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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 July 2009 Issue  Volume 10  Number 4

Untangling the Web

Even More Ways to Communicate: A Review of Twitter and Google Voice

The communications revolution keeps moving forward, offering new ways to keep in touch with contacts, such as friends, family, and coworkers. This article covers Twitter, a social networking site, and Google Voice, a service that allows users the option of having calls ring on several phones at the same time (such as your home and cell phones) and provides an online voice message mailbox and much more. For this article Windows XP, Internet Explorer 7 and Window-Eyes 7.01 were used.

Twitter (www.twitter.com)

If you want to keep up with friends, family, and celebrities and do not want to deal with the clutter and complexities of some social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, then Twitter might be for you. There is a limit of 140 characters per post. According to the Twitter home page, "Twitter is a service for friends, family, and coworkers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?" There are no options for posting photos, sending virtual gifts, or creating groups.

Registration

To begin the registration process, activate the link that says, "Get Started-Join." When the new page loads, there will be a form to complete. Before you give your screen reader the commands necessary to fill out a form, review the form. With Window-Eyes, review the form with Browse Mode still on. You will discover that your user name will be part of your Twitter URL. For example, my user name is, "jjingber," and my Twitter URL is www.twitter.com/jjingber. Once you have completed the form, review it in regular reading mode, with Window-Eyes in Browse Mode. You will find Twitter comments about whether your user name has been taken or if the password is not acceptable. Before you can submit your form, you must fill in a CAPTCHA--a series of distorted letters that your screen reader cannot read. There is a link for an audio CAPTCHA, and, before the words are played, a pleasant voice tells you to type in the words. Unfortunately, the CAPTCHA is a sentence, and typing it into the box did not work when I first tried to register. Activating the Help link at the bottom of the page did not help. I contacted Twitter several times, but never received a response. In June, the audio CAPTCHA was fixed. You are now instructed to type in part of the sentence that is spoken. This works, and you can proceed.

Getting Started

Once your account has been created, you can begin using the site. Links are clearly labeled. The links for Profile, Settings, and Help are at the bottom of the page, past the Privacy and Terms disclaimers. The Profile link does not bring you to a long form to complete. It just shows the user name and whichever people, news, programs, or anyone or anything else you are following. The Settings link brings up a short form where you can write a biography of no more than 160 characters. Other options on the form include your time zone and a checkbox to decide whether you want only people you approve to see your status. As with the registration form, make sure to read the settings form in the mode for filling out forms and the mode for reading text. Twitter's help links are clearly labeled.

Expressing Yourself

When Twitter's home page loads, there is a form consisting of an edit box and a button that says, "Update." If you read the controls, your screen reader may tell you that the Update button is disabled. Once text is entered into the edit box, the button's status will change. The edit box says, "What are you doing?" but this text does not affect what is written in the edit box. In other words, those words will not appear in your post. Each post is limited to 140 characters.

Once you have written your update and activated the Update button, you have written your first "Tweet." When the page reloads, your tweet will appear right below the search form. Anyone who is following you on Twitter can now read what you just posted.

Finding People and Topics of Interest

If you already visit a web site, you can check to see whether the site posts on Twitter. Simply type the word, "Twitter," into your screen reader's Word Search edit box and execute the command to find the word. For example, I have a subscription to Audible.com. I found the Twitter link on Audible and activated it. Doing so brought me directly to Audible.com's page on Twitter. On the page is a button that says, "Follow." Activating that button will now add Audible.com's tweets to my Twitter home page. Below the button was a list of Audible's most recent tweets. For many web sites that post on Twitter, there is a brief description and then a link to read the entire post. These links are clearly labeled.

Sometimes it is possible to guess the URL of a program you want to follow. I could have found "Good Morning America's" Twitter page by going to www.abcnews.com and then activating the "Good Morning America" link and then activating the show's Twitter link. I tried a different route by going to www.twitter.com/gma, and this worked.

There is a search form on Twitter, but if you use it to search for a program or web site, you will receive tweets written by Twitter members who are not necessarily part of the group or program you are looking for. As an example, when I put "Audible.com" in the search box, I got a list of tweets written by other Audible.com subscribers. This form is not on the home page, but instead is presented when the search link is activated. The search form is not used for finding friends. That operation will be discussed in a separate section. The form consists of an edit box and a Search button. Between these two controls is a link for an advanced search. Enter the name of the topic you want to find. The advanced search is extensive and includes options, such as phrases and places. All the edit boxes in the advanced search do speak.

