I wonder if Intel feels sheepish right now. Here they are, thinking they’ve just launched a great new product for the blind, a mobile device that reads text aloud. Intel partnered with assistive tech pioneer HumanWare and reached out to the blind community to get their input, too. But the Intel Reader, announced yesterday, has pretty much bombed in the marketplace. At $1,500, the Reader is overpriced and doesn’t have any more bells and whistles than other devices already out there. Intel should have known this would happen — or perhaps they don’t really care. After all, if they can get schools to pay for it under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, then they’ll make money.
But making products that don’t represent the needs and wants of consumers — blind or not — is anathema to what technology companies should be doing. They should be innovating along a universal design curve, where technology is made accessible from the ground up. Just look at what Apple has accomplished. It has a screen reader built into it’s iPhone, for Pete’s sake, and for no extra charge. I know there are people who are blind who will benefit from this device. My issue with the Intel Reader is that, with such deep pockets and the partnership of HumanWare, why didn’t Intel come up with something better, cooler, and more revolutionary for blind people?
Mike Calvo at Serotek Group, which makes low-cost products for the blind, wrote a great post about the new device. “After the initial shock,” Calvo writes, “I and many others in the blind community began looking more closely at the information available about the device, just to ensure that we hadn’t overlooked anything truly awe-inspiring.” After all, mobile readers have been on the market for years, including the KNFB Reader and the Amazon Kindle, which isn’t currently accessible for the blind “but could be made so with a little effort and encouragement from the community,” he postures. Calvo came to the conclusion that no, there wasn’t anything “awe-inspiring” about Intel’s reader. For starters, there is no wi-fi capability, which points to the idea that maybe it’s being marketed to schools, who don’t want their students to have access to the Internet during classes.
Calvo, quite bluntly, calls the reader a “blind ghetto product,” arguing that “Intel is unapologetically asking us to accept this device’s hefty price tag for no other reason than that it was designed specifically for the blind.” Nearly all of his readers agreed. “The state of the market for accessible technology is ridiculous right now,” says one commenter. “Aren’t economic times bad these days? $1500 bucks for a reader? Sheesh.”
Another commenter quotes a post from Engadget, where the reporter questions the authenticity of the costly reader, saying he could design something similar for much less money. “If the mainstream [press] is asking themselves whether this device is a scam, we can combine our voices with theirs, and make quite a powerful impression on those trying to market this laughable quote-on-quote innovation to us.”
It’s clear that the blind community is frustrated. “Great, just another device that I can’t afford, says a commenter. “Every person with a disability has a right to own the products that will enhance their independence, and they should have the right to purchase them, but that won’t happen until more companies mainstream their product lines.”
Sure, the Intel Reader is a custom device, which makes it expensive. But if Intel had designed it for everyone, not just the blind, they could have sold many more — at an eventually cheaper price. If Intel chooses to ignore basic economics, I’m not surprised they would ignore their customers, too.
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