I’ve known Peter Korn, accessibility architect at Amazon, for nearly as long as I’ve been in the access technology world. He and I have worked on some of the same committees, forums and other working groups over the years and I’ve long been impressed with his intellect and ideas but, more so, with his drive and personal dedication to getting accessibility right over the nearly 20 years since we first met.
Roughly three years ago, Peter joined Amazon in the lead accessibility role and in my 2014 and 2015 end of year articles in which I summarize the year on the blog and make predictions for the following year, I stated that I believed that Peter Korn was the one individual leading a corporate accessibility effort whom I thought might actually give Apple a run for its money. Over the past couple of months, I have been spending some time informally evaluating the accessibility on Fire set top boxes and tablets and I must say that, while not perfect yet, their accessibility is improving at a more rapid pace than any other corporate effort that I’ve ever witnessed. Peter is driving accessibility on the Amazon products in a manner that in a short time (3 years) it has shown terrific improvements over the Google branded Android devices and in some ways are starting to approach the Apple level of out-of-the-box accessibility.
My decision to give the Amazon Fire devices a new look was motivated by Sina Bahram, my good friend and one of the top names in accessibility today. We were enjoying drinks and nice food at a place we both like on Haight St. in San Francisco and I was grumbling that I haven’t seen anything too new in the accessibility world for a while. Sina told me to give the Fire tablets another try and from there I decided to also give a Fire Stick set top box like thing a look as well. Sometimes things happen in the world of accessibility that escape my attention and I thank Sina for suggesting I give the Amazon products another look.
This article discusses the Amazon Fire Stick set top box and to a lesser extent the Fire tablets. I will include my observations of Amazon’s progress in the context of other corporate accessibility programs and you will see that Amazon is making progress faster than any other business I’ve studied. Readers should note that my review of these technologies was done with speech only and that, largely because I’m a braille Illiterate and don’t own a braille display, I don’t consider braille in this article.
Amazon Fire Products
I will start this section with a statement of my own bias. Based purely on the accessibility of their products, I use and enjoy a lot of devices from Apple. I’m typing this on a Macintosh, I’m wearing an AppleWatch, I’ve an iPad Mini sitting next to me, I’ve an AppleTV at home and I use an iPhone 6S. Apple has done a remarkably good job with accessibility on its iOS, TV and watch products and it’s against them that all others should be compared as they are the gold standard. Comparing new accessibility technology to anything short of the best is a waste of time as, in this case, good enough ain’t good enough for me.
A second bias must also be stated. Specifically, I have spent little time testing mobile devices for accessibility over the past couple of years. Thus, I’ve a bias based on ignorance of the devices I do not use in my daily life and such may have improved a lot since I last tested them to inform an article on this blog. The research I did for this article was purely one of personal observation and I did not follow a test plan or try to put the new work from Amazon into a structure based on objective measures. This piece is based on my opinion of what I was able to test myself informally and users should be aware that based on their own use cases their results may be different.
The Amazon Fire Stick
Earlier this year, Amazon released a new generation of their Fire TV set top boxes and, for the first time, included their new VoiceView screen reader on them. I wanted to check out their progress on accessibility on these devices and ordered a Fire Stick, the lowest priced version and gave it a test drive. I was expecting a half assed system and must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the comprehensive accessibility that ships out of the box with this product.
The Positives About Fire Stick
When the Fire Stick arrived, I set it up in a pretty odd configuration. I didn’t have a television available to plug the device into so mine runs into an HDMI to RCA convertor box and then by cable into a powered speaker. For those without a TV, this works well and if anyone is interested, I can write up a set of instructions for using the device without an actual television set. Once I got through plugging everything in, I googled to find the documentation for turning on the screen reader and started from there.
To say that I was impressed by the out-of-the-box accessibility on this tiny and very inexpensive ($40) device is a tremendous understatement. From the moment one turns on the screen reader by pressing two buttons at the same time on the remote, they are treated to an accessibility experience that, in some ways, is actually superior to that which I’ve enjoyed for years on AppleTV. As the Apple product was 100% accessible, Peter and his team at Amazon had to not only make everything speak properly but had to do a better job than Apple in how it presents information to users and how they can interact with such. AppleTV is really good but VoiceView on a Fire Stick includes a “review mode” which gives users features like being able to read by word, character and other elements which makes everything even nicer. I can now learn how a word mispronounced by the synthesizer is spelled, I can move around by control and enjoy features never before seen on an accessible set top box.
As far as I can tell, most things Amazon includes on this device are accessible out-of-the-box. I’ve been enjoying using the stick to watch television shows and movies and to listen to music streaming from the Amazon Prime service. The Alexa remote works great both for controlling the device itself and for searching the Amazon catalogue for content, apps and anything else one might want to find. The interface is less like a pyramid in which one needs to navigate up and down a tree like structure and provides ways of directly accessing features and content more efficiently, hence, with fewer clicks on the remote and less time wasted finding something you are looking for.