Finding Friends

From your Twitter home page, activate the link that says, "Find Some Friends." Doing so will bring you to a page where you have a choice to find someone on Twitter or on other networks. These options are indicated by links, not a form. If the Twitter link is activated, the next page is a form where you can enter a person's name. Under the edit box is a Search button. If the person has a common name like John Smith, you will get many results. If you already have friends on Twitter, you can ask them for their URLs and find them using the form. Another option is to ask your friends to search for you and then let them follow you.

If your search query has results, the results will appear right under the search form, when the new page loads. Activate the link for the person you want to follow. Under the person's name is another link that has the last part of the person's Twitter URL. The first part will always have www.twitter.com. The first control on the page is a button to follow the person.

If you want to follow the person, activate that button. With Window-Eyes, after I activated the button, I needed to turn Browse Mode back on manually. When the page reloads, the page will say, "You are now following" and the last part of the person's Twitter URL. This is not presented as a link, but you can find it by using your screen reader's search function and typing, "you are now following." Therefore, if you wanted to follow me, it would say, "You are now following jjingber."

From your Twitter.com home page, you can quickly find the most recent tweets. There is also a list of who and what you are following. Use your screen reader's search command and look for the word "following." Under that word is a list of links for everyone and everything you have chosen to follow. You can also bookmark each page so you can go there directly. Should you decide that there's someone or something in your list you no longer want to follow, activate that link, and once the page loads, activate the "Remove" button.

Let's Talk

Twitter users can respond to other people's Tweets. To reply to a friend's tweet, go to the friend's home page. The most recent tweet will be listed first. Under each tweet is a link listing the time the tweet was posted or a link with the date and time of the post. Older tweets usually show the date and time. Activate the link under the tweet that you want to reply to. Activating this link brings you to a new page that has a link saying "Reply to and the user's twitter user name." Activating this link brings you to a reply form. If you check the title bar, you will discover that the reply form is actually on your home page, not your friend's page. Type in your response in the edit box and activate the Enter button. Your reply will show up on your friend's home page. If someone replies to you, the reply will show up on your page. Twitter does not offer the option to send you an e-mail message if someone replies to you. If you want to reply to a topic that you have searched for, find the search result that you want and activate its reply link.

Another option is to "Favorite This Update." Doing so allows you to save the tweet. The button for this procedure is directly above the reply link. If you use this option, you can find the tweet by activating the "Favorites" link on your home page. Find the words "your favorites," and under them, you will find the tweets you saved. Should you decide to remove a tweet, activate its date and time link. When the new page loads, there is a button that says "un-favorite this update." Just activate that button.

Who's Following You?

By default, Twitter will send an e-mail message to your regular e-mail address announcing the name of a person who is following you. Should you not want to receive future notification e-mail messages, use the link at the bottom of the e-mail message to turn off this feature. The e-mail message contains a link to the person's Twitter page. Should you decide not to allow this person to follow you, activate the "block" link on the page. If you initially have the person follow you, but then change your mind, you can get to the block link by activating the link that starts with the number of people following you and the word "followers." When that link is activated, a list of followers will appear, and there are links to remove whichever followers you wish.

Status Updates for Twitter and Facebook

If you also use Facebook, you can synchronize your tweets instead of writing separately for each social networking site. To do this, go to twitter.com/widgets/facebook. Once there, find the button at the bottom of the page that says, "Install Twitter in Facebook." Activating the button will bring you to your Facebook page, and the title bar will say, "Facebook-Log into twitter."

Instead of scrolling through numerous links, you can use your screen reader's search function and look for the word, "Twitter." As with many other Facebook applications, you will need to select the link that allows Twitter to access your profile information. When the new page loads, you will be asked for your Twitter user name and password. When this page loads, find the word, "Twitter" again and select the links to let Twitter update your Facebook status, and for Facebook to update your Twitter status. You can make changes to these settings through the Apps Settings on Facebook.

Twitter Updates By Phone

You can phone in your status updates through Tweet Call. Before using the service, you must register. Go to tweetcall.com. From there, activate the "Sign Up," link. When the new page loads, don't bother looking for a registration form, you will automatically be registered. The page says, "Made you look! Sign up forms are boring, so we don't have one! Tweet Call is designed to always use your Twitter account's username and password. After all, did you really need another login to remember?"

Before you can start using the service, Twitter must recognize the phone numbers of the phones you are using. Log in to tweetcall, using your Twitter username or e-mail address and your Twitter password. When the new page loads, look for the words, "add a phone number." Below those words is a form which is easy to complete. For the phone number, put the area code in parenthesis, skip a space then put in the next three digits, followed by a hyphen and the final four digits. You then need to put in a PIN. You can add more than one number for your account.

