s technology center has published a review of the Kindle app, which you can read on the center’s blog. I think that the justifications for grading are fair, and I also believe the criticisms are equally fair. As I haven’t tested all these features myself, I have no reason to argue with their findings. I may well have weighted things differently, and I might have been a bit more forgiving for this being their first run at it. I may not, too. At any rate, I have no quarrel with the review, and if Amazon endeavors to improve the accessibility features they’ve implemented, we’ll all be better for it. Watch this space, I guess.
Even so, I stand by my opinion that the tone of the press release could have been more positive and supportive of these initial efforts on the iOS platform, long time in coming though they are.
Update #2: 05/07/2013:
Here’s a link to a different take on how Amazon did with implementing accessibility features. This review is much more positive, and it doesn’t seem to have run into the same problems that the NFB technology center did in their review. While some might say I’m waffling, I also have no quarrel with this review, think its points are also valid, and believe that it was conducted in good faith and as objectively as possible, excitement over access to over a million titles notwithstanding. It’s certainly possible that the reading experience differs between iPad and iPhone, where bugs may exist in one and not the other, and there may also be problems with braille display driver implementations or conflicts. I think all of us will be interested to see how more hardware combinations do with the new Kindle app.
It is important to remember that Amazon is aggressively pushing Kindle devices and ebooks as a solution for schools. Specifically the company is promoting WhisperCast, which allows teachers and administrators to push Kindle content to many devices, including those using Apple’s iOS. This was the focus of the demonstration by the National federation of the Blind outside Amazon’s headquarters in December and of the concerns we raise at http://www.nfb.org/kindle-books. Whatever the merits of the new Kindle iOS app, its accessibility features are not robust enough for use by blind students.
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