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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 January 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 1

Access Issues

Books on Tape Without the Tape!

Audible.com offers the same commercially available audio books that can be found in most bookstores on tape or CD, plus lots of proprietary magazine and newspaper content—all without the tapes or CDs. You can listen to them on your personal computer (PC), transfer them to a small portable player, or even burn them on your own blank CDs for playing in any audio CD player.

Audible.com converts audio books and other spoken audio programs into digital files that can be delivered directly to your PC over the Internet and enjoyed in a variety of ways. You can download and listen at your convenience on your desktop or laptop PC or transfer files from your computer to a portable device, such as an MP3 player.

What Is Audible on Audible?

A huge number of selections are available. The online catalog includes these categories: fiction, nonfiction, business, information age, science, foreign language, spirituality, kids, comedy, history, mystery, great talkers, drama and poetry, self-development, arts and leisure, news, newspapers, magazines, radio, speeches and lectures, audio books, and exclusives. All in all, it's certainly enough to find something to satisfy everyone's reading preferences.

One of the best things about Audible.com is that the material is available both in an accessible format and in a timely manner. I subscribe to Audible's Wall Street Journal, a 45-minute summary that includes the top articles and editorial columns each day. The Audible Manager software running on my PC automatically downloads the paper at 7:30 a.m. before I leave home and carpool to work. By simply connecting my Otis portable player to the PC through a USB cable, selecting the already downloaded newspaper on the PC, and selecting "transfer to Otis," I can load the newspaper in the Otis in fewer than 15 seconds. I unplug the Otis and head out the door. Then, I can listen to the paper on the way to work and am ready to discuss the stories with my sighted colleagues by the time I get to the office. Thus, I have a way to be current with the same business news without waiting to run the newspaper through a scanner or obtain an otherwise accessible version.

But What Does It Cost?

Yes, there is a charge for content on Audible.com. However, individual items are discounted about 30% from what you would pay for the same audio book at a local book store. For even deeper discounts, there are two Audible Listener plans. Basic Listener includes one audio book of your choice and a month's subscription to an audio magazine or newspaper, both for a monthly charge of $14.95. Avid readers can subscribe to Premium Listener, which includes two books of your choice each month for $19.95. The Otis portable player—basically an MP3 player that has been customized to play Audible.com's proprietary format—is available free of charge with a commitment to either of these listener plans for 18 months. New subscribers who have been recommended by an existing customer can take advantage of other introductory offers, including (at the time of this writing) a free month or the free Otis with only a 12-month commitment. If you don't have anyone else to refer you, use my Audible ID, ky2d, and take advantage of these offers.

If you want to try Audible without purchasing anything, check out <www.audible.com/mainmenu> for a special offer of several free selections for ACB Radio listeners, members of the blind Audible listeners e-mail group, or AccessWorld readers.

How Do I Get Started?

Just visit the web site <www.audible.com> and explore the new user information. Unfortunately, the manuals in the Help section are available only in PDF format. But, there are an online Frequently Asked Questions section and a knowledge base that can be searched. Also, Jonathan Mosen produced an excellent two-hour Audible tutorial on ACB Radio's MainMenu program in May 2002. This program can still be heard in the MainMenu archive section of ACB Radio at <www.acbradio.org>. Mosen's tutorial includes registering for the service, selecting books, checkout, and downloading the book to the desktop player. It thoroughly describes the functions of the Otis portable player and demonstrates how to transfer content from the PC to the Otis.

The first step for a new Audible.com user is to create a personal account. It is necessary to do so, since the content is protected by encryption for each specific user. Select the Getting Started image map at the top of the home page. The Getting Started page offers a choice of signing up for an AudibleListener plan, signing up for a plan that includes a free Otis portable player, and signing up to try Audible.com with no risk. This free-trial choice allows you to download a free book. Select the Submit button after the option you prefer. If you select the free trial, the next page lists several books. Choose the appropriate button to add one of them to your shopping basket. Next, the Shopping Basket page appears. Select the Checkout link. At this point, you'll be on the Registration page. Fill in the required information and select submit.

