Blindskills, Inc. - Publisher of DIALOGUE Magazine
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by B. T. Kimbrough
Last spring, I wrote about the undiscovered software flaws that can sometimes turn the joy of owning a new product into frustration or even regret. From the disappointment John Weidlich expressed in NOTES FROM READERS, I have no doubt that the Tiny Tunes KD1000 Player from Future Aids fits my earlier description of a product released to the market before it was ready for prime time. He was promised a fully accessible device, and what he actually got was something less--a package containing no manual or operating instructions (not even in print) and a player with so many operational flaws that its reset button is needed at least as often as the power control. The original online operating instructions, which were all that John had to work with, do not rise to the level of a user's manual, and do not by any means cover all of the unit's responses and characteristics.
I confirmed the nature of John's user experience by ordering Tiny Tunes, which was delivered to my house in early January. Based on the levels of aggravation and less than accessible results that John and I have shared, you can easily guess what I would advise readers to do about this player at least for the time being. So my purpose in discussing the player here is to try to make an educated guess as to what's going on with the device and its developer, and what the product's future might be.
The developer of Tiny Tunes is a Canadian company called Future Aids: The Braille Superstore, which offers online an array of accessible products as well as braille books and greeting cards. The blind proprietor, Danny Ferris, is also a developer of accessible software with several products on the market including one called Talking Typing Teacher. The company's software division is called MarvelSoft. Ferris told an internet podcaster that the idea behind Tiny Tunes is to offer a fully accessible product for the same price as competing MP3 players which are not accessible. Ferris might have taken a shortcut to accessibility by using an operating system called Rockbox, which can provide spoken prompts to limited features of many MP3 players priced under $100. Rockbox has a number of serious limitations, the most significant one being that users must create a new speech file whenever they add new music to their Rockbox-equipped players. Ferris decided to avoid the pitfalls of RockBox by designing a custom text-to-speech program for Tiny Tunes from the ground up. The reasonably clear female voice developed by Ferris and his colleagues is so new it doesn't yet have a name.
The obvious advantage in developing a custom operating system with its own voice is that Future Aids will not have to share royalties with another company. The downside has to do with testing. New software, or in this case firmware, always requires several rounds of testing. The product often improves dramatically when users who volunteer to be beta testers provide feedback about undiscovered problems.
When I first began exploring Tiny Tunes, I quickly reached the conclusion that it was a product in sore need of at least one round of beta testing. The FM radio section failed to launch properly sometimes and did not speak all of its prompts. Some menus did not speak intelligibly, and the player frequently had to be reset through an access hole so tiny that only a safety pin would work. I'll have more to say about that later.
The online instructions implied that a copy of the manual was in the player's memory, and could be read with the built-in text reader. The file wasn't in the memory, and so a user lacking internet access would not have been able to get any instructions at all.
Such a user would be well within his or her rights to ask for a refund, as DIALOGUE reader John Weidlich reports doing. The Braille Superstore, which sells the player, has a stated policy of only offering credit, not a return of cash, to dissatisfied users. Actually, the policy states that cash refunds are only offered in cases where the product fails to perform as advertised. A case could be made that the original version of Tiny Tunes does not meet that standard, but few buyers would want to expend the time and energy to pursue that argument very far.
A couple of months after my Tiny Tunes was delivered, I emailed Danny Ferris to find out if any of the problems had been addressed through an update to the firmware. He gave me a link and some brief download instructions for a program which would perform an update, including the caution that the program would only work on a Windows computer running XP. That was no problem for me, because Blindskills still has several older systems running Windows XP. I don't know what a user would do to get the update without access to an XP computer.
Once the update was installed, I found Tiny Tunes to be dramatically improved, with better menu response, smoother speech, more prompts spoken as they should be, and fewer presses of that hard-to-reach reset button. It's still far from finished as a smooth-running unit, but it's clear that there is encouraging movement in the right direction. Interestingly enough, this improved update is labeled as a beta program on the Future Aids website. If this is a beta, I would have to say that the original firmware didn't even rise to the alpha level.
Considering the unusual nature of the controls, it is downright puzzling that Tiny Tunes would be shipped without some kind of instructions. All of the controls are built into three bars--each with two functions depending on whether you press the left or right side. The concept takes up little space and offers easy memorization, but I certainly wouldn't call it intuitive. Print instructions would have been better than none at all, but I suspect Ferris opted not to include standard print because that wouldn't pass the test of accessibility. Unfortunately, it also doesn't pass the test of user-centered business practice.
There may very well come a time when the Tiny Tunes KD1000 MP3 player is a viable choice for blind or low-vision users who seek a small unit they can operate independently and purchase for less than $100. If that day comes, the device would be an interesting alternative offering four gigabytes of memory, an estimated 70 hours of play time on the built-in rechargeable battery, and a limited but somewhat useful recording capability.
But don't rush to be the first person in your circle of acquaintances to own one. It is full of surprises--some painful. I was drifting off to sleep one night, lulled by the albums I had downloaded to Tiny Tunes. Suddenly, it stopped! Ok, need to reset because the thing is still on and the battery will run down. Where's the stupid safety pin? Oh yes--I attached it to the key ring so it wouldn't get away. Wide awake now, I rose to retrieve the key ring, which I instantly dropped on a bare foot.
So you'll understand when I warn you away from Tiny Tunes as long as it needs those frequent resets. This is the only player I have ever known which weighs less than one ounce but can still find a way to break your toe.
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