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

At 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 below.

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

Shouldn’t the ereader 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 ereaders 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.

eReaders 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 ebook-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 ebook 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).

reposted under a CC license from Library City

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

  1. Long story short.

    Big publishers threatened Amazon when TTS was provided with every Kindle eReader.
    “eBooks read through TTS = a derivative version, you must pay as we consider it is an audiobook” they said.
    Soon a kill switch was made available, so that publishers could prevent TTS.
    Later, Amazon dropped TTS.

    Keyword: lawsuit.

    This is well-documented, you can find quite a lot of information online.

    Unless someone requires publishers to allow TTS, there is no solution.

  2. Thanks, Jack, but what about the books whose authors and publishers want TTS enabled in all Kindles? My novel is one if them. Twilight Times Books and I truly, truly despise this barriers to full accessibility (a potential benefit to all readers, not just those with disabilities). Are there any legal cases preventing Amazon from including TTS capabilities in the Paperwhite – especially when they’re present in my recently purchased Kindle HDX? There’s a difference between treatment of specific titles and the inclusion or noninclusion of TTS in a device. We’re not talking about exactly the same issue.

    David

  3. It’s worth noting that Google Play Books, for all its weirdness (I’m still working my way through their tech-support bureaucracy trying to get a solid explanation of how it works), does have a very good text-to-speech system. It has two modes: one is a ver-ee bay-sic ro-bot voice; the other (which requires a data connection to work) does a passable (though not great) impression of human speech.

    I was planning to do some experiments with text-to-speech pronunciation markup in ebooks, to see how widely the different methods are supported, but I got sidetracked by other projects.

  4. Yes, Ben, I’ve used Google’s text to speech on Play books. This can even work with third-party speech engines and voices, including Amazon’s own Ivona and the incredible British-accented “Amy” voice, if I recall correctly.

    In effect you’ve supplied yet another argument in favor of Amazon doing TTS in the Paperwhite. Thanks for mentioning this! I’d love to see Amy on the Paperwhite, as well as other improvements, such as the option of all-text bolding.

    While the Fires offer TTS (I don’t remember if the first gen got the necessary upgrade, but the others provide it), Amazon needs to spread it to the Paperwhite if it’s to be fully competitive.

    David

  5. The lack of audio support has kept me from buying the Paperwhite in all its iterations. In fact when the first paperwhite came out I read the specs and then bought another Kindle Keyboard. I’m glad I did because the KK is no longer available. I want TTS and I want page turn buttons!

  6. Jack Lennon is right about TTS, but publishers aren’t really to blame.

    The problem is that TTS has never been clarified as to what kind of right is it. (In publishing, rights refer to the different types of format sales for a written work. Some of the rights that can be contracted from an author are the right to publish a paperback version, a hardcover version, an ebook version, and an audio version of a work. )

    When the Kindle 2 first appeared with TTS, the Authors Guild and publishers rightly contested it because Amazon was grabbing a right that it hadn’t contracted for.

    Right now, TTS has little value as a right, but with the increasing improvement of TTS and the various voices, this will eventually change.

    For more details, I recommend my article on the situation.

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2009/02/authors-guild-versus-amazon-kindle-2.html

  7. Marilyn, I appreciate your perspective and share your interest in protecting authors’ rights. But again, we need to distinguish between (1) TTS capabilities for specific books and (2) the presence or absence of TTS technology in a popular E Ink device for use when writers and publishers allow it.

    Yes, Amazon lets publishers to turn off TTS on particular titles or allow it. Yourself, in your blog post, note the ability of DRM to disable TTS. In this case, Amazon respects content providers’ wishes in either direction. Want some proof in regard to “allow”? See http://amzn.to/1cjUUCA, a shortcut to the Amazon page for my novel, The Solomon Scandals. Honoring the wishes of both Twilight Times Books and yours truly, the following appears within “Product Details”: “Text-to-Speech: Enabled.” Great!

