Braille Monitor                                                 February 2012

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Mainstream Access to E-Books: My Perspective

by James Gashel

Jim GashelFrom the Editor: One of the big issues blind people must address to remain competitive is access. It is a moving target. An electronic book may be accessible one day and far less accessible in a newer incarnation of the electronic reader. What constitutes accessibility? If a system is cumbersome but ultimately usable, is it accessible? If it is usable by someone skilled in the use of technology but not by the new reader of an electronic book, is it inaccessible or is the problem our lack of experience with the seemingly arbitrary methods that have to be employed to make it work?

These questions have no easy answers, and, if they did, the evolving nature of technology makes it almost certain that what we might say from month to month would, at times, seem convoluted and contradictory. As the article by Amy Mason that appeared in the January Monitor and this article by Jim Gashel make clear, we’re a lot better off than we were several years ago, but there are still difficulties as we climb on board the train moving us toward reading mainstream electronic books. Here is Mr. Gashel’s perspective as a longtime reader and a vice president of a company trying to get in on the growing e-book market and simultaneously trying to ensure that what it distributes is usable by the blind:

As many readers of the Braille Monitor are aware, I serve as secretary of the National Federation of the Blind after having worked on behalf of our governmental affairs and strategic initiatives efforts for thirty-three and a half years. I grew up in Iowa under the tutelage of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan and continue to work side by side with Dr. Maurer as he successfully leads our movement from one challenge to the next and from one victory to another, moving ever closer to equality. My day job is to serve as a vice president of K-NFB Reading Technology, which was born from our partnership with Ray Kurzweil and is dedicated to inventing and disseminating reading technology that meets our needs for accessibility.

Amy Mason's article, “Mainstream Access to E-Books—What Works, What Doesn't, and What Is Still Unclear,” appeared in the January 2012 issue of the Braille Monitor and presents her experienced knowledge based on actual and personal use of several e-book reading systems. Consistent with our purpose to establish the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind—to provide blind people and others with objective information needed to evaluate technology--Amy's article is a must-read for anyone interested in knowing the current status of e-book access and what to expect.

As a blind person my entire life and currently a vice president of the company that makes Blio—one of the e-book readers reviewed--I found Amy's report on the e-book landscape to be fascinating and potentially valuable, not only to blind users of e-book technology, but also to engineers, planners, publishers, and leaders in our industry. Obviously I wish Blio had performed flawlessly during Amy's review, but, given the state of the art with ever-changing computer technology and digital publishing still in a stage of relative infancy, flawless performance of Blio or any other e-book reading system on an open platform such as Windows is not always a realistic expectation.

Setting aside the geeks among us who may want to try anything new just for the experience, what should the average consumer do and expect in the emerging world of e-books? Is the technology in its current state worth fooling with? My short answer to these questions is an unqualified and enthusiastic "yes." And, although I have not discussed this perspective with Amy Mason, I feel confident that she would agree.

Although Amy reviewed some of the technologies used to read unprotected EPUB and PDF files, including books, these technologies are not at the center of the e-book challenge. Publishers don't sell unprotected EPUB or PDF content because no copyright protection is in place. Without copyright protection, exposing the text to access technology can be done without objection or barriers being imposed by authors and publishers. This is due in part to the Chafee amendment to the Copyright Act which Congress passed in 1996 allowing authorized entities to produce and distribute nondramatic literary works in specialized formats for the blind without first obtaining the copyright owner's permission.

Let's use the term “commercial e-books” to refer to books in digital formats being sold to the general public by publishers with digital rights management applied. This is the classic situation as in a traditional bricks-and-mortar bookstore where a copy of a book is sold to a consumer and the consumer's right and/or ability to copy the book is restricted both by technology and by the law. When it is sold as a commercial e-book, the technology used does not permit the book to be copied, and the book can only be read on a limited number of devices (normally up to five) authorized in the user's e-book account record.

Amy's report makes clear that some commercial e-book systems use dedicated devices and some do not. Of those using dedicated devices, none is conveniently usable or genuinely accessible to the blind, although menus may be spoken in some instances and some books may have some form of text-to-speech enabled. Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook are the best known devices in this category. Their failure to be conveniently usable and genuinely accessible is not a failure of the technology to perform as intended. In fact these devices often perform fairly well in doing what they were intended to do, but they were not designed to provide an accessible book-reading experience for the blind. Changing this lack of access may require use of different technology, but the reason for the lack of access is the lack of a corporate commitment to accessibility. Make the commitment, and accessible technology will follow.

When one moves beyond the dedicated e-book devices, the prospect of finding a system you can use is a bit more encouraging overall and can be excellent depending on your needs. For example, Amy points out that Amazon has a version of Kindle for Windows PCs which does include a degree of accessibility, limited only to speech but not including access to system menus or book content using Braille. Book-reading with the synthetic text-to-speech installed with Amazon's accessibility plug-in does work and works especially well for continuous reading of a book if ease of navigation is not a priority.

But does Amazon have a corporate commitment to accessibility for its various e-book systems? This may fall under Amy's category of Still Unclear, since Kindle on Windows PCs is somewhat accessible, but their other e-book products and services are not. Amazon’s work to release an accessible plug-in to their Kindle PC reader was certainly a positive move, albeit a response to our outside pressure. But this move was then followed by release of later products, including the recently released Kindle Fire, that are either partially or completely inaccessible. Also, try as you may, you can't use Amazon's Kindle app for the iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, regardless of Apple's VoiceOver speech output capability pre-installed on all of these devices, and Kindle for Android devices is also inaccessible, not noted in Amy's review. So the only way to buy and read Kindle books if you want to do that is to use a Windows PC with a screen reader installed. Other than that, no version of Kindle is accessible.

