E-Readers Waived by FCC

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March 1, 2016
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March 15, 2016

Text to speech is not a high dollar addition to include in the software of current E Ink readers like Amazon’s Paperwhite and the Voyage. Actually, some early versions of the Kindle came with read­aloud settings. Those days are gone now thanks to the Federal Communications Commission and their waiver to the e­reader industry for yet another year from the Twenty­First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010.

The waiver wouldn’t have necessarily guaranteed text­to­speech (TTS), but long term, it would have helped people ranging from vision­impaired users to school children with dyslexia.

You may be asking why the e­reader industry would go for this consumer­hostile ruling, but it simply comes down to a sales standpoint and putting cash before customers. Jeff Bozos, CEO of Amazon, raved about the read­aloud feature when he showed off the Kindle 2 in 2009, however, Mr. Bozos now wants to nudge people to buy both mute E Ink machines and the multimedia Fire series of computers. Marketing­think ahead of actual consumer needs seems to be the forward thinking way for most corporations.

The irony is that Amazon and likeminded vendors have put themselves into a pickle by also making the E Ink machines useless for listening to audiobooks, which, in so many respects, can offer possibilities beyond TTS.

When they explained the decision, the FCC once again said it may grant waivers under a technicality in the accessibility act. It’s basically saying that Paperwhites, Voyagers, and the like do not primarily provide “advanced communications services” devices as defined by the law. Cost­benefit ratios and the general intent of the CVAA are not the only arguments for TTS. Many in the library and disabled communities would also point out that Amazon machines and other E Ink devices contain web browsers. If nothing else, people can take a web page and “send to Kindle” via an Amazon app, with the results displayed on the E Ink machine. So why not TTS presentation, too? Files picked up from e­mails can also be read by Kindle and like devices. In fact, many users even set up their Paperwhite’s browser to access their Gmail accounts directly.

All of this definitely sounds like “advanced communications”, but regardless of whether the browser is optimal. Might marketing around the accessibility laws be one reason why the browsers in E Ink machines are still rotten today, even with much faster chips in the readers? Screen speed isn’t the only factor. Besides, that has also improved.

The decisions is a setback not just for disability­related causes but also literacy­related ones. Regardless of what industry lobbyists say, TTS is reading ­ just a different kind. Even people without disabilities can benefit, using TTS to whet their interest in a book, and then getting hooked and enjoying the text the usual way. Not to mention all the commuters who could start aurally and continue with traditional reading. A little common sense, compassion, and social awareness can go a long way.