Among the storefronts and gourmet restaurants on Palo Alto's California Avenue are a pair of offices for Benetech and Bookshare, which are related. Benetech, the parent organization, focuses on using technology to enhance human rights, literacy and environmental conservation. Bookshare, its largest and best-known project, provides electronic and audio books for people with reading disabilities.
CEO and founder Jim Fruchterman describes the group's human rights work as "Silicon Valley's deliberately nonprofit high-tech company tackling all those things that our for-profit buddies can't tackle because they (the projects) don't make enough money." He refers to himself and his colleagues as "the geeks that make human rights groups more powerful."
The group's Bookshare project provides free reading material to people who are blind or visually impaired, or who have reading disabilities that make it difficult to use regular books and periodicals.
In 1982, Fruchterman cofounded Calera Recognition Systems, which developed optical character recognition systems. That led to the formation of a nonprofit group to produce reading machines for the blind. The technology was sold to a for-profit company in 2000 as Fruchterman turned his attention toward finding ways to obtain electronic reading material and make it available to people with reading disabilities.
Bookshare, which receives support from the U.S. Department of Education, operates under an exception to U.S. copyright law that allows digital copyrighted books to be made available for free to people with qualifying disabilities. Depending on their circumstances, eligible Bookshare clients pay a small annual fee or nothing at all to access its vast collection of electronic books and periodicals, including New York Times bestsellers, text books, technical manuals and even erotica. Anyone can search Bookshare's catalog but you have to be a member to download material.
All of Bookshares content is digitized using the open-standard Digital Accessible Information System, so it can be read aloud via text-to-speech software. Members get access to free text-to-speech software as well as software that can create embossed Braille books from the digital content. There is also an iOS app called Read2Go that enables iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad users to listen to books or read them via a refreshable Braille display. And a mobile reader called Go Read lets users read content on a screen or by printing it for their own use in a type size suitable for their needs.
Fruchterman got the idea from Napster, which then was encouraging peer-to-peer file sharing. But unlike Napster's original model, Bookshare was unquestionably legal and now gets most of its digital content directly from publishers.
Like most text-to-speech software, Bookshare's audio books have a robotic sound. They're not hard to understand but -- given a choice -- most people would no doubt prefer having their books read aloud by the author or a professional actor. But Fruchterman said it costs less than $50 to add a book to Bookshare, compared to the $5,000 to $10,000 cost of having it read by a professional actor. "That's why audio books are a separate industry," he said.
Some electronic book readers, including earlier versions of the Kindle, are capable of reading digitized text aloud. But not all books support that feature, partially because of objections from some authors and publishers who worry that the feature would cut down on sales of audio books.
Fruchterman hopes Bookshare's specialized library will someday be less necessary, but that won't happen until all new books become available in an open digital format that can be accessed by Braille readers, text-to-speech software and large screen reading programs. Just as we now have lending libraries, we'll still need Bookshare to make sure that people with disabilities can get those books for free.
Just as ramps on sidewalks -- intended to give access to people in wheel chairs -- also benefit people with strollers or bikes, an open standard for eBooks would benefit everyone who wants to consume written material by separating the source material from the device. Today when I buy a book or video, I have to think about whether I want to consume it on my Apple (AAPL) device, my Amazon device or an Android device. And if I change devices, I may not be able to continue to access that content.
Even people with 20/20 vision should be able to see the benefit an open standard for reading material.
Contact Larry Magid at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.