On Friday, as Twitter went ablaze with news of iOS 7, I celebrated nothing new from Apple but, rather, the long awaited BARD Mobile app from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). For the first time in history, a person with print impairment now has the largest collection of audio and braille books and periodicals available to them at no cost in the palm of their hand on an iOS device.
With the addition of NLS BARD Mobile, we now have large collections available to us from the Library of Congress (LOC), Bookshare, iTunes and, since this past spring, Kindle. We can also get books from some smaller publishers who use standard epub formats to distribute their content. This year alone, two of the larger libraries, LOC and Kindle have come online in an fully accessible way and, today, we have far more books available to our community in a truly convenient manner than ever before.
NLS BARD Mobile
On Friday afternoon, I went to the AppStore on my iPhone and entered “BARD Mobile” in the search box. The NLS app was the first one in the list, I tapped the button that said “free,” I entered my iTunes password and started the download and installation. When it said I could open it, I did and, there, I entered my NLS BARD user name (my email address) and password. Here, I encountered a small problem, I had forgotten my password and the app doesn’t have a way to reset it so I had to go to the NLS BARD web site and reset it there. The app also doesn’t have a “clear text” button next to the password field so one has to use “delete” a lot to clear the whole thing out of you make a mistake.
With user name and password finally entered correctly, I started exploring the app. I first went to the “Audio Magazines” section and found Choice Magazine Listening, my all time favorite audio periodical, tapped on their latest edition and, within seconds, it was downloaded onto my phone. Unlike iTunes and some other apps, this one doesn’t have the annoying habit of asking you for your password again to make sure you actually wanted the thing you requested. When something downloads to your phone from the library, you are brought into your “bookshelf” where you can find and listen to the files on your iOS device.
I increased the reading speed to 200% and enjoyed the first story in the magazine, a short story by Stephen King. I read some tweets on Friday and Saturday about audio artifacts showing up at increased reading speeds but didn’t experience this myself.
Next, I went to the NLS BARD Mobile “browse” facility and experienced true joy. At my fingertips with the ability to download them directly to my little device, sat on virtual shelves the works of Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Morrison, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mailer, Capote and so many of my other literary heroes. With this app, I have all of the people who’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature, all of the great 20th Century US writers, all of the recent best sellers and so much more.
For a person like me, one who takes such great joy in reading audio books, the NLS BARD Mobile app may be the most important piece of software out there today.
What about books that aren’t available from NLS? What about all of the books that are never performed as audio but, rather, only published in a proprietary text format?
Earlier this year, Amazon, led by my good friend Pratik Patel and his accessibility remediation company, EZ Fire, released the first accessible version of their Kindle app for iOS. Virtually overnight, people with print impairments got access to what I believe is the single largest library of ebooks in the world. No, they do not come at no cost to the user the way NLS does but I personally do not mind paying for things to read as long as they come in a format I can use with a screen reader.
The best thing, in my mind, about having an accessible Kindle app is the enormity of their library. Unfortunately, it does have its own set of problems that, while accessible, provides a somewhat sub-optimal way of reading. The biggest complaint I’ve heard from other blind people is that the synthesizers used by VoiceOver perform poorly at high speech rates and, as iOS doesn’t provide one with the ability to install synthesizers that meet your personal preferences better than the default one, users are basically stuck with the one Apple includes.
It remains impossible for one to do much in terms of copying and pasting from Kindle into another document. I’m sure this is turned off to protect the copyrights of the publishers but I wonder how a student might be able to conveniently use quotes from these books in a paper and, personally, I’ve wanted to do the same now and then in a blog article but can’t find a good way to do so.
As far as I can tell, it’s also difficult to navigate through a book with any resolution greater than chapter or page. I couldn’t figure out how to read by word, paragraph or line which made rereading some portions I wanted to study more closely very inconvenient.
Even with these criticisms, though, the Kindle app is a major step forward in providing books to we blinks and others with print disabilities.
Audible, the largest online collection of commercially produced audio books on the web, has an app for iOS that its users can download at no cost. Like Kindle, one needs to go to the Audible.com web site to buy the books as Apple, due to some draconian approach for AppStore approval, doesn’t permit purchases from within an app that do not go through iTunes.
