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Monday, March 06, 2006

My Fragile Relationship with Audible.com

For the past six years or so I have maintained a love/hate relationship with audible.com.  As regular Blind Confidential readers already know, I enjoy fooling around with gadgets and I have a strong preference for those that fit in a shirt pocket.  So, when I first subscribed to audible.com, I took the package that included a free Diamond Rio, then about the coolest MP3 player on the market.  This would have occurred in the Spring of 1998 before JAWS 3.31 and its virtual buffer came out and when the Window-Eyes MSAA mode took a lifetime to load any web page with more than a dozen links or so.  Over the years, Internet support in screen readers has improved dramatically but audible.com continues to present challenges.

A few days after I first subscribed to audible.com, my Diamond Rio arrived at my office, the address I gave so as to ensure proper delivery (the apartment complex where I lived then had a policy of only delivering packages when they felt like it).  I brought my Rio home, plugged it into the USB port on my old Gateway PC and fired up the Audible application.  This begins one of my hate periods involving audible.com.

The Audible desktop program which, accessibility wise, could best be described as “sort of works if you poke around with the JAWS cursor a lot” proclaimed via a dialogue that did read nicely with JAWS 3.20, that I had to install the firmware upgrade on my Rio to enable it to play audible.com content.  It asked if it should do so, I clicked “yes” and listened to a bunch of things flash on and off of the screen that sort of made JAWS sound like a severely mentally ill techno freak babbling at the moon.  Then, came the Windows 98 crashing sound and a complete lack of speech.  I rebooted and tried again, same results, one more time, no change, time to give up.

The following day, I called audible.com from my desk.  I explained that I can’t see, that I thought audible.com could serve as a good resource for blind people, that I worked for a company that made a product very popular among blind people, that the desktop application worked poorly, that the web site confused one terribly using the old “reformat screen” feature in JAWS and that attaching my new Rio, the one they sent me, caused my computer to crash three times the night before.  The New Jersey woman who answered my call apologized and transferred me to “someone technical.”

I heard Sasha’s voice, deep and with a strong Eastern European accent, for the first time.  I had no idea that the fretful person who initially took my call would put me straight through to the Chief Technical Officer.  In fact, I had no idea to whom I was speaking.  I explained my dilemma.  Sasha asked me for the serial number on my Rio, I called someone into my office to read it to him.  Over the speaker phone, I heard a keyboard clatter and then, “Oh…  We will send you new Rio,” continued the somewhat annoyed engineer, “Yours has wrong firmware for our upgrade.”

I then explained the accessibility problems with the audible.com desktop application.  Sasha had heard from blind people before and explained that he could not use standard controls because, “Our user interface is very, very cool and all custom.”  I suggested that their service would work well for blind people, a population who really enjoys audio books.  He said he had some contact either with GW Micro or a Window-Eyes user and had made an accessible version of the desktop application for them and he gave me a link to download it.

A couple of days passed and my new Rio arrived.  I installed the “accessible” audible.com desktop player on my Gateway at home and connected my Rio.  JAWS could read the controls but the accessible desktop player did not have the functionality to talk to external devices.  I returned to the peek and poke method of using the JAWS cursor in the “very, very cool” user interface.  Finally, I got the firmware upgrade to load and I put some audible.com content on my Rio.  I can’t blame audible.com for the inaccessibility of my Rio as they don’t make the hardware but the only features I could use were, play, pause, fast forward and rewind.  The Rio defaults to playing the last file copied to it so my most recent audible.com purchase was always ready to go.

The audible.com software running on the Rio had a bunch of bugs back then.  From time to time, it would go directly into fast forward for a little while and bring me to some spot further into the book.  I would then enjoy interpolating back and forth with fast forward and rewind to find my place and resume listening.  I could not, though, argue with the convenience of having a device smaller than a deck of cards as my book reader and having a web site that, with a lot of hunting and pecking around, could provide me with the instant gratitude of buying and downloading a book on a whim.  Thus began one of my love periods with audible.com.