What about Barnes and Noble's Nook? Forget about it! Aside from the dedicated device already mentioned as inaccessible, not a single Barnes and Noble Nook application is accessible, including Nook for Windows PCs, the Nook app for Apple devices, or the Nook app for Android.

Turning to technologies developed by Google and Apple, the prospects for accessible e-book-reading definitely do get better, especially with Apple's iBooks app for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, and with Google Books, which is the reader developed for access to books from Google designed for Apple devices. As Amy points out, both Google Books and iBooks work well, albeit somewhat differently, with Apple's VoiceOver speech technology, which also supports quite good but occasionally clumsy access during page changes using a refreshable Braille display.

But, while Apple deserves great credit for developing its VoiceOver technology and including it in its Apple (iOS) devices, VoiceOver alone does not make e-book systems accessible. If it did, Amazon's Kindle app and Barnes and Noble's Nook app would also be accessible on Apple devices. The fact that they are not accessible on these devices demonstrates that both Google and Apple are pursuing a level of commitment to access for the blind that far exceeds that of both Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Now we come to Blio. Amy reported that Blio completely crashed during her evaluation and pointed to some other known limitations in using the current public version on Windows PCs. The defect she found when navigating line by line on an Apple device no longer exists and may have been resolved by an upgrade to a later version of Apple's iOS software. In my personal experience, using Blio on either the PC or on Apple devices virtually every day for the past year, I believe that K-NFB has achieved a level of overall accessibility that is greater for the blind than the overall level of accessibility of any other commercial e-book reading system. That said, I know our performance can improve and may have a long way to go, depending on the platform and access technology being used.

Although Amy didn't focus on this, the NFB's access technology staff has given K-NFB particularly glowing praise for achieving the highest quality of accessibility and reliability of our Blio app designed for Apple devices. My personal favorite way to read commercial e-books is with Blio on the iPad, although I occasionally use the iPhone as my e-book reader. Is Blio better than Apple's iBooks? It may be a close race, but Blio does seem to do a slightly better job with Braille, and the two are essentially the same with speech. Dyslexic readers prefer Blio, with its synchronized synthetic speech and visually highlighted text, over iBooks. By the time this article is published an accessible version of Blio for use on Android devices will also be available as a free download from the Android Market, and comments will be encouraged.

As for corporate commitment, some have been outspoken in criticizing K-NFB for being essentially like all the others in giving what amounts to lip service to accessibility while pushing ahead with a totally or virtually inaccessible service. These critics continue to cite the first version of Blio that was launched in September 2010 and was not accessible, and an accessible version for Windows PCs was not released until four months later. Putting aside the fact that no one involved at K-NFB or the NFB was happy making the decision to release an inaccessible version of Blio first, the decision was compelled by limitations in screen-reader and Windows presentation format technology and not by a lack of corporate commitment.

Although some will say that a corporate commitment to accessibility doesn't exist unless the product or service is accessible on the first day it is launched, I do not accept this as a given in every situation and would love to debate the matter with anyone who does. In my view commitment is demonstrated by whether the corporation is pursuing a deliberate effort to make its products or services accessible and not solely by the fact that they are withheld from the market until the product or service is accessible. And, for what it may be worth, some of the same individuals who criticized both the NFB and K-NFB for launching the PC version of Blio before it was accessible just found other reasons to complain when the Blio app for Apple devices was fully accessible on the first day it was launched—proving the old adage that some people aren’t satisfied, no matter what you do.

The bottom line is this: with Ray Kurzweil as the chairman of the board and CEO of K-NFB Reading Technology, backed by Dr. Maurer and Mary Ellen Jernigan as members of the board, the unwavering corporate commitment to accessibility of Blio and other reading products and services both now and in the future is in good hands, and performance improvements needed over time will be made.

Meanwhile, consider this: the entire industry of making, selling, and reading commercial e-books is only now being invented. Some of the early technologies used in this industry will evolve and survive into the future, but those that are not accessible or cannot be made accessible will very likely not survive. Only within the last twelve months (and mostly within the last six months) have I as a sixty-five-year-old blind man been able to purchase and read a book on the day it is published after buying the book in a commercial bookstore at the same price paid by everyone else, knowing that the book I have bought will be accessible when I open it. The hassle and delay while books are transcribed or produced by a library or special service can be over. If you have not had this experience, visit on the Internet, where you can browse the bookstore, buy books, and have them ready to display on your Windows PC—desktop, laptop, or netbook--or on your Apple or Android mobile device of choice. The software you need to read and display books, whether Windows, Apple, or Android, is free, and the information needed to download the version of Blio you want can be found on at the Meet Blio link. Although installing any software can lead to an interesting experience, the process is normally quite simple and straightforward. Not sure you can handle it? Just ask your average thirteen-year-old for help, and your problem will likely be solved. So join me in the e-book revolution. Yes we're pioneers, knowing that things may not perform as we want them to on every device we use, but we're having a lot of fun reading the books we want to read when we want to read them and not waiting for an agency or library to produce them.

By the way: did you read Kill Alex Cross by James Patterson, recently released? Don't like James Patterson? How about Patricia Daniels Cornwell's Red Mist, just released by Penguin USA/Putnam Pub Group, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, or The Litigators by John Grisham? Using Blio I have recently read them all, and you can too. As the exercise man tells me every morning, "Just remember," he says, "There ain't nothin’ to it but to do it!"

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