I highly recommend this device, especially because it costs about a third of what an AppleTV does. For reasons you’ll read below, I’m not ready to give up the AppleTV yet but if you pay for Amazon Prime but, like me, find yourself rarely accessing its content, I can guarantee you will enjoy having one of these in your collection of accessible devices.
The Negatives About Fire Stick
While the Fire Stick is a terrific system for enjoying content from Amazon, the major failing regarding its accessibility is in the arena of apps developed by third parties. One can use the Netflix app with ease but it was developed as a self-voicing application which accesses the speech synthesizer directly and is not compliant with the accessibility API on the device. There is at least one other app that uses this technique to ensure accessibility but the overwhelming majority of third party apps that I tried were reported by VoiceView as being a “web view” and literally nothing else was accessible after installing them.
On AppleTV, I enjoy a number of different third party apps including CNN Go, Investigation Discovery, and Comedy Central. On AppleTV, the third party developers largely followed the accessibility guidelines and I rarely encounter an inaccessible feature let alone an entirely inaccessible app; on the Fire Stick, none of the third party apps, even from the same publishers are accessible at all.
Why are apps accessible on AppleTV but not on Amazon Fire set top boxes? This is a function of time and market penetration. Prior to the release of the second generation Fire products a couple of months ago, there were no Fire TV devices in production that actually had a screen reader that could get information from an accessibility API and present it to the user in speech. Having been the only truly accessible solution for years now, AppleTV has a monopoly like marketshare among blind users of such devices and has been where the third party vendors have placed their accessibility time and dollars. With Fire Stick at $40 and now including a real screen reader I hope to see the third parties adding the accessibility features we need but I won’t be holding my breath waiting for such.
There’s another problem for third party developers regarding accessibility on Fire Stick and all other Android based systems. Essentially, many of the apps that one might enjoy using are developed using a cross platform UI library. These libraries are not compatible with the accessibility API at the OS level so the screen reader cannot know what is happening when one tries to use them. Likely due to the marketshare among blind users and that Apple makes making an accessible app for AppleTV very easy, the third party vendors make a special version that is accessible for the Apple products but take a generic approach to most other platforms. Making a special version of an app for the myriad platforms that they hope to run on would be a costly and time consuming endeavor so their accessibility strategy seems to be to tell users who need such to buy Apple products and be happy with them.
I cannot hold Peter Korn or his team accountable for what third parties do or do not do. If CNN wants to be accessible on Fire TV devices, it’s up to CNN to do the work as Amazon doesn’t even have access to the source code for their app. The beauty of the Fire Stick is that the Amazon branded content can be enjoyed with terrific accessibility; its biggest downside is that virtually no third party apps other than Netflix are accessible at all.
A Few Pet Peeves
There are features of the services Apple provides that are not included in the Amazon world. For instance, using an AppleTV, one can turn on audio description for content from iTunes; this does not appear to be an option for Amazon content but it is available in the Netflix app. I enjoy described video and would like to see it on all Amazon content. I would also like to have a feature that permits searching on meta-data so I might ask Alexa to “list all comedy shows with audio description” and get a list from which I might choose a program.
I found it difficult to read Audible books on the Fire Stick. I asked Alexa to show me my Audible library but couldn’t figure out how to read the list of books I’ve collected over the years. As Audible is an Amazon company, they can control this accessibility effort but do not seem to have gotten there yet. I also asked Alexa to “list all albums by The Beatles” and that didn’t work either. .
The Amazon Fire Tablets
The Fire TV products are the first on which Peter and his team at Amazon really had the chance to shine. While Fire TV is based on Android, the Amazon developers were able to replace some fundamentally broken aspects of the OS with new code that works much better than on a generic Android device. The Fire tablets are still hampered with many problems inherent to Android, some of which we described in an article I had written on this blog called, “Testing Android Accessibility: The Programmer’s Perspective.”
The big surprise about Amazon tablets is that they have eclipsed Google and have moved into second place behind only Apple in the arena of out-of-the-box accessibility on mobile devices. At $50 for the entry level Fire tablet, roughly one eigth the price of a new iPad Mini, the Fire tablets become an interesting proposition.
My personal findings on the Fire tablets is that I’m not giving up my iPad anytime soon but that a real lot of things on these devices are really quite usable. I find that Amazon has done a good job with content consumption in apps carrying their brand name but that entering data remains very difficult. The interesting thing is that Amazon has in a short amount of time taken the Fire tablets from the fragmented Android accessibility stack and is actually making a product that’s better than any other I’ve seen using Android as its base.