A few years passed in which I didn’t do much pleasure reading.  I discontinued my audible.com subscription and gave my Rio to a colleague in the office next to mine.  I didn’t follow progress on audible.com but heard continuous reminders of its existence on NPR as a lot of programs, including “Car Talk,” “Fresh Air” and “This American Life” had signed distribution agreements with the Wayne, New Jersey based content company.

One day, while testing an alpha PAC Mate TNS 1.0, the thought of audible.com came back to mind.  I wondered if they had made a Pocket PC player for it yet.  I went to the audible.com web site, poked around a little, found a PPC player, downloaded it, installed it on my very pre-release PAC Mate and, voila!

The PPC Audible Player didn’t talk perfectly right out of the box but I could use TAB to reach some controls and read most everything else with the JAWS cursor.  If JAWS on the PAC Mate could see it, we could write scripts for it.  The FS team made contact anew with Sasha and scripters created the JAWS customizations necessary to make the audible player speak nicely on the PM and with “Big JAWS” on the desktop.  Meanwhile, the engineers at audible.com made changes to their application to make it more accessible without losing the “very, very cool” look and feel.  FS and audible.com did a joint press release and PAC Mate users, upon its release, could download a coupon from the FS web site for a discounted subscription to audible.com.

The PAC Mate clearly distinguished itself from the blind-guy-ghetto products with its ability to run off-the-shelf programs.  FS had all sorts of shareware running, most of the applications that ship with PPC and a very popular audio book service that could not run on any of the other products.  PAC Mate made history by taking the PDA for people with vision impairments out of the ghetto and into the software mainstream.  Thus began another period of loving audible.com.

Once again, though, I fell into a period in which I did not do much pleasure reading and, although I could listen to audible content on my PAC Mate, I canceled my subscription as I didn’t want to pay the monthly charge for content because I didn’t have the time for listening.

Another couple of years pass.  I now have both a PAC Mate and an iPAQ and I have a little time I can spare for reading, one of my lifelong pleasures.  So, I go to audible.com and try to sign up for a subscription.  Thus begins another hate period.

I don’t know who does the web site for audible.com.  I can only suppose they never look at other web sites or, if they do, they clearly choose to go well out of their way to obfuscate as much as possible.  Just getting audible.com to accept my credit card turned into a nightmare (a few weeks later, I heard from a blind friend who had the same experience).  The form to subscribe for an audible.com subscription shows any problems in red.  Thankfully, JAWS has its Speech and Sounds Manager so I could get it to play a sound when it saw red text.  I chose the Ernie’s car keys .wav file and reread the page line by line.  The sound played when I reached the street address box.  I read it and it sounded correct.  I read it character by character and it sounded correct.  I called my sighted wife into the room and she looked at all of the fields and said they were all correct.  I called audible.com technical support and listened to their promotions punctuated by the occasional male voice popping in to say that “due to a large call volume resulting from the holiday season you will be waiting for a very, very long time.”  When a nice young sounding New Jersey woman finally picked up, I had grown nearly catatonic from listening to repeated descriptions of Truman Copote’s “In Cold Blood” a new addition to the audible.com catalogue.  I described my problem.  She said that my credit card information, including billing name and address had to appear precisely as it did on my bill.  I called my wife back into the room and she could see that I had reached a boiling point after spending about two hours trying to perform a five minute task.  I explained the situation as rationally as I could.  She returned with my credit card bill.  We looked it over line by line, had I used “Chris” or “Christian?”  Was I supposed to spell out “Florida” rather than using the abbreviation?  Then we spotted it.  I live on 8th Street North in St. Petersburg.  In my audible.com application, I wrote 8th St. N. but my credit card information had 8th St. N – there was no period after the “N” on my credit card bill.  I hit the continue button and, voila!

Thinking my hardest times with round three of my relationship with audible.com were behind us, I proceeded to download the desktop player and the Windows Mobile player for those devices.  They simply refused to make this easy.  On my first attempt, the desktop player downloaded properly but, in the infinite wisdom of the folks at audible.com, they wrote their own download manager which then crashed while trying to download the Windows Mobile player.  After a couple of repeats, uninstalling the desktop player and starting over, I achieved success.  Frustrated, I no longer felt like reading and I went to bed.