Once everything is set, dial 877-tweetcall (893-3822). You will be asked to enter your PIN and then press the pound key. Speak your status update and hang up. It took approximately one minute for my update to appear on my Twitter page. Since I also have Twitter update my Facebook status, the tweet also appeared on my Facebook page.

The Bottom Line

Once I received sighted assistance to get my account created, I found the rest of Twitter to be accessible. It is a quick and easy way to see what people are doing and to follow other topics of interest. It is disappointing that I did not receive a response to my many e-mail messages regarding the CAPTCHA. But the problem has been fixed, and the audio CAPTCHA now works.

Google Voice

Imagine having one phone number that people could call, and the call would automatically ring on several designated phones. This service has actually been available since 2005 through a company called Grand Central. At that time, when a user registered with Grand Central, he or she received a new phone number, which, when called, would ring wherever the user wanted.

In 2007, Google purchased Grand Central, but it did not do much with it until recently. Now, Google has improved the service by offering even more features at no charge. In a New York Times article of March 11, 2009 entitled "Unify the Phone Numbers and All Else Follows," David Pogue had this to say about the new service: "It unifies your phone numbers, transcribes your voice mail, blocks telemarketers and elevates text messages to first class communication citizens. And that's just the warm-up."

Google Voice will maintain all Grand Central's features, including call-screening options and an online mailbox. The Google Voice home page has mail boxes similar to any other e-mail program.

The Google Voice subscriber can play, copy, paste, forward, and save voice messages as if they were regular, written e-mail messages. Future calls from a specific number can be blocked through the e-mail program. Text messages are also sent to the Inbox, so they can be viewed and answered. In addition, Google Voice offers free conference calling, low-rate long-distance calling, and written transcription of voice mail messages.

If you do not already have a Google account, you will need to create one to use Google Voice. Go to www.google.com/accounts. There is a sign-in form for account holders and under it is a link that says "Create an account now." The first part of the registration form is straightforward. To find out if your password has enough characters, you will have to read the form in the screen reader mode not meant for filling out forms. After you have reentered your password, there are several check boxes that are all checked by default. Again, you will need to read the boxes out of forms mode to learn their contents.

As with many sign-up forms, there is a CAPTCHA. There is an audio version of the CAPTCHA, plus a link that says "For more help with screen readers, click here." Activating the link brings you to a page with instructions for playing the CAPTCHA. In addition, there is a link to contact Google if you are still having problems with it. I am happy to say that I did contact Google to see how quickly it would respond. The return e-mail response, which was helpful, came approximately 48 hours later.

Getting Started
Phone

To record your outgoing message, dial your Google Voice number from any of your phones that will ring when your Google Voice number is called. You will be given audio prompts to record your outgoing message.

To set up your Google Voice account and access your messages, go to www.google.com/voice. The first time you log in, you will need to check a box indicating that you accept Google Voice's terms. To send your acceptance, arrow down to where it says, "Continue to Inbox." For Window-Eyes, I needed to route the mouse pointer to those words, turn off browse mode, do a left mouse click, and turn browse mode back on.

Settings

There is a settings link on the Google Voice page. This link did not activate when I just hit Enter on it. I had to perform the same operation as above to get it to work. There are several Settings tabs, including General, Phones, and Groups. The same operation was also required to activate each of the tabs, since they are not standard links. In addition, throughout the settings forms, there will be areas that say, "Click for info." The information is specifically about whichever settings option you are completing. This is not a link. To read the information, I needed to route the mouse pointer to the words. When I routed the pointer, Window-Eyes said the correct words. Next, I needed to turn browse mode off and do a left click. Then I could read the information with the mouse navigation keys. However, the information was interspersed with other information on the screen. The descriptions for the form controls are good, so you may not even need to deal with this situation. The forms controls are radio buttons, check boxes, and edit boxes.

The General tab has options for setting time zone, adding another e-mail address where voicemail is sent, options for screening calls, and more. By default, Google Voice will screen your calls. When someone calls your Google Voice phone number, the person will be given a prompt to state his or her name. Google voice will then ring your designated phones. When you answer, you will hear four options, including "Press 1 to answer" and "Press 2 for voicemail. There is also an option to accept and record the call. You can have screening completely turned off as well. There is also the option to have voice mail messages transcribed. The transcriptions are not totally accurate, but Google Voice does a good job, and there is no fee for this service.

