No text to speech in Amazon’s new Paperwhite Kindles: Why? To push us toward Fire tablets and boost Amazon-owned Audible?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos ballyhooed text to speech in the Kindle 2 in 2009.

But guess what’s now missing from the new Paperwhite Kindles even though it’s still present in the Kindle Keyboard 3G and Kindle DX models? TTS, aka “Read to Me.”

Tipped off by a Gizmodo review noting the absence of an audio jack, I called the Kindle support people Thursday and learned that the Paperwhite models would be mute. Bummer. For years, I’ve complained of E Ink’s contrast problems, and the new models are said to offer 25 percent more contrast, not just glow with less eyestrain than LCDs.

The news from Support jibes with a table comparing various models on the Amazon site (scroll down toward the bottom of this Amazon page). Notice? The table lists the Paperwhite models as lacking the speakers that high-end models offer.

So, Jeff, what’s the strategy here, given the diminishment of the usefulness of the Paperwhite models for the people with dyslexia or other learning or vision challenges? Especially, how about students? Don’t you hope to crack the education market? Dumb move, this muting. Speech chips cost a pittance, so that excuse just will not fly. If you don’t want a speaker or there isn’t room for one, at least include a headphone jack. Just how could you be so out of touch with customers in this instance? I actually was hoping Amazon would go in the other direction and do TTS right with “Amy” and other refined voices from the whizzes at Ivona (or would pick up the equivalents from a similar company).

In silencing the Paperwhites, was Amazon trying to extend the market life of the TTS-enabled Kindle Keyboard 3G and the DX? And nudge consumers toward the Fire models that can play digital audio books from Audible, part of the Bezos empire? Or cozy up to publishers or literary agents? A smarter move would be for Amazon to take a strong stand in favor of TTS while at the same time encouraging Audible to offer extras, such as author interviews, so that audiobooks still paid off. Anti-TTS strategies will actually reduce opportunities for writers. I want the print-impaired and joggers to be able to enjoy my books, and TTS make this more likely to happen.

No matter what the explanation for The Great Muting, Jeff, I’d be grateful for your personal pledge that text to speech will be a feature of all future Kindles, including the basic models (apparently audio of any kind was also missing from the the bottom-of-the-line Kindle introduce last year, and is still AWOL from the $69 successor).

At the very least, TTS needs to be in mainstream E Ink machines like the Paperwhite models.

I hope that librarians and advocates for people with disabilities will besiege Amazon with demands for TTS for all models. Same for joggers and walkers and others who would rather listen to their books when they need to pay special attention to their surroundings. (Yes, I do plead guilty to e-reading at times while walking—when conditions are safe enough.)

Of course, this is one more reason for librarians and others to support the Digital Public LIbrary of America, the ePub format, the battle against DRM and other efforts that would reduce our reliance on the proprietary technology.

Look, Jeff, it isn’t as if I’m anti-Amazon—I applaud your people’s innovative ways and stellar customer service, and I’ve sent thousands of dollars in Seattle’s direction over the years despite my less than full satisfaction with Amazon’s labor practices. I am not calling for a boycott and, in fact, have ordered a Paperwhite 3G. But I do believe that librarians and others should use whatever clout they can summon up to remind you of your social obligations, especially when Amazon may earn millions in tax money from some major Kindle-related federal contracts. Even if the Kindles in those cases have TTS, it would be extremely bad karma to reduce options in that area for ordinary users.

In so proudly demonstrating the Kindle 2′s TTS back in 2009, Jeff Bezos said: “Any book, blog, magazine, or personal document can be read aloud to you. If you’re in the kitchen cooking and want to be read to for a little while, or you’re on your commute to work and you want to be read to for a little while, Kindle can do that for you. Let’s listen…”

Yes, let’s listen. And, Jeff, you do the same. Unmute the Paperwhites! Ideally you could even give people with existing orders the choice of either accepting the silent Paperwhites or getting a slight discount on future models with the speech chips.

And speaking of good ergonomics—for everyone, not just people with print impairments: I notice that Kobo’s Glo model lets people vary the boldness of the characters. When will Amazon finally heed me and build this feature in? When I owned TeleRead, I begged vendors to oblige. Nice to see Kobo acting, whether or not I was the inspiration.

Author’s Note: I am sharing this post with Amazon PR, in case people at the company care to comment on the above. In addition, I’m alerting the president of the American Library Association, which ideally will care, given the reliance of many library e-book users on Amazon’s devices by way of Jeff’s alliance with OverDrive, the major provider of e-books to public libraries. I’ll also contact a library lawyer interested in disability issues. I’m not looking for a lawsuit here; rather, Jeff’s pledge that Amazon will care more about the print-impaired and others who have grown reliant on TTS.

Editor’s Note: The above article is Creative Commons-licensed content from LibraryCity.org.

13 Comments on No text to speech in Amazon’s new Paperwhite Kindles: Why? To push us toward Fire tablets and boost Amazon-owned Audible?

  1. I suspect it’s a penny-pinching move rather than a trick to drive us to buy Fires. When you sell in the volumes that Amazon does, every penny counts. And Amazon is going for the bottom of the market like Apple goes for the top.

    Amazon’s actually doing me a favor with this new model, since it won’t tempt me to abandon my Kindle 3. Reasons:

    * No text-to-speech like you said.

