Amazon, please unmute the Paperwhite: No need for the workaround shown in this video, when TTS chips cost next to nothing!

fingerreaderAt first glance, the MIT-designed FingerReader shown in this video looks intriguing for people with print-related challenges. But major catches exist, beyond the robotic voice. Using the little text to speech reader is slow going, as you’ll notice if you play the video.

If nothing else, why must even experimenters feel compelled to try the FingerReader on the popular Amazon Paperwhite or other e-readers without text to speech? 

Shouldn’t the e-reader gadgets have TTS in the first place? Without a loudspeaker or at least a headphone jack, the Paperwhite can’t offer even a primitive equivalent of Apple’s Voiceover. Amazon spruced up the Paperwhite’s recent predecessors with text to speech; why the exception?

A solution would be easy. Just give the Paperwhite text to speech. You don’t need a lab full of MIT Ph.D.s, or even one such brainiac, to puzzle this one out. The cost would be only a few dollars at the most and perhaps just a fraction of that. I hope that the FCC, which has shown an interest in these matters, will crack down severely on Amazon if it isn’t more decent here.

FCC should go nuclear if Amazon won’t act

No, I haven’t the slightest problem with a bit of a delay to let Amazon tweak the Paperwhite. But after that, the FCC if need be should go nuclear. The American Library Association, as  a long-time advocate of accessibility, should continue to bird-dog these issues, given the large number of library patrons dependent on Kindles. Aren’t there regulations anyway to promote accessibility of library-purchased computers—even if most people rely on their own e-readers and other devices?

For good measure the ALA and the FCC should lean on Amazon and other companies to offer a good all-bold text option (if possible with adjustable font weights) to help readers who prefer high-contrast black on white. Such a change would also allow people to use less battery power.

My hope is that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and rivals will be smart enough to stay ahead of the feds, the ALA and public opinion. Other Amazon products are more friendly than before to people with disabilities. Let’s see some progress here, too, Jeff!

Callous and bad for business

If Amazon can’t bear the thought of a loudspeaker adding even a tiny amount of size or weight, it should at least include a slim headphone jack. Instead of listening to mediocre TTS, people with disabilities could enjoy stellar voices from Ivona, a subsidiary of Amazon. My favorite Ivona voice is the incredible British-accented  “Amy” (follow the link to hear her).

Why is Amazon so callous toward the sight-impaired, given all the good that corrective measures could do?  Absence of TTS from the Paperwhite is actually bad business. Plenty of Amazon customers without serious sight impairments or other disabilities could benefit from TTS during commutes or exercise sessions, and they might not even grasp the possibilities if TTS didn’t exist on their machines to begin with. Devoted Amazon fans could start books at home and continue them on the road. Result? More time for reading—and a bigger market for the books Amazon sells.

Simply put,TTS is a way for books as a medium to be more competitive. The benefits of universal TTS will far, far outweigh losses from sales of professionally narrated audio books. Who knows? They might even help them in some cases. No one can do a human act better than a human, and TTS is a great way to promote the benefits of listening when tradition reading isn’t easy or even possible.

E-Readers vs. tablets: The cost factor

Here’s something else to consider. For many reasons, including cost, dedicated E Ink readers like the Paperwhite may be better for many e-book-lovers than Fire-style tablets would be. Isn’t Amazon supposed to be a customer-centric outfit? Why must marketers’ dogmas of segmentation—or whatever the excuse—come ahead of the needs of real humans living on tight budgets?

Related: TechCrunch report on the Paperwhite update rumored for 2014. No TTS mentioned in the article itself, alas—although at least two commenters want it back.

Note: First, I can’t guarantee that the gizmo in the video is a Paperwhite (it could be or a model with similar looks). Just the same, the big point here remains: this is an inelegant, kludgish way of offering TTS. Second, I  heartily approve of the existence of the FingerReader and assume that the MIT researchers want it to be a lot better. That’s not the point here. Rather, it’s to show the cruelty and stupidity of muting the Paperwhite. Third, let me make it clear I’m in many ways pro-Amazon. On the whole I’m a fan of the company’s hardware except for the TTS issue and, of course, the highly proprietary tech and related problems that come with Kindles (just try buying the wonderful Mantano e-book reader from the Amazon app store for a Fire HDX—even though the Amazon-supplied version will work on many other machines, and will on the Fire itself if you install it from other sources).

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