Amazon announced yesterday that its Kindle app for iOS had been updated to provide “more accessibility.” In fact, the update (with the inauspicious version number, 3.7) turns a largely inaccessible app into one that VoiceOver screen reader users can rely upon to read, navigate, and manage the contents of a Kindle library. And they did a great job, not merely making the app usable, but opening all Kindle iOS features up to VO.
The fact that blind people have Kindle libraries, given the limited native accessibility of Amazon’s hardware and mobile apps, is testament to the company’s dominant place in book-selling. So, too, are the aggressive efforts made by advocacy organizations for blind users, who have been lobbying Amazon to make this happen for some time. Sure, iOS users have been able to access iBooks since its inception, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook app was born speaking VoiceOver. But Amazon and Kindle retain big dog status, and those of us who have been nursing mistrust of the company must now work out for ourselves whether the proper reaction is joy and gratitude, or a harumphy “it’s about time.”
And despite the world-weary cynicism you might take from the previous paragraph, you should know that the accessible Kindle app is truly a thrilling thing. I have Kindle on my iOS devices, and quickly downloaded the update. When I opened the app with VoiceOver on, I anticipated something great. When I ran my finger across the screen and heard the iPad read book titles and the Kindle menu options (without the “btw” suffix that often indicates marginal accessibility), I was excited. And when I double-tapped to open a book, then did a two-finger swipe to tell VoiceOver to read a page, I became positively giddy.
Accessibility can be like that. You feel as if you have been given the keys to the locked room you’ve always wondered about. To use a closer metaphor, it’s like putting on your first pair of glasses, and suddenly being able to see the blackboard in school. Though I can and have read Kindle books with my eyes, and can and have used VoiceOver to read iBooks and Nook books, I have a strong urge to find a cozy corner, do a two-finger swipe, and luxuriate in the spoken/written word, brought to me by the accessible Kindle app, which gives me access to a library far larger than the one Apple offers.
Putting my news analyst hat back on for a moment, it’s worth reminding those of you who don’t follow this stuff that Amazon’s own hardware is not yet fully accessible, nor is the Kindle Android app. I take this as evidence of the power of those who fought for Kindle accessibility. You see, the people who use screen readers have invested their mobile device dollars in iOS, not Kindles, and not Android phones. Amazon got its priorities right, even if it took them far longer to make this move than many of us would have liked.
It’s an exciting day in accessible publishing. Amazon has finally released an accessible version of its Kindle app for iOS. Frankly, Kindle’s inaccessibility has made that platform easy to ignore, in the community of VoiceOver users. iBooks, Nook, and plenty of other ebook readers offer access via text-to-speech, but neither the Kindle devices, nor Amazon’s apps have done so. Where to buy books then? Anywhere but Amazon. And where to publish books about accessibility? Anywhere but Amazon. Now, though, the playing field is different.
I continue to work on my book about accessibility in Apple’s mobile devices; iOS Access for All. I’ve been asked many times which publishing formats I intended to use, and I’ve always said that Kindle was a low- or no-priority, mostly because the platform hasn’t been accessible. That is both a practical and a political decision on my part. Besides–and nothing Amazon has done today changes this–the Kindle Store imposes high costs on independent publishers. I will be running numbers and continuing to ask potential readers their opinions and platform preferences.
My next post takes a look at how Kindle accessibility feels from a reader’s perspective.
When Google announced this week that it would be shutting down Reader, I took it as another indignity to be borne. I’ve seen services I like shut down, sold, and screwed up beyond recognition. And that’s just the Google stuff! Reader occupies a default tab in my Web browser. I check it first thing in the morning, and return to it all day. I have created something over 20 folders to sort my reading matter, which includes mainstream news sites, friends’ blogs, niche tech content, and long-tail feeds about things you do not care about at all. In short, RSS generally, and Reader specifically, are foundational to the way I live and work online.
I came late to Reader late. Back when I was running Blogger & Podcaster magazine, I had to keep up with what people like Robert Scoble said. And he was all about Reader and a complex web of shared lists and links. In those days, I was a happy NetNewswire user, not needing to sync my feeds to a mobile device or a second computer. So I ignored Scoble, partly because I found his righteousness about the whole thing aggravating, and partly because I wasn’t fussed about sharing what I was reading.
I changed the way I interacted with RSS about the time I got an iPhone. Or was it when a few friends of mine started sharing news items via Reader? I don’t recall exactly, but at some point I went all in with Reader, syncing to the desktop RSS reader, and eventually making that permanent browser tab and all those folders for News, Politics, Podcasting, Longform Writing, Fluff (I Can Haz Cheezburger?), and so on. For a long time, I devoted this here site to a link blog of items I was sharing with friends. It wasn’t the most original content in the world, but I thought my choices were interesting, and the ability to share in this way gave me a means of commenting on the world in a way that was completely in my control, and fun.
