Back in high school, I followed hi-fi equipment as a hobby the way other people follow sports or stock tickers. I had subscriptions to magazines like Stereo Review and Audiophile, I knew names like Bob Carver and those of other then famous (to we stereo geeks) engineers at the high end companies. I would visit the high end stereo store in my home town of Westfield, NJ just to check out the latest stuff. My boys and I would show off our new additions with pride similar to the way motorheads would show off their new bitchin’ Camaro. Somewhere, I found my way out of stereo geekdom and realized that the music, the art had a far greater importance than the delivery system.
Today, I still appreciate the sound of really high end audio. I found that listening to John Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland” album on Mike Pedersen’s $30,000 system to approach a truly religious experience. I suppose the people in the club that night might have heard it sound better but I doubt by much. Although I really enjoyed listening to Mike’s system, we bought a BOSE Lifestyles stereo for the house because, while I can tell that something from Balanced Audio Design would sound better, I don’t value the difference at over $25,000.
I like the BOSE products because their design makes them easy to live with. My wife set it up in a few hours, including tuning the balance and such with the software that comes with the unit. The entire Lifestyles system takes up little space, has tiny speakers and sounds really good. Sure, for the same number of dollars, we could buy something that sounds better but without the ergonomics that make BOSE such a nice item to have in one’s house.
Thus, I haven’t followed the world of audio equipment seriously since the seventies and, today, I find all of it quite baffling. I feel fairly confident with component stereo products as they haven’t really changed that much – most are black and stacked up like the monolith in 2001 and clearly designed to appeal to men. I do, however, find the myriad new digital devices nearly completely baffling as few have an interface a blink can explore and all seem designed to appeal to people 30 years younger than me. I find the pricing of these items surprisingly approachable and, when I have listened to them, I’ve found the audio quality very acceptable. Nonetheless, the lack of accessibility to most of these products turns me off to them as I would prefer using more than one or two of their features.
This brings us to computer audio programs and peripherals which, other than the most minimal, tend to puzzle me. When they work, these devices tend to work well; when they don’t, the cause never seems to be a loose cable but, rather, something that requires a trip back to Circuit City to return the item.
Yesterday, I bought a Logitech USB headset, it was on sale for $30 and my other headset had stopped sending a signal to my left ear and was starting to fall apart. This morning, I installed the headset by plugging it into a USB port and using the automatic installer for the three separate drivers that this device seems to require. Each of the drivers caused the error that they had not passed Windows XP logo testing (pretty cheesy for a company as huge as Logitech I thought) and I installed them anyway. Everything worked right away, except the volume control on the cable.
Like any good consumer awake at 5:00 am, four hours before the Logitech technical support line wakes up, I went to their web site to find an answer. Searching on “USB headset volume control” found something like 630 results and none in the top 20 had anything to do with my actual problem. A search of their user forum, however, resulted in a thread which started with “My Logitech 350 USB Headset Volume Control Doesn’t Work.” The thread had a number of entries, all from people who said, “me too” and only one guy had an actual solution which had something to do with some weird desktop extension he was running that, when turned off, fixed the problem. Everyone in the thread agreed that they could change the volume setting in Control Panel and that, coincidentally, the microphone mute button worked fine.
So, having exhausted the easy to find stuff, I went to the “contact us” link on the Logitech site. There, it asks, what do you need help with? The first option says “customer support” so I clicked on the link. This brought me back to the search page where I had just come from. Hitting the “contact us” link brought me back. I could have looped infinitely had I felt like it but, alas, it had come to the time when I feed the dogs so I stopped and performed the morning feeding ritual.
As this problem has been nicely documented in the Logitech user forum for over a month, why doesn’t it show up in a technical support notice? The answer, my frustrated friend, must blow in the wind as it seems that Logitech finds it all too confusing to address.