The Skyrocket Pace At Amazon
In just over three years, Peter Korn has:
- Started with no accessibility team at Amazon and, including the amazing Marc Mulcahey, has built a powerhouse accessibility team from the ground up. As I personally know two very talented blind engineers who chose to not go to work for Amazon, I’ve witnessed just how hard assembling this team has been for Peter and he’s done a terrific job finding excellent individuals who are making a big difference in their product line.
- taken his team from non-existent and led them to making the Fire TV products which required ripping out big parts of the generic Android and replacing them with new and far more functional bits of code.
- Has taken the Fire tablets from being virtually unusable by a blind person and brought them to a point in which, especially at the $50 price point, is an option for blind users to explore as an alternative to much more expensive iOS devices from Apple. As above, the Fire tablets aren’t nearly as nice as is an iPad but many of its features are accessible enough to warrant a look.
What About The Future?
We have now witnessed what this new and tremendously productive team at Amazon has been able to do in a highly compacted schedule. They’ve some really hard problems still to solve, some of these problems will take longer to fix than others but I’m confident that Peter, Marc and the gang at Amazon are on the right path and expect to see their progress continue at a skyrocket’s pace.
Holding Amazon To Accessibility Commitments
While Peter has accelerated the accessibility of Amazon’s products from zero to sixty faster than any other corporate accessibility leader, we must also remember that the job isn’t done yet. The Fire Stick is a truly impressive accessibility experience with a forty dollar price tag but it also has the problems with third party apps that I describe above which makes it a partial solution when compared to AppleTV. The Fire tablets, while they’ve also demonstrated a lot of progress, are still distantly behind the iPad in all but a few areas. Amazon needs to be reminded that the job isn’t done yet and, while their accomplishments are impressive, they’ve some distance to go to be Apple’s equal in out-of-the-box accessibility.
Peter Proofing Amazon’s Accessibility
One of the bigger challenges Amazon faces is that almost all of their accessibility that we can enjoy today was driven by a single person who first started building a team and then managing them to the point where they are now. The team includes people like Marc Mulcahey, an amazing blind hacker and Jamal Mazrui, one of the smartest people I know in the blindness space. To bring a corporation’s accessibility up to the point where Apple is today means accessibility needs to be baked into the processes of every development team in the company so all roads do not lead to the accessibility team itself. While I’ve profound respect for Peter and some of the people whom I know on the accessibility team, Amazon needs to ensure that its accessibility efforts are not all driven by a single person or small group. It’s possible that Peter Korn could be hit by a bus tomorrow or, more likely, that some other big company who needs to make accessible technologies will woo him away with a fatter paycheck or other incentives to leave Amazon. If every development group at Amazon has accessibility built into its processes, losing Peter and his dedication to the cause would be less disastrous than if he was suddenly yanked out of his role today. It took Apple a lot of years to get this done and it won’t be something that could happen with haste at Amazon but it’s the essential component of delivering accessibility consistently into the future.
In brief, Amazon needs to “Peter Proof” their accessibility processes because no man is an island and accessibility needs to be part of every budget, design and roll out of new technologies.
Fire Based Televisions
At CSUN this year, Amazon announced that the Fire technology is being adopted by a number of television manufacturers. From what I’ve heard about these soon to be available television sets, everything on them is accessible. One will be able to pick up their Alexa enabled remote and say, switch to AppleTV, switch to a game console and control all of the television functions with the features of the Fire TV set top boxes built in. I’m looking forward to getting one of these TV sets when they hit the market later this year.
The Samsung Factor
As I do before publishing almost every article I run here, I sent out its first draft to the people who form my informal editorial team for feedback. One of them wrote to me asking if I had seen the new Samsung televisions and checked out their accessibility. Since then, I’ve spoken to a second person who owns one of these televisions and, assuming their reports are accurate (I’ve not had the chance to witness one of these sets myself yet but both of these people are highly reliable sources), Samsung may actually be ahead of Amazon in their accessibility drive with these new TV sets. I’m told that they have web views talking nicely and that a lot of third party apps are very accessible on these units. One model you can look into is the UN60KU6300FXZA which is the one used by one of the people who helps me edit my articles.
Most interesting about the Samsung televisions and their reportedly excellent accessibility is that they do not run Android. Samsung has its own operating system and it seems to be able to provide an accessible experience without using Google’s far less than stellar software. I’m certain Samsung made this decision for reasons unrelated to accessibility but they definitely seem to have been thinking about accessibility when they made this decision. I’m wondering if Samsung will stop using Android on its tablets, phones and other products in the future. ,
It’s hard to conclude anything but good things about the work Peter and his team have already done at Amazon and, given this track record, I think we can predict that the best is still to come from them. They’ve done what Google has stumbled on for nearly a decade and are a real force in accessibility today.