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.
Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of being a guest on Robert Carter’s Tech Doctor Podcast. It’s a weekly show focused on technology and blindness. I’ve corresponded with Robert before. Turns out he is a listener to Shelly’s Podcast, and a fellow Texan. It was nice to finally meet him. Along with his co-host, Allison Hartley, Robert and I had a wide-ranging discussion of my career, low vision, the Macintosh/iOS, and the book I’m writing.
I was surprised how much ground we covered. And on reflection, I realize that I’ve never discussed many of these topics before on a podcast, or even with most of my friends and colleagues in the tech world. If you want to know what it was and is like to make a career in tech journalism as a low vision person, give it a listen. I want to thank Robert and Allison for inviting me on. And now I am subscribed to one more really great podcast about technology and blindness. Have I mentioned how many great podcasts you’ll find in that category? I oughtta do a post about that sometime.
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.
I am very excited to announce my new book, iOS Access for All: Your Comprehensive Guide to Accessibility for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. I feel a little strange announcing something that is not yet finished and available for you to read, but the fast pace of this social-media-driven world makes it important to begin talking about it while I’m writing it, and while I’m gathering ideas and feedback from potential readers.
Here’s the “elevator pitch” for iOS Access for All. Apple’s iDevices include many features that make them accessible to people with disabilities. Most books and Web sites that cover iOS do not address accessibility at all, or fail to do so in any depth. The fine folks who create these resources simply do not use or understand this rich suite of features. I do. The “accessibility Web” for lack of a better term, provides lots of information about accessibility in iOS, but it’s often focused on a single feature, like VoiceOver, or lacks updated content. iOS Access for All is a comprehensive guide because it covers the full range of iOS accessibility features, plus chapters describing the best and most important accessible apps. My experience as author of 12 how-to oriented books about the Macintosh, wireless networking, and Web development qualifies me to write the most thorough and informed guide to iOS accessibility available. I’m also visually impaired, and a daily user of accessibility tools.
OK, that’s the high-rise elevator pitch. If your building isn’t so tall, try this:
iOS Access for All is your comprehensive guide to accessibility for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. You’ll learn how to use all accessibility tools, as well as which apps are must-haves for those who depend on accessibility features. I’ll update the book and its online presence frequently. I’ve written 12 technology books, and worked as a journalist for 25 years. This will be a good book!
For the full scoop on the book, please go to the iOS Access for All Web site. Right now, it’s your basic WordPress blog. I’ll be posting lots of updates in the next few weeks, Read the FAQ and sign up for the mailing list.
I’m thrilled to be working on this project, and judging by the feedback I’ve gotten from my friends in the Mac/iOS community, as well as the accessibility experts I know, there is a need out there.
Here is a story I wrote for Stabley Times about the latest Samsung lawsuit against Apple. This one is all about a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, the accessibility of iOS.
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?