    I love the idea of my book being fully accessible without any need for people with disabilities to mess with a special library, assuming Scandals is there in the first place. And it isn’t just because I’m a nice guy. I’m looking out for buyers—-with or without disabilities—who’ll be more inclined to buy my book if they know they can not only read it conventionally at home but also listen to it in the car. The availability of TTS makes my novel more valuable and thus more likely to be bought, especially when the technology is better.

    Some people might say, “But what about audiobook rights?” The answer is that I care more about sales volume than I do about squeezing readers for every last nickel. The marketplace is tough enough for long-tail works from small publishers like mine. I don’t need lack of TTS to be an obstacle. In fact, if it’s on the Paperwhite—and may that day come soon!—I’ll sell a few more copies over the long run. Meanwhile I won’t give up on a human-recorded audiobook (I’ve never really had time to pursue that possibility seriously). Some customers might still favor a human voice, and beyond that, the audiobook could include various extras such as an in-depth author’s interview. If an audiobook publisher insists on the disabling of TTS, then I’d rather not do business with it.

    Let me add one more detail. As an advocate of fair use, I myself believe that TTS rights should exist for all books. But again, even if you factor in the current legal ambiguities, Amazon certainly is NOT trampling on the rights of authors and publishers—not when its DRM lets them turn off TTS off for specific titles so that Fires, etc., can’t read them aloud.

    Simply put, if the Authors Guild cares about writers’ rights in both law and practice, then it should protect the one to allow text to speech; the Guild should actually encourage Amazon to include TTS capabilities in the Paperwhite, not just the Fires and others. “Practice” is the operative word here.

  8. David, Amazon did not “respect” the content provider’s rights. They were forced to respect them because the Authors Guild and some publishers raised holy hell about their blatant rights grab.

    If you want TTS to be enabled on your books, that is your right. If you don’t want to, that’s your right. It is no one’s right to take away the creator’s choice in this matter.

    I am not a fan of AG, nor am I a member, but they did the right thing in this case by stopping a big corporate bully from grabbing and running with a right just because they thought they could get away with it.

  9. Hi, Marilyn. We’ll agree to disagree on this one. What you call a rights grab I call fair use. Amazon is hardly saintly in many matters, but here they were on the mark. At the same time, due to the case law, Amazon is letting writers and publishers designate books as TTS-usable or not. For the third or so time, this is a different issue from the Paperwhite, a device rather than a book. As both a reader and writer, I dislike the absence of TTS and hope that Amazon corrects this failing in the near future, even if it’s probably too late for the forthcoming model. Lack of TTS in the Paperwhite reduces the market for my work. In this case–the device, not the interpretation of fair use–Amazon is NOT saintly.

  10. For those who need TTS, Amazon still sells used versions of the TTS capable Kindle 3, now known as the Kindle Keyboard. The WiFi version starts and $43, and the 3G version at $69. This search should get you to a listing:

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=kindle+3

    I have the Kindle 3 and I’ve been quite happy with it. There’s an headphone jack and the two small speakers on the back are loud enough for a small group. The voice is not robotic and is easy to understand. TTS is so well done, it’s disappointing that it’s not in the newer models.

    Check the authors you like to see if they’ve enabled what is called “Text to Speech” in the Product Details for their ebook edition. It’s something that can be specified when an ebook is uploaded. I know, I’ve enabled it for my Kindle editions. I just checked one free, public domain classic, Pride and Prejudice, and TTS was enabled on it, so I suspect that’s true of other public domain titles.

    Finally, keep in mind that there are exceptions in copyright law for the visually impaired that let volunteer organizations record those books for the blind. The same should be true legally for TTS. Amazon, if it wanted, could create a digital switch that would allow them to remotely enable TTS for all books for Kindles owned by someone who could present them with a signed statement from a doctor or optometrist.