    * Still no support for a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. I like to take notes and hate Kindle keyboards of all sorts. Even more important, people with disabilities would be delighted to use a $10 Bluetooth mouse to flip pages rather than some $200 and up speciality gadget. The feature would cost almost nothing since their WiFi chips also support Bluetooth.

    * I take seriously research that says that bluish LCD in late evening makes it harder to get to sleep. This paperwhite display looks great, but it is bluish and hence not good for late night reading. I use dim external lighting instead.

    * I like to flip pages with buttons like my K3. It’s less awkward that touching the screen and less messy if I’m eating.

    That said, this is a good product and I’m happy that Amazon is still supporting epaper devices. There’s a place in the market for them.

  2. I agree with you, and was equally saddened to see this feature disappear for good on the newest eInk devices.
    If at least vision impaired readers could get the audio books for free, it wouldn’t be as bad. I always thought the Amazon was helping the blind finally gain access to (almost) all the books, which, to me, was a great achievement that made me respect Amazon as a company with foresight.

    I would have liked the feature for myself as well, for those times when I have problems putting down a book, but needing to drive somewhere. Giving me this feature would make economic sense for Amazon: the faster I can blaze through a book, the faster I will purchase my next one. I will absolutely not purchase an audio book as a companion to my ebook, and can’t think of anyone in my circle of firends who would.
    BTW, I love Amazon and I love Kindle books, and have converted many a friend and family member to Kindle enthusiasts. I, too, preordered the Paperwhite for now, but may return it if it is not as great in comparison to the old eInk screens as they claim.

  3. PS and off topic: The absence of page turn buttons was not a wise decision either.

  4. Also don’t forget that it’s an accessibility issue more than anything. I’d really like to hear someone that needs this feature from that standpoint weigh in. My take is that the Paperwhite is pretty much unusable by anyone in the vision-impaired community, rendering TTS useless for those individuals. The keyboard model at least as a way for people to use buttons to select books and activate TTS. I’m not sure why they didn’t include it on the base model. Maybe there just weren’t enough buttons to make it practical.

  5. The eInk Kindles are turning into pure and simple reading devices. Except for the built-in Amazon store they are little more than just electronic books.

    So, it’s actually pretty logical that any other special functions would move to the tablets. The Kindle Fire is almost like a full fledged hand-held computer. It has high quality audio and the computational power to run text to speech or speech recognition or any other audio driven program.

  6. Jonathan Ballinger // September 7, 2012 at 6:21 pm //

    Amazon confirmed that the Kindle Keyboard will continue to be sold, specifically because of its accessibility features. Per Engadget: http://www.engadget.com/2012/09/06/amazon-the-kindle-keyboard-is-sticking-around/

  7. Keenly disappointed. I will NOT be upgrading to Paperwhite! I just downloaded several audio books in anticipation of a stint in the hospital when I may not be able to read. If I had this new, advanced version, I’d be lost. TTS allows me to multitask, too.

    Add new features – great. Take away much used features – bad.

    Nowhere in the promos or descriptions is this lack of audio mentioned. If one doesn’t read reviews or notice that this is just omitted in the specs, I could see a lot of disappointed customers returning their Paperwhites once they discover they’ve been duped. At least be forthright when presenting a new product. This is outrageous.

  8. Binko, without physical buttons, how would a visually impaired person use TTS on the Fire?

  9. As I’ve done for all iterations of previous Kindle models, I eagerly hit the buy as soon as I could. Unfortunately for this iteration, I cancelled the order as soon as I noticed that the TTS was gone.

    I use TTS for my car commute (only), BUT use the TTS auto-page turning with the volume muted, for those times when I need to be hands-free. So the lack disrupts two scenarios for me. I’ll just keep my Kindle Keyboard and Kindle Touch until they fall apart.

  10. I am also sad to see TTS gone from the Paperwhite, but my guess would be it is an effort to keep costs down by killing a feature that required some hardware and that the competition (mostly Nook but also Sony & Kobo) has never had. I am hoping it is not gone forever, and that future Paperwhite versions will offer it.

  11. Hi, Carmen. Thanks for hoping for TTS in the Paperwhite line. There’s no way it can happen instantly, of course, but I very much hope it will happen in the near future at least.

    As I myself see it, TTS was the wrong feature to sacrifice, given both the demand and social utility. Amazon should worry a little less about feature-by-feature comparisons with the competition and a lot more about serving its particular customers.

    Besides, Amazon could still have offered TTS at a slight extra cost as an option and along the way offered improved voices of Ivona quality. My crush on “Amy” continues.

    As a blind visitor to LibraryCity.org put it, what if Amazon had released an improved model with Braille that was useless to sighted people?

    Jeff Bezos should not be complacent just because, like me, he is sighted. Any one of us at any time may go blind; compassion at the societal level is a wonderful insurance policy.

    David

  12. The move to remove TTS from the Paperwhite is extremely disappointing — I was considering recommending it for purchase with the school system I work with (the increased contrast that may be gained with the lighting was of interest) – mainly because the Kindles with TTS have been so helpful for the visually impaired readers I serve currently — not to mention those with vision and motor needs! It really makes me want to move away from using any Kindles at all with students — and to devices with more robust accessibility.

  13. Is this still the case in the newest kindles? I am looking at ipad vs kindle right now. Also looking at getting some external speakers to go along with a mic. Speach to text isn’t a game changer for me but I am curious about it. Thanks for the article!

    John.

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