Thursday, January 07, 2010

A Look Back At 2009: Part One

I want to sincerely thank J.J. and the crew at Blind Bargains for asking me to participate with their Top Ten 2009 series of posts. He caught me right before I began the longest vacation I’ve taken in ten years, therefore, he got a down and dirty raw stream of consciousness on the events I selected from his list. And what a comprehensive list it was. There were stories in there that I completly forgot about or I wasn’t aware that they even happened in the course of the year. 2009 turned out to be very much a turning point for the AT Industry in several arenas. But it may or may not be obvious as to what made the year so big for so many.

J.J. encouraged me to create my own list, however, I decided to go in a different direction and highlight some of the key stories from his original long list instead. Nevertheless, before you go any further, you should read the Top Ten, okay Eleven, list the team posted first.

You also may want to download the companion piece from Main Menu’s archives as it expands greatly on many of the stories in the list. You can find the archives at this link.

The following blurbs are a more refined version or a longer director’s cut of my original musings to J.J.’s list. They are in no particular order as I really only selected one story as the biggest of the year. I’ll point that monster out in a post later on in this series.

Amazon Promises a More Accessible Kindle

The rollercoaster ride of the Kindle began 2009 with many declaring it the new textbook replacement. Well , that didn’t last very long as two problems arose. One problem was that a pilot study found that people didn’t find it effective at the University used for the study. The second came when the NFB and others decided to remind Amazon of the inaccessibility of the Kindle in general.

The Kindle, however, moved onwards and Amazon later released the Kindle DX. This larger version of the unit was even loosely marketed as a device that would be better for those who had issues with Low Vision. I’ll stop right there because I don’t want to launch into a tirade on font sizes, colors and styles on non backlit displays.. let me just say that Text to Speech in the menus, not the materials, is a bigger sticking point for the Kindle models at large.

What some don’t realize is that Amazon is bound to restrictions set by the Publishers. If a Publisher does not authorize the company to allow the kindle to read the given book with speech, then there isn’t much Amazon can do about that. However, if they had made everything else talk they would have avoided a lot of drama over the year and left the fight back to the Publishers where the true issue still belongs.

Moreover, not making the iPhone and other Kindle software apps that were also released in 2009 seems a bit like history repeating. Still, the number of alternatives to the Kindle is staggering and all we see in 2009 is the tip of a very big iceberg when it comes to E-Publishing.

I end on this note for you conspiracy buffs. Amazon owns Audible.. think about that a bit.

Intel Reader

Speaking of reading text aloud, the release of the Intel Reader is an interesting example of mainstream collaborating with the niche that is today’s Assistive Technology Industry.  At face value this seems like a mixture of chocolate and peanut butter that should result in a wonderful end product. But it really depends on who you ask as some might be allergic to one ingredient or prefer solitary confinement for their sweets.

The Intel Reader turns out to be an okay device for someone who is Low Vision. The device sports a large display similar to those found on many hand held Video Magnifiers. The text can be enlarged and modified to some degree. The colors of the display, and for the bezel of the unit as well, do not distract someone from seeing the screen if they suffer from glare sensitivity.

The Text To Speech is generally clear and easy to understand and there are a minimal set of options to customize the voices in pitch and rate. There is a simple file browser for reviewing past saved materials. And the controls are easy to find and mostly reside on the face of the unit.

The first question that hit the web was “Is this a competitor to the KNFB Reader?”. Now, I’m going to be very opinionated and blunt here so be prepared, oh **** no!

I’ll try very very hard to be brief. It is heavy, it is wide, it does not fit well in smaller hands, it isn’t easy to navigate through large texts, it takes a millennium to boot up and that is my short list. Again, and I can’t stress this enough, for some this may be a wonderful device to use for those who aren’t technically minded.

The Intel Reader has a story behind the story though. This story involves marketing terms like brand synergy, product elevation and other made up sales terms not worth noting here. The need to find new blue oceans in the field of Assistive Technology was a driving force in 2009 and it will practically be the foremost directive for some individuals in 2010.

The Intel Reader is an advanced scout in a new army of products that are meant to reach out beyond the traditional devices we long time users of Assistive Tech know and love. Many people who I spoke to offline see this as a sign that things are moving away from some core features and dare I say needs of the current Blindness population. I usually remind people that the Trekker Breeze was really the first product to begin this trend for Humanware.

To clarify, a lot of time is going into new products that would fit the bill of the aging population. Sadly an even larger emerging market comes from those who have returned from military service overseas. And, not to be forgotten, there is a lot of Government spending being aimed at the primary Education sector as well. In other words, if you are reading this blog then you might not be the intended audience for the Intel Reader. Which isn’t a bad thing as those market segments need entry level devices like this.

The untold story behind it all is that 2009 could be deemed “The Year Of Choice”. I’ll expand on that insightful remark in part 2 of this series.

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