After you register, your new book will be in the My Library section of the site. Select the link for New Programs, then select either the Download Now or Stream Title link after the title of your book.

To listen to downloaded Audible.com material, you need the Audible Manager and an Audible-capable player. The Audible Manager, which can be downloaded free of charge from the Audible.com site, is essential, since it controls your downloads and handles the digital-rights management. The Audible Manager can play Audible.com material through its own built-in desktop player or through a plug-in for either the RealPlayer or the Windows Media Player. You can sample most of Audible.com's selections before you buy them by selecting the Hear a Sample of this Selection link, which plays a portion of the book or magazine through audio streaming from the web site.

Audible material is available in several formats. Lower formats require far less time to download, but are of poorer audio quality. Higher formats are of significantly higher audio quality, but take longer to download, especially when you use a dial-up ISP service. You can choose the format each time you download a selection. Since anything you buy is held indefinitely in the My Library section of the web site, you can even download the same selection in different formats at different times.

How Accessible Is Audible.com?

The Audible.com web site, Audible Manager software, and the Otis portable player are all accessible. Here and there, a few areas are a little inconvenient as far as ease of navigation or thorough use of Alt-Text tags for all graphic buttons. Audible.com is paying attention to the needs of visually impaired listeners. According to Don Katz, Audible's CEO, "We are very, very aware of the market for Audible services to reading-impaired individuals. As our customer base of visually impaired listeners grows, we are able to adopt improvements and changes to our platform that enhance their experience with our website, software and content. We value these customers because they are loyal, provide great feedback and referrals, and we know that the relative value Audible brings to their lives is significant."

But, as I noted earlier, accessibility is really not a big issue, and it's getting even better. Recently, enhanced scripts for the Audible Manager were included in Freedom Scientific's JAWS screen reader (release 4.5, September 2002). Freedom Scientific's new PAC Mate device, based on the PocketPC platform, is also able to play Audible.com content.

Audible.com is seeking accessibility feedback to improve its web site further and expand its customer base. According to Matt Fine, senior vice president at Audible.com, "Any business like ours tries to take care of its best customers so they can recommend us to others. Audible provides unique benefits to visually impaired customers, like content selection and getting access to the same selection of best sellers as sighted people. We provide equal access to this material as a complement to traditional government, foundation, and nonprofit audio services. Much of what we're learning by serving this market can also be applied to providing an inexpensive listening solution to broader segments of the population who have trouble reading and absorbing text information."

The level of interest in reaching consumers who are visually impaired that has been demonstrated from the top at Audible.com is unusual in a mainstream company and is to be applauded. In addition to the typical feedback channels described on Audible.com's web site, the next section describes a way to participate that was specifically created for customers who are blind.

Being Audible About Audible

As part of Audible.com's initiative to reach consumers who are blind, an e-mail discussion group for Audible listeners who are blind has been created. Members of the group share tips, ask questions, and offer recommendations for accessibility. It's a great place for newcomers to ask more experienced users questions about using Audible.com with screen readers or other issues of accessibility. Information from the group is shared with the Audible.com staff, and the group's views are certainly heard. Answers from the Audible.com staff are posted to the group.

To subscribe to the group, go to the web site <http://yahoogroups.com> or send an e-mail message to <BlindAudibleListeners-subscribe@yahoogroups.com>. If you subscribe via e-mail, you will receive a confirmation message. After you reply to the confirmation, you are part of the list.

So, sign up at Audible.com; join the Blind Audible Listeners e-mail list; and start enjoying the incredible breadth of current books, magazines, and newspapers found in spoken-word audio. If you want to contact Audible directly, you can send e-mail to Matthew Fine at <mfine@audible.com>.

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AccessWorld, Copyright (c) 2003 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.

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