Well, the Goog killed off the Share feature just in time to put a lot of its social eggs in the Google+ basket. Being unwieldy, and not a place many of my former Share buddies spent time, Google+ (which does have a tab in my browser), never became a place I cared much about. And like a lot of people, I got more and more things to read from the social networks. But these have never replaced RSS for me. The Three Cs that explain why I prefer RSS to other methods of information-gathering.
- Completeness: Twitter sits on my desktop as I work during the day. I read it and Facebook (probably too much) when I’m at the computer, but hours sometimes go by when I don’t see Twitter. There’s the phone, of course, but I’m not glued to it. Because of the sheer volume of stuff available (I follow 500+ people, talking about topics ranging from cocktails to iOS; accessibility to Austin food), there’s no chance of scrolling back to catch up on what I’ve missed when I’m not plugged into TweetDeck. Unlike a good RSS reader, Twitter is an asynchonous fire hose, even with lists. I could follow fewer people, but if I have better ways of gathering and storing information until I’m able to consume it, why should I? Twitter’s function is not to tell me everything I need to know about the world, but to offer a running commentary, while I’m available to consume it. Twitter works best if you think of it as a party line, or a live TV channel.
- Customization: I do love my Google Reader folders, and they serve me well. Far better than Twitter lists, they allow me to concentrate on, or ignore a topic, based on what’s going on in my world. If I’m following an election campaign closely, the blogs about classic film can wait awhile. Ditto the stories about podcasting, when I’m hip-deep in a book about accessibility. If I need a break, the Music folder awaits. If I want to substitute someone else’s curation for my own, I can subscribe to Slate writer John Dickerson’s set of public RSS feeds. He’s subscribed to some right-wing sites, and though I don’t want to wade through that stuff every day, I do sometimes take a quick look, mark everything I don’t have time for as read, and move on to the pictures of cats.
- Context: This one qualifies as a pet peeve. A couple of weeks ago, I went to San Diego for a conference. I used Twitter primarily to keep track of goings on within a quarter-mile radius. I needed to find people and learn about events. Politics and cocktails, for once, were not on my radar. When I got home, I re-activated the Twitter fire hose. The people covering politics were all on about “the Woodward thing.” I had no idea what they were talking about, and no one provided context. Could I have Googled it up? Sure, but why? Political sites whose RSS feeds I have stored under that tab would explain it in complete sentences the next time I checked. And frankly, I was put off by the assumption implicit in the Twitter shorthand that everyone was completely up-to-date with whatever temporal kerfuffle was blowing through the political world, even if it was a story that wouldn’t matter, 12 hours after it trended. This happens a lot, and not just when I travel. A story hits at 9 AM, and by noon, Twitter has stopped telling you what the story is, and proceeded to analyze it, hashtag it, shorthand it, and make fun of it. You have to be mighty curious to work up enough interest to find out what the holy heck is going on.
I realize that the thing I am attached to is not Google Reader: it’s RSS, and the ability to organize a large group of feeds so that I can consume them on multiple devices, maintaining update status, and controlling the ability to subscribe and unsubscribe as I like. A few other services exist (Google Reader pointed me to a Lifehacker article about them), and I think we have yet to know what the full RSS landscape will be, post-Reader. For my part, I’ve been pondering the feasibility of maintaining my own synced RSS feed file on a server I control. There’s still research to be done on both the server and client sides of that equation. I have til July, apparently.
Each year’s SXSW conference turns my hometown into a giant carnival of music, food, and strangers from strange lands. You can’t turn a corner, or order a cup of coffee without tripping over a guitar player. Which is only a bad thing if the guitar player and his band are in line in front of you.
My contribution to SXSW coverage is a listing of free music downloads and samplers, featuring bands who will be in or near Austin next week. They’re listed in the order I located them. I’ll add more as I find out about them. If you have links to suggest, leave them in the comments.
Day 1 of Macworld/iworld is history. I haven’t been hear in several years, and the first thing that must be said is that many things have changed. The ginormous event that used to fill two sections of the Moscone Convention Center has settled into the smaller, and newer third section. Sessions focus more on personal productivity and hobbyist topics than they once did. The show floor, which was beginning its transition from large companies selling large pieces of hardware, and expensive software the last time I was here, has taken on some of the trappings of an Apple Store, with loads of products for sale. If your Mac or iOS fandom expresses itself in a love of instant gratification, and filling your bag with accessories, the new Macworld/iworld will make you happy.
I confess some nostalgia for the way things were, especially because I was more plugged in, back in the day. But the organizers deserve a great deal of credit for reimagining the event. The second floor, with its photography displays, podcast stage, and prize spinner, among other attractions, is a bit like a state fair. No funnel cake is available, but you can get some sort of grilled cheese sandwich down on the show floor.