The following day, I returned to the audible.com web site and started browsing for content.  Something subliminably in my head reminded me that I hadn’t read “In Cold Blood” in about thirty years so I chose it as my first download.  Clicking on “Download It” in the table in the “My Library” page of audible.com causes the desktop player to wake up and manage the download process.  This, even though the book came in two separate files, went smoothly.  Then, because I hadn’t attached a Windows Mobile device to my laptop yet, I got a dialogue telling me that some horrible error had occurred and, upon hitting the “OK” button, everything went screwy.  I had to use the power button to shut down.  Hatred and dread continue.

After restarting, I attached a WM device to the USB port on my laptop and opened the audible.com program.  I seemed to start in something of a list view but then the application moved focus to a web control which contained a nice description of Truman’s classic.  I brought up the JAWS help file for the Audible Manager and read a couple keystrokes that sounded useful.  Upon returning to Audible Manager, I found that they didn’t work.  I also found that very standard Windows keystrokes like F6 to bring me from pane to pane didn’t work.  Hitting ALT did bring me to something of a menu bar but one can perform very few useful tasks from menus.  Once again, I called on the trusty old JAWS cursor and started poking around.  After a while, I got my book onto my Windows Mobile devices.  At this point, the fear and loathing started to recede a bit.

On my PAC Mate and my iPAQ, I could use the Audible Player for Windows Mobile.  Once again, I had a convenient method to have instant gratification audio books and I got the audio New York Times delivered daily.

Love and hate continue to fight for prominence when I use anything from audible.com.  I love the huge library but hate the cumbersome web site – a site that mostly follows the WAI guidelines but has such a low signal to noise ratio as to cause complaints from blind and sighted people alike.  I love the instant gratitude but hate the instability of their software – I’ve tested it in various situations with JAWS and Window-Eyes and no screen reader and could repeat crashes every time.  I love the free things posted for members each week but hate that I can never delete any content from my library on audible.com – forcing me to keep every back issue of the Times that I ever downloaded.  I love the fact that audible.com always seems willing to work with AT companies to make their products accessible but I hate that they wait until after they put out a new release to inform anyone of the UI changes.  

Overall, I guess I like the service.  I think their software is altogether too delicate and unstable but their content, convenience (when you figure out which Quick Keys should be used on which pages) the instant gratification can’t be beat and I like their pricing structure.  I pay $15 per month and, for that, I get 1 book credit which I exchange for a book that would otherwise cost around $19, the New York Times or Wall Street Journal on a daily basis, a discount on any books I purchase and some pretty cool free audio content every week.  

Finally, I think I like audible.com because I like to kvetch.  To those of us who grew up in metropolitan New York, complaining, bitching and moaning rises to the point of high art.  Any of us can stand in an idyllic place with our best friends, fine food and beverage, perfect weather, a cool sea breeze and the smell of orange blossoms and still find a turd in the punch bowl.  We gripe because griping is our birth right and, if you don’t like it, we got people we can call.  “What you lookin at boy?”




1 Comments:

Anonymous Chris Westbrook said...

It's ashame that Jaws doesn't work nearly as well with audible as it should. I found that by labeling some graphics I was able to get the ability to go from section to section on my desktop machine, but it's certainly not intuitive. I've been playing around with LUAA trying to get msp to click on the graphics for previous and next section in the pocket pc version so I don't have to go through the menus but haven't had much luck. There doesn't seem to be a way to get the coordinates of the graphics. I suppose an accessible player can't be written without audible's help because of it's proprietary format. on a more serious note, Audible to me illustrates the delecate balance and, frankly, marketing hype by Freedom Scientific and how that can go arie. Freedom Scientific and, to a lesser extent, Code Factory have all bragged about their software/hardware being able to work with all these shareware applications, making it sound like they will work with anything. In reality, for most applications we are still at the mercy of developers and scripters, just as we are with the "blind ghetto" products. Yes, we are less dependent, and i certainly advocate products like msp, heck I own it, but I think we must recognize the state of dependence were still in. Perhaps we should launch another campaign with audible just like we have done with the google word verification petition?

11:05 AM  

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