Letters to the Editor
Colour Detector Keeps Going . . .
I was delighted to see the color identifier I personally use, the Cobolt Speechmaster Colour Detector, included in the well-written article, "What Color is Your Pair of Shoes? A Review of Two Color Identifiers" (AccessWorld, May 2004). I take issue with only one statement in the article, and that is the assertion that the Cobolt Speechmaster Colour Detector's overall shape is somewhat awkward to handle. I have fairly small hands, and have no difficulty with it at all. It is longer than it is flat, and snugs nicely up against most surfaces whose color you are attempting to determine. If I had any redesign suggestions for Cobolt, I'd suggest that the lens cap or cover should be in some way attached to the unit. I carry this very reliable device with me in all my travels, and have not yet had to replace the 9-volt battery I got with it when I purchased it last summer in the United Kingdom.
One does need to take care to bring it in carry-on bags instead of packing it for travel. I once put it into my suitcase and somehow during travel it got turned on and announced "white" probably for the duration of a 5-hour flight from Seattle to Washington, DC. But even with all that chatter, I'm still on the same battery!
The Good, the Bad, and the Fixable
I had just a few comments regarding your outstanding March issue. Thank you so much for making this available to everyone at no cost. I look forward to every word and read it cover to cover (if it had covers).
First, if you include a link to a manufacturer's site, as you did with the Roomba, this should be a fully clickable link so that it's not necessary to copy it into the browser just to go there. I would also like to see a couple of symbols at the top of each article so that one could use the search feature of their screen reader to navigate to the start of each article when reading the entire issue on one page. This is for those not comfortable navigating by web page headings.
In your Editor's Page, you mentioned that the virtual wall that keeps the Roomba from falling downstairs isn't accessible. I wanted to point out as an owner of one that you don't need the virtual wall to keep the Roomba from falling downstairs. This ability is built into the Roomba itself. The virtual wall is just a little box that shoots out an infrared beam that keeps the Roomba from crossing a barrier like an invisible wall to keep it from going into another room where you don't have a door you can close. The Pro model comes with two of these. The virtual wall only has one on-and-off switch, so it's easy to memorize the state of the switch.
In "Getting Your Forms in Shape," the authors mention the difficulty in using JAVA-scripted combo boxes. Newer versions of screen readers like JAWS and Window-Eyes have implemented a work-around for the problem of being taken to a link when you highlight your first choice. Usually, after you enter forms mode on a drop-down or combo box, as they are called, Alt-Down Arrow will open the list box and Alt-Up Arrow will close it. This way you can open the list, then arrow down to what you want, then close it and not be misdirected.
Allowing manufacturers to comment at the end of reviews is a nice touch. You might want to consider labeling prices of products given as suggested retail, street price, price paid, and so on, to minimize confusion and keep people from being upset if they paid more or less for a given product.
In the category of things to fix for this issue, I would only ask that you give an addendum to the review of the ALVA MPO and hold it to some of the same standards you used for the other cell phones in regard to the 16 features your experts felt were important to blind cell phone users. If this isn't possible at least a comment from the authors is warranted describing its behavior when receiving an incoming call—as in how much information is immediately available when you answer a call in speech or braille with the current version of the software; also the types of rings available and whether the volume of different tones can be set independently in the settings menu as in a traditional cell phone. It is very important to know if the name or number of the person calling could be spoken as the call comes in and how this Caller ID information can be delivered. This was a significant omission from the article.
Thanks again for an outstanding new resource on the web.
Darren Burton replies:
During the evaluation of ALVA's MPO, the decision was made not to compare the product to the "sweet 16" features. This set of features, which was developed to evaluate mainstream cell phones, contained features that simply did not apply to the MPO. Since the MPO is not a mainstream cell phone, evaluating the product on items such as keys that are easily identifiable by touch makes little sense. Other "sweet 16" features, such as phone book and signal strength indicator, were discussed within the article. Admittedly, very little information on receiving a standard call was included in the product evaluation. The author apologizes for this oversight.
When the phone module of the MPO is switched on and a call is received, the product plays a ring tone. MPO users can choose from approximately 20 different predefined ring tones. Advanced users can also create their own tones, as these tones are simply WAV (Windows audio) files stored on the product. The volume at which these ring tones are played is determined by the current volume of the MPO's speech synthesizer. While this tone is being played, the caller's number is displayed in braille. If the phone module of the MPO happens to be off when a call is received, the caller will be given the opportunity to leave a voice mail message. Except for listing this caller's number in the missed calls log, the MPO gives no indication that the call was received or a voice mail message is waiting.
The Technology Gap
As I read the article on JAWS and Window-Eyes, ("The Key to the Information Age: A Review of Three Screen Readers, Part 1") I found myself growing more and more frustrated. What was eating at me about an article that was clearly written and interesting?
First, a big problem among blind people, in my opinion (and, I should say, based on my experience) is that there is a large and growing gap between people who fully understand the language of technology and those of us who are using technology on a regular basis, but just enough to do our work or just enough to exchange e-mail. It's like the millions of people who rent, buy, and play/record video tapes, but who struggle with the clever features of their machines. I can read about the things JAWS and Window-Eyes can do. I can listen to the fabulously boring files on the CD that comes with JAWS 5.0, but unlike you, I don't get much from it. The language is not clear. In fact it's not unlike reading any niche material, financial pages, sewing machine manuals, stereo miking tip sheets, and so on. It's cryptic and loaded with jargon.
OK, it's my problem, but reading about all the neat things JAWS "can" do remains academic all too often for me as compared with actually learning to use the rather random collection of JAWS fixes that define upgrades.
You guys write about a cure for a thing that sends me round the bend about JAWS, but I am far from certain how to make that remedy happen for me. And not only that, I find basic things going nuts while I work, like JAWS going silent for no reason, like having to unload and reload after joining the office network, like all the things that make web sites hard to use that are never mentioned as having fixes, assuming I could apply the fixes once I heard that somehow, some way, they exist.
Like so many technical or skill-based things in our lives, the folks who understand what's happening generally enjoy fooling around until they find solutions to vexing problems with software. Many of us just want the stuff to work better, and I find it difficult to obtain experience-based knowledge to keep me progressing right along with my screen reader.
When articles like "The Key to the Information Age" are written, I wonder who they are pitched to? I mean, I am already committed to buying a screen reader, so what possible reason would I have to hear what The Other one can and can't do? Or maybe it's intended for people who are just beginning down the road toward technological familiarity. Would such a person, a rookie now, have the slightest idea what the significance of the differences between screen readers mean in their lives?
A thing that might help articles like this one contribute to the growth of consumer wisdom would be to keep the straight-across comparison going. You tried, but soon you were caught on the different problems each screen reader addresses, so a person would have trouble knowing how the other one managed a problem.
People generally like the screen reader they use and say bad things about the other one. It's usually based on very little information. All screen reading is way too complex, dealing with seemingly infinite configurations. Our screen readers keep us in the game, but I find that only the cool guys know or care about the differences between $2,000 programs.
The Editor replies:
Our aim is to review each product's performance objectively, and to point out their strengths and weaknesses. Freedom Scientific and GW Micro each monitor additions to the other's screen reader, and quickly add the same features to their own product. This is good, because we have to have high-quality screen readers. However, the learning curve for a new screen-reader user is extremely steep, requiring knowledge of Windows commands, the learning of a new vocabulary used by screen readers, and the learning of the product's features. If the companies keep hearing this from their users, perhaps they will focus more of their efforts on usability and training.
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