The Audible collection contains really well produced audio book performances with mostly outstanding narrators. I keep my account on Audible at the Platinum level ($20, two books per month) as I enjoy these performances and, often, the quality is much better than the same book from NLS.
While the Audible app isn’t new for 2013, I think it makes an important contribution to the book reading possibilities for me and I enjoy it a lot.
iTunes and iBooks
Another set of tools for getting books onto your iOS devices are Apple’s iTunes and iBooks. If you like the iTunes interface better than the one in the Audible app, you can download Audible content directly into the iTunes app and play it there. You can also get books in the Apple iBooks format and read them with the iBooks app.
I like the iBooks interface better than Kindle but its library is much smaller. What I have enjoyed, however, from iBooks are the no cost software development guides published by Apple for developers on iOS and Macintosh. It’s a good library of technical stuff and, certainly, the price is right.
The Killer App
NLS BARD Mobile may just be the “killer app” for people with print impairments on iOS. For years, many blind people have kept their old proprietary reading devices and some have even bought new ones. I still own but virtually never touch a Humanware Victor Reader Stream and the somewhat smaller thing from APH. When these things came out, they were the coolest things that a blink could use to read books on. Today, however, they seem stupidly expensive, almost entirely feature poor and about a dozen years behind the mainstream and, with the availability of book reading software on iOS, entirely without a place in a thinking blink’s collection of gadgets.
Let’s take a look at the economics of the matter: According to the Humanware USA web site, a Victor Reader Stream, latest generation, costs $369. A brand new iPhone 5C costs $100 and the super powerful new iPhone 5S costs only $199 (both iPhone prices require a contract with a mobile carrier). A person with a print impairment can not only save money with the new Apple devices but also by finding one used on ebay or elsewhere for even less.
What’s far more remarkable is that a blind person can use their phone for profoundly more tasks than are possible on a ghetto reader. I enjoy the MLB AtBat app for listening to baseball games, Downcast for catching podcasts, various radio apps like TuneIn and I Heart Radio, Shredder Chess and Papa Sangre for games, lots of cool programs designed specifically for we blinks, bar code recognition, OCR and so much more that is simply impossible on a ghetto device out there today.
Years ago, when I worked as VP/Software Engineering at Freedom Scientific, I thought the killer device would be our PAC Mate. I thought the removable braille display, removable battery and all of the “interesting” hardware features were good ideas, sadly, I would, over the years realize just how wrong PAC Mate really is. It was hardware designed by software guys who didn’t fully grasp how much space or weight would be added by our approach and we created a white elephant. What made matters worse is that Windows Mobile applications were rarely accessible, unlike the mostly accessible ecosystem of apps on iOS so we never had much useful software either.
In the market today, we have iOS devices (iPhones, iPod Touch and both iPad Models), devices which, when I showed them to a newly blind 88 year old retired veterinarian in Florida, he could figure them out and start using them almost immediately with far less training required to learn PAC Mate or a Humanware device. In fact, he had no training at all, I just handed him my phone, described a few gestures, told him how to get help and he was off and running. Clearly, Apple HCI, even in accessibility, work is way better than the ghetto vendors.
With an iOS device, users with print disorders will not fall behind the mainstream when new versions of social media, shopping, sports, news and all sorts of apps come out. This has never been the case on any OS other than iOS.
I think the release of the NLS BARD Mobile app may just be the final nail in the coffin of ghetto reading devices. People who want to read using braille can now pair a blue tooth braille display with an iOS device and those, like me, who prefer audio have an amazing library in the palm of our hands. Along with dozens of other terrific and highly accessible apps, the iOS ecosystem provides the greatest portable and accessible devices ever and they do so at the lowest prices ever experienced by our community.
Sure, proprietary ghetto devices may have better synthesizers and some other very specialized features that make some things more convenient. I now, however, consider these other features to be minor luxuries that one can easily live without, especially for so much less money to buy and use a tremendously accessible device from Apple. Until this past Friday, it was entirely impossible to access the NLS library from an iOS device but, today, it’s all there and we’ve been invited to join the technological mainstream, an invitation I gratefully welcome.