While I’m here, I’ve been recording some audio that will appear on Shelly’s Podcast, hopefully before I reach retirement age. The topic is accessibility, and specifically my experiences here at the show and in San Francisco. The audio format allows me to speak in a free-form way, in something close to real time. Sometimes, I talk about accessibility problems that exist because of the arrangement of objects, signs, and events. At other times, I try to be as honest as possible about how the barriers I find affect me; that part’s super hard. Just a preview; poor contrast in instructional signs is not my favorite thing.
People talk a lot about hoarding nowadays. I’m told by multiple sources that there is a reality TV show featuring people who do it to the extent that their houses and lives are destroyed. Sounds super-entertaining, huh? That’s another subject, and one on which you probably wouldn’t like my opinion. But whether it’s inspired by basic cable or not, the word “hoarder” comes up all the time when people need a word to describe their inability to unburden themselves of the objects they have accumulated. Is it a different thing when you need to carry the objects with you?
Before I go on a trip, I feel compelled to stockpile things that I might need; electronic equipment, cables, batteries, and bar tools have all ben stuffed into roll-y bags for trips both long and short. Lately though, what with iPads and phones, and tiny audio recorders, I don’t carry so much excess heavy stuff. All of my pre-travel pack ratting is digital.
I’m about to go to San Francisco for five days. I expect my days and evenings to be packed with events, and that I will tumble exhausted into my bed at ridiculous times of night. And yet, my iPad Mini, iPhone, and iPod Nano are each stuffed to the gills with movies, music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Why? Because I detest the thought of reaching for a digital entertainment and finding that I don’t have it.
I need a movie for the plane ride. Better take four, in case film noir seems more appealing than a musical once I’m in the air. But wait! About half the time, plane cabins on morning flights are too bright to watch a movie, and I scroll through podcasts to find a Fresh Air interview, or a friend’s vacation story show. And what of those late nights when I fall into bed and grope for the device charging next to me? I’ll need some audio drama, or the latest episode of my favorite hometown radio show–until I fall asleep after 20 minutes.
Speaking of that radio show, though, it needs to be on the iPhone, along with the New York Times audio digest I listen to first thing every morning. I must be able to download the new shows while I’m gone, even though I packed gigabytes to take with me on the trip. I will dutifully fire up the slow hotel wi-fi just when everyone else is getting up too, impatiently checking to see that my newspaper has made it onto my iGadget when I exit the shower.
Music? This is the thing I am least likely to consume. I listen to podcasts when I walk or ride public transportation conveyances. Music is for writing time, or as a salve for bouts of insomnia at home. But wait! I might not be able to sleep in the hotel. Better take 4000 or so songs with me.
There’s one more media type clogging up my gigabytes: despite the fact that the average audiobook is at least eight hours long (many are far longer), I have loaded up 11 (ELEVEN) fiction and non-fiction titles. Because, like, how do I know whether I’ll be in the mood for World War II era spy novel, or a critique of the modern military general staff? Maybe it will be a book about how the British interacted with the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War. That’s on standby in case the Tom Perrotta novel with the great reviews seems boring. In any case, there is no chance at all that I will finish any single book during my trip.
Why do I do it? Why, when confronted with one of the greatest cities in the world, and both business and pleasure reasons for visiting, would I go to such lengths to make sure that I can entertain my ears in four or more different ways, on three machines? I don’t know, but TSA hasn’t regulated the digital heft of our iDevices (so far), and disk space continues to be of inconsequential cost. So I might as well, right?
I used to go to Macworld Expo (now Macworld/iWorld) every year. I covered the show for MacUser along with a swarm of my colleagues, roving the aisles to find new products, and meeting with vendors who had secret things to show me. When I became a freelancer, I continued attending the show. I always had a book to sell, or a writing project research. A few times, I gave presentations or signed my books. I helped put on a few parties, and published a bucketful of podcasts, too. That was always a lot of fun. And then there was the annual spectacle of the Steve Jobs’ Keynote. I was there for all the big announcements, doing my best not to get sucked into the very real Reality Distortion Field. Macworld was a social whirl, too. I have so many friends in the Mac economy, and we had some truly great times, running from event to event on cold San Francisco nights in January.
My last Macworld was in 2008. I was editor of Blogger & Podcaster Magazine, and I was trying mightily to raise our profile that year. Sadly, it didn’t work. Our publisher declared bankruptcy. As you might expect, that pretty much killed the magazine.