    Whether Amazon would do that or not is another story. Apple is quite supportive of assistive services. I have talked with people on their team. But I’ve never seen any evidence that the bean counters and control freaks that dominate Amazon’s corporate culture are interested in such things. Amazon tends only move on such things when there’s legal pressure.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books, http://inklingbooks.prosite.com

  11. Hi, Michael. Try listening to Amy and some of the other newer voices from Amazon. They’re noticeably more pleasant than the Kindle Keyboard’s TTS (kudos to Amazon on this matter). What’s more, Amazon’s third-party sellers have only so many older machines to sell. If nothing else, keep in mind the commercial reasons for TTS—the fact that people can start a book at home and finish in the car. Books are competing against other media like video games, and TTS can help make reading more competitive. The industry should be promoting it, not worrying about it.

  12. I find it interesting they cut audio from the Paperwhite models. Most other amazon devices relied on amazon services like amazon’s Audible. Taking away this feature makes it a ebook only device and not worth the money because of that. I have a Reading LD and really rely on TTS!

    What I find funny is that Amazon does not consider TTS on the older Kindle models as an accessible feature, yet if you get the Kindle for PC with Accessibility Plugin along with a screen reader that’s considered accessible feature. What I found funny is that the voices they force you to use on the PC with accessibility plugin is the same voices that the Kindle Touch and older models offered, yet they are not an accessibility feature.

    Amazon is dancing around with how they word a feature. They may more a step closer with an accessibility feature, but take two steps backward in the next model by axing the accessibility improvements (take a look at the Kindle Keyboard vs Kindle Touch).

    The issue I have with Amazon and the CEO Jeff Bezos is the dictatorship on what product I can get from them…

    I want the same choices of devices that others have. But I’m limited due to my needs and what they allow in their products. It’s worse if you have a disability like blindness, Amazon has gotten in trouble with them over the exclusion of Accessible features of the Kindle.

    In other words, I feel I’m being told where to sit on the bus versus the freedom to choice of the seat I want.

    So here’s what I want… Amazon please give me a Kindle Paperwhite with TTS. I find that the Kindle E ink screens are easy on my eyes versus a LCD Screen. I want just a small lighter than a tablet that can reader my kindle books unrestricted.

    The sad part is that even though we say we as a society have come along way as to not discriminate, the battles like these keep reminding the lack of knowledge people have in developing technology that could easily be accessible from the get go.

    I deal with Publisher often and I’m blown away by how protected they are in making electronic book accessible for us, often we have to go through a lot of hoops to prove our needs to them.

    Bottom line is it’s only now that I get to enjoy books that growing up I never got to read because there was no TTS available. I read by hearing and following with TTS.

    TTS isn’t perfect, but it works for me, but wish I had more options other then lugging a laptop around or having to use iPad mini with voiceover. I don’t like the TTS on iPad, but that a different post.

    That’s my two cents here…

  13. I’d happily pay extra for a Paperwhite that had audio capabilities. When my Kindle Keyboard broke, I bought a Paperwhite. But after I finish reading to my daughter, I let the Kindle read to her with Text to Speech. Without it, she’s never let me out of the room! So I bought her a Kindle Touch, which does have audio.

    Text to Speech was never a real threat to audio books. I got used to TTS, but it took some time to get used to it. Amazon made the decision to drop audio to cur the cost of the reader – they didn’t think audio was a selling point for the Kindle. This might have something to do with the fact that their audio software was crude at best. You would only skip ahead or back 30 seconds at a time.

    I like the Paperwhite. I just wish I had the option to buy one with audio, I’d be willing to pay more.

  14. In my case, at least, the absence of TTS has lost Amazon the sale of an Paperwhite. I own two Kindles, 1 original and 1 Fire. I was about to purchase a Paperwhite, but when I checked to see if it had audio capability I decided against it. Very disappointing as I really wanted the dedicated reader in addition to my Kindles. Maybe someday!

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