Here’s a bet for you all to ponder and comment upon if you like: when Logitech technical support does open and I phone them, will the call center person who answers my call blame the problem on my using JAWS? Personally, I wouldn’t rule out a screen reader as the cause of an audio problem, it has been known to occur in the past but, given all of the other variables, will the mainstream company try to wash its hands of the matter and send me to FS to try to sort out the issue? Then, if the FS technical support team (in my slanted opinion the best in the blindness biz) hasn’t encountered the issue, escalates it to the test lab where a tester proves that it works with JAWS 7.10 on the computers in their lab and I get a call back, having wasted my own time and Freedom Scientific’s time and money, and I call Logitech back and forward them any email I might get from FS on the matter, will they then actually try to address my problem?
Which company holds the responsibility for testing hardware compatibility with AT? As I’ve written here before, I feel strongly that the onus falls on the hugely wealthy mainstream companies more than on the AT vendors. Even the richest organizations in the blindness biz (presumably FS and Humanware) have an estimated total annual revenue that is profoundly smaller than a company the size of Logitech pays for marketing its least popular product. The population of screen readers grows each year. Every time a new copy of JAWS or Window-Eyes gets shipped out, more often than not, it is going to a new user as the currently installed base has an SMA. Thus, one would think Logitech would get an increasingly large number of complaints from blinks and it would behoove them to do compatibility testing to save on calls from angry blind customers. Then again, maybe not.
I just want to go to a store, buy something and have a high degree of confidence that it will work with my computer as configured as soon as I get home. Certainly, the screen reader vendors can do more to improve application support but, as we’ve also explored in these pages, small companies that try to support as much as possible have incredible difficulties keeping up with new releases of mainstream programs. JAWS 7.10, for instance, announced as one of its “new” features, support for Windows Media 10 a month or two after Microsoft started shipping Windows Media 11 which fortunately works pretty well with JAWS right out of the box if you don’t mind poking around with the JAWS cursor from time to time.
I can hear our friend Gabe, a Macintosh and GNU/Linux hacker (link to his blog above) saying that I should switch to an Apple product and all my fears will go away. Gabe has terrific technical savvy but I feel certain that he would agree that all of the programs I need to use to do my job do not exist in an accessible manner on a Mac. So, I plod forward using JAWS, in my slanted opinion, still the best solution out there if, for no other reason, than I can, with a little help from my friends in the community, usually customize it to work with the program I need.
Freedom Scientific has some very good business reasons for not distributing third party scripts. They cannot guarantee the quality of programs they did not build and test themselves. So, users should remember to check a variety of other places for customizations written by people like Doug Lee, Jim Snowbarger and so many others as they will often do the trick. I have found lots of very useful stuff out there that makes a lot of obscure to popular programs work nicely with JAWS and I contend that this remains one of the most important reasons that JAWS stays far out in front of all of its competitors.
I’m really rambling this morning. This item started out to be about stereo stuff, morphed into computer peripherals and ended up in my repeating my standard speech about why user customizability is the most important feature that a screen reader can have. I’ve had full my full compliment of coffee so maybe the heat of the Florida summer has melted the brain a bit.
I’ve received a lot of email commentary on my series of Guide Dog School chronicles and, for a change, virtually all of it has been positive. I think there will be two more in the series, one on the staff and another on coming home. I might do a follow up in six months or so but I don’t plan anything involving this blog that far in advance.
Blind activist, AFB employee and all around well respected individual, Crista Earl has gone missing and has last been sighted in Morristown, New Jersey, home of another very famous compound where adult blinks are segregated by gender, forced to live together and are constantly surrounded by highly trained animals. She and Gonz don’t know each other so I don’t think he’ll be mounting a rescue attempt and, as Samhara is still on her island vacation, he probably won’t be leaving the city for a while.
Seriously, though, Crista has been writing articles on the AFB blog which start with Getting a Dog, Day 1 and have continued on a near daily basis since she arrived at Seeing Eye, a few miles from the town in which I grew up. Crista writes from the heart and mind, has a readable writing style that contains far more detail about one’s work at a guide dog school than my “Chronicles” pieces. If you find the topic interesting, I recommend checking into her posts, they contain humor, pride, personality and come from the perspective of someone who has lived in the world of professional blinkhood far longer than me.