This year, I’m headed back to San Francisco, and a Macworld/iWorld that seems, from the outside, anyway, to have changed quite a bit since I last attended. The event itself is less focused on business and professional Mac users, and more oriented toward hobbyists and iGadget fans. And of course, we are now fully immersed in the social media and mobile epochs, meaning that simple things like meeting up with friends, and finding venues will work very differently than they have in the past. And many people I’m used to seeing at the show won’t be there: they’ve moved on in their careers or, like me, haven’t been able to justify the trip in a tough economy. Social media comes into play here, too, as people find ways to connect without schlepping across county to shoulder a plastic bag and a laptop on a trade show floor for three days.
But the more profound change for me is that I will not be attending as a member of the press; gifted with an all-access pass to sessions, parties, and the mix-and-mingle center that is the press room. I can handle buying my own bottled water (gasp!), and even the inevitable sorting that goes on when an acquaintance or vendor peers at your badge and discovers that you are but another attendee (and potential customer), not a writer they want to impress. The challenging part will be physical separation from the friends, colleagues, and mover/shaker types who cleave to the behind-the-scenes spaces where one can relax, type out a news story, or scarf down a sandwich between vendor appointments. It is in these places that you run into people you need to run into.
And here I should take a moment to mention my reason for making the trip. I have a book project in the works, and I need to plug it to anyone who will listen. I’m still writing, so my promotional efforts are in the nature of a warning. Look out, because sometime this spring, awesomeness is headed your way, and I’ll be asking your help to promote it. I’ll have more to say about the book as we reach Macworld week and beyond. I need to keep you coming back here, don’t I?
Right up front, I feel compelled to admit that peer pressure has brought me to this open window in MarsEdit, and to the playlist that’s running behind it in iTunes. My friend Dana Nordaune, whose musical taste I respect and adore, posted a thoughtful, well-documented Ten Best Recordings of 2012 on her Facebook page. I loved it, and immediately set about listening to the songs and artists I hadn’t heard. But I also came face to face with my own self-perceived inadequacy.
You see, I used to make annual mix discs for friends, distributed with clever labels and nice artwork, and often wrapped in Christmas paper. They weren’t retrospectives of the current year’s releases, just a bunch songs I happened to be digging at the time, occasionally on a theme. People liked them. People complimented me. People popped the discs in at holiday parties. We need not dwell on that one time when a friend started playing one of my mixes, only to be over-ruled by her guests, who hated it.
So, yeah. Dana’s list-making got to me, and I quickly tried to assemble a mental retrospective of 2012. The first thing I realized was that I’ve been listening to a lot of “old” music. I seemed to be focused on favorite artists; either playing familiar stuff as comfort food, or digging into their back catalog for gems I had somehow missed. I spent quality time with Eleni Mandell, Calexico, Guster, The Nields, and Old 97s, to name a few. I also laid some unexpected nostalgia on the next generation, building a playlist for my nieces and nephews called Music Education. Its shocking reliance on early 80s awesomeness from The B-52s, The Cars, The Romantics, The Clash, Queen, etc. surprised even me. But hey, the kids loved it and it builds strong bones. And maybe mohawks.
The final non-2012 element of my musical year was discovery (thanks to friends) of great 2011 music. (I hate when that happens.) See Neko Case soundalike Lydia Loveless, Dengue Fever, Fleshtones (listened to, but not loved until this year), and the latest from faves Nathan Hamilton and Michael Fracasso.
(When is she getting to the Best of 2012?)
Owing to my late start and lack of previous focus on the idea, I used automation to gather up all of the 2012-released music I had acquired. This seems, even to me, like a cheater’s way, but it does at least point out where my head was at during the various moments last year when I was adding new music to my life. From there, I did a lot of memory-jogging, and also a bit of analysis of what tracks had ended up on playlists I had made throughout the year. And I noted which albums I acquired because they seemed cool, but turned out disappointing. There were a surprising number of those.
I freely admit that this is more a geek’s method of finding gold than an art critic’s. For this, I’m sorry. I can only work to do better next year.
Having gone on at such length, I’ll forego detailed descriptions or praises of albums, songs, and artists. I will say, looking at the list, that half of it seems to reflect continued love for favorite artists (Caroline Herring, Calexico, Buddy Miller, Lucy Kaplansky), while another few tracks reflect new discoveries (Oppenheimer, Laura Gibson, and especially April March). and while some tracks are here to represent great albums (Kathleen Edwards, The Heavy) there are others (Imperial Teen, the dBs) that came to me one song at a time. You’ll have to work out for yourself whether the albums are any good, as I will over the next few weeks.
||Open Your Heart
|Can’t Play Dead
||The Glorious Dead
||Feel the Sound
|That Time Is Gone
||Falling Off the Sky
||Attack On Memory
||Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale
||Buddy and Jim
|Song For G
||The Racket Takes Its Toll
*Listed in the order I would play them for you, not by preference or alphanumeric precision
Here is my most recent Macworld.com piece; a review of. FileXaminerr. As I say in the review, it’s like Get Info on steroids.