The advantage of having Google Voice send voice mail messages to your regular inbox is that you do not need to go directly into your Google Voice account. The e-mail message will have a transcription of the voice message and a link to play the audio. When an e-mail message arrives in your inbox, it will say, "Voice-Noreply@google.com"

The Phones tab allows for adding phones to ring when your Google Voice number is called. When you add a new phone, the number must be verified. There will be a link to do so, plus a two-digit code to enter when Google Voice calls the phone for verification. This code is totally accessible. There are options for retrieving voice mail, including whether you want to use a PIN for greater security. There are some radio buttons for choosing when you want your Google Voice phone to ring, or you can customize the schedule with specific times that you enter via combo boxes.

The Groups tab allows you to set up different outgoing messages for specific groups. Taking advantage of this feature requires a good deal of work. By default, Google Voice has three groups: friends, family, and coworkers. There is an option to add other groups that you create. To use the groups feature, you must first put people into your "Contacts" list and then into a specific group. Doing so requires more work than just opening the contacts list and adding names.

To add contacts, do the following

  1. Find the word "contacts" on the Google Voice page and use the same operation as described earlier for opening the General and Phones tabs.
  2. Use your mouse navigation keys and find where it says "SMS."
  3. Directly after that is a nonbreaking space graphic that says, "new." The word, "new" is not written; it is a graphic. Do a left click.
  4. A form will appear to enter contact information, but the form does not read correctly with the edit boxes. Even going in and out of Browse mode did not help. The first three fields are Name, Title, and Company. Within the form, there are also some combo boxes.

Another way to add contacts is through your e-mail program. Programs, such as Outlook, have a phone number field for every contact. It would be helpful to make sure that this field is filled in for anyone you may want to communicate with through Google Voice. If you already have a Gmail account with contacts, those contacts will automatically appear in your Google Voice contacts. To begin the import process, go to "contacts" on the Google Voice home page. Next, activate the "import" link and read the information about file formats. You will then need to go to your e-mail program to export the e-mail program's contact files to a separate file. For Outlook, this information can be found in the file menu. Once the separate contacts file is set up, go back to Google Voice and type in the path to the file on your hard drive. Then, route your mouse pointer to the word "import" and do a left click.

Once you have someone entered into your contacts, you can then assign the person to a group. To do so,

  1. Go to Contacts and then to My Contacts.
  2. Check the box of the person you want to assign to a specific group.
  3. Route the mouse pointer to Edit Groups and left click.
  4. Choose the group you want and route the mouse pointer to it and left click. The contact will be assigned to that group.

If you want to create a separate outgoing message for a particular group, while in the group's tab, choose "new" from the combo box associated with the group. Use your mouse navigation keys to find "record the greeting." Google Voice will call your phone and prompt you to record the greeting.

Options on Your Phone

Dialing your Google Voice number on any of your designated phones will give you four options. The first option is to listen to your messages. Google Voice presents the same options as does a regular cell phone for handling messages. There is one feature that may prove useful. If you receive a message from someone you do not want to hear from ever again, there is an option to have the caller hear the three-tone message, "The number you have dialed is no longer in service." If you choose to archive a message, you will not be able to retrieve it on your phone, but it will be available through your Google Voice e-mail.

The second option is to place a call. Google Voice will prompt you to enter the phone number and then press the pound key. If it is an overseas call, you will be prompted to dial 011, the country code, and then the number. Google Voice's web site says that there is no charge for national calls and low rates for overseas calls. You can also make calls through your Google Voice page by using a form. If you choose this option, once the form is completed, Google Voice will call your phone, and the number you are calling will ring.

The third option is to connect to Google's free directory assistance service, and the fourth is to change settings, such as outgoing message and PIN.

Conference Calls

Making a conference call using Google Voice is easy and free, but it requires a little planning, as follows:

  1. Call someone through Google Voice or have someone call you.
  2. Prearrange with the third person to call you, on your Google Voice number, at the designated time for the conference call.
  3. When the third person calls, you will here a beep, as with call waiting. Google Voice will prompt you whether you want to add this person to the call or perform other Google Voice actions.

To be notified when Google Voice becomes available to the general public, go to https://services.google.com/fb/forms/googlevoiceinvite.

The Bottom Line

Google Voice offers some conveniences and interesting features. It can be useful for someone who wants to have only one unifying phone number. What happens when two Google Voice members live together? When the home phone rings, who is the call for? This problem can be solved by setting specific parameters concerning which phones ring and when they ring, but it gets confusing. If you like experimenting with technology or would like to have one number for all your phones, give Google Voice a try. You have nothing to lose. Just be prepared to do some extra work when you use the Google Voice web site.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail us at accessworld@afb.net.

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Copyright © 2009 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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