November 2006 Issue  Volume 7  Number 6


The Mosen Excursion

When news of one man's job change hit the e-mail lists on September 1st, the blindness technology grapevine zoomed into hyperactive gear. For three years, Jonathan Mosen has been product manager for HumanWare's BrailleNote family of products. On September 1, Freedom Scientific announced that he will now be working for them as vice president of blindness hardware products. That means, in effect, that after promoting one braille personal digital assistant (PDA) for three years, he will now be promoting its best-known competitor.

Debates arose on e-mail lists about BrailleNote vs. PAC Mate, closed system vs. open platform, and whether or not customers should question Mosen's integrity. "Did I buy the wrong PDA?" blind customers were asking. "Will the BrailleNote still be developed?" "Does he really think the PAC Mate is a better product?" And so on.

Why so much interest in one man's move from one company to another?

While this kind of move might attract attention in any industry, there are some details specific to blindness that fueled the initial furor.

There's the limited access to products, for one thing. People who are blind can't drop in at the local Circuit City to fiddle with the laptops or PDAs on display before getting out their credit cards. Instead, we look for reviews in AccessWorld, listen to related Internet broadcasts, or subscribe to e-mail lists where users are discussing products of interest.

Although Jonathan Mosen has only been in the assistive technology field for three years, many Internet radio enthusiasts who are blind or visually impaired were familiar with his voice and his name for three years prior to that. As founder and first director of ACB Radio in December 1999, Mosen's voice could be heard by people who are blind around the world. Later, through his Internet program and blog, both called the Mosen Explosion, those tuning in could learn about his political views, musical tastes, technological savvy, and a host of other personal and professional details.

Just as sighted consumers identify with visual images--the face of a certain executive or an icon representing a product--people who are blind have a similar recognition linked to sound cues (like a song or a person's voice.) Then, add to our affinity for the audibly recognizable the fact that Mosen is from New Zealand. (We Americans have an exaggerated fascination with foreign accents--particularly those from other English-speaking countries. A pedestrian pronouncement seems somehow more sophisticated when we hear it spoken by someone from London, Sydney, or Christchurch than, say, Pittsburgh or Sacramento!)

BrailleNote customers heard Mosen's voice on tutorials, too, and at conferences and conventions. They came to identify him with the product he sold.

HumanWare (formerly Pulse Data) and its KeySoft system have been around for more than 20 years--begun, in fact, before the young Mosen's voice would have been changing. Whether or not its development will be ongoing, in other words, probably depends far more on its creator, Jonathan Sharp, and other HumanWare development team members, than on one former employee who loved and used it and brainstormed ways to improve it.

Why, then, were the concerns for the future of the company disproportionate to Mosen's role? Certainly, his high visibility (or audibility) in the blind computing community had something to do with it. People came to know him through his broadcasts and blogs and e-mail messages. (He says, incidentally, that he won't be doing any Internet radio now, and his blog has been closed and removed from the Web.)

But words like loyalty and betrayal don't come up just because someone whose voice you recognized changes jobs. No, the emotional level of trust and interest are tied, I think, to something far more basic. There is a serious marketing lesson here for any company hoping to sell products with large price tags to consumers who are blind. Customers who are blind feel a special kinship with Jonathan Mosen because they have come to know him, yes, and because they like his accent, yes, and because he knows a lot about technology. Mostly, though, people care so much about one man's job change because Jonathan Mosen is one of us: He is blind.

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