Sunday, January 18, 2009

Send PAC Mate Packing

Before I begin the topic of this certainly provocative subject matter, let me say that I have absolutely no stake in any of the companies or products mentioned in this article. The success of the products like PAC Mate and others mentioned in this article would have never been made possible had it not been for pioneers both in the hardware and software industry. Hundreds of thousands of blind people’s lives have been forever and profoundly altered all around the world because of folks like Dean Blazie, Ted Henter, Glen Gordon from the development end of things and others like Eric Damery, Jerry Bowman and Dan Clark who made the business and less geeky side of things happen. To all of them and more, I am personally grateful. I am not exaggerating when I say, you changed my life.

It is however, my personal view that the adaptive technology industry has for the most part, lost its vision. This is an incongruous statement. An industry that has done so much for the blind has lost its vision -- its way in the market place.

Let me explain: I had the privilege and irreplaceable life experience of working up close and personal with the PAC Mate project team at Freedom Scientific from its bitsy board inception and revision 1 cycle running Pocket PC 2002, right through the end of its revision 2 development cycles which took it through its Pocket PC 2003 versions ending at 4.1. I have watched from afar with interest as the project has continued with the introduction of the PAC Mate Omni which runs Windows Mobile 6.

Unfortunately however, as with many products of this type, upgrades are not inexpensive and Enovation is inexcusably lacking. PAC Mate BX420 and QX420 (with 20-cell Braille display): at a whopping $3,795 from: still only offers its users two antiquated compact flash slots, no on-board wi-fi or Bluetooth, no user replaceable battery, merely double its original memory specifications, a single USB client/host port and only one possible Braille device choice, causing any claims to it having any semblance of a “laptop replacement” or even being modular on any level not to be taken seriously by anyone doing an honest product comparison. (I will discuss the modular concept in greater detail later in this article.)

Think of the daily scenarios with which the hardware peripheral minded PAC Mate user is presented:
· I will have to make a choice between wi-fi and Bluetooth if I want to use a storage card.
· To use Secure Digital cards, I’ll need an adapter.
· If I need Bluetooth and wi-fi at the same time, I’ll need external USB solutions for extra memory storage.

It is my view that we have two choices. We can either reward this so-called Enovation by continuing to pay for it or we can find another solution! I say, IT IS TIME TO SEND THE PAC MATE (and other devices like it: Braille & Voice Note M-Power, and Braille & Voice Sense, ETC.) PACKING!

To that end, I would like to introduce you to a new product. This invention in conjunction with other hardware and software already in the main=stream consumer market, would, without a doubt, easily replace the current line of blind ghetto note-takers.
The product is a piece of hardware called “Redfly” and is quite simply described as a terminal complete with nearly full sized keyboard and ten inch screen for a Smart Phone or other Windows Mobile device. You can read more than you want to know about it at:

I am specifically recommending the revision 2 C8 model at a whopping… are you ready… $299.99 with its eight hour battery life, it even charges your phone or other Windows Mobile device while it is connected via USB! (Oh, and by the way, it also supports Bluetooth, though through-put is not quite as fast as USB.) Ok, let your imagination go wild! Add any CDMA or GSM Smart phone from your provider of choice for as little as $99.00 with a new or extended contract with some providers, a copy of Mobile Speak Smart Phone from:

For as little as $85.00 from at least one provider. Quite simply, the sky is the limit! You could then add one of any of the many supported Braille devices supported by Mobile Speak Smart Phone or Mobile Speak Pocket. Your GPS solutions become better and all Smart phones of which I am aware come already Internet enabled through all of the cell providers.

Unless my calculation is way off, I have spent quite a bit less than what I would spend even if I skipped Braille all together and just purchased the PAC Mate BX400 or QX400 for $2,395. I have all of the functionality and exponentially more modular expandability than I would have with a PAC mate Omni. By the way, in most cases, I also have a later version of Windows Mobile which is 6.1… not 6.0 as is claimed as the latest on the Freedom Scientific web site. The entire system is completely modular. Everything from the Smart Phone or Windows Mobile PC, to the Braille device can be replaced or left behind if not needed in a particular situation.

Example: While I may need Braille for this meeting, I won’t need it when I am at my daughter’s house listening to music. If something breaks or if you find something better, simply replace that piece and keep going. Here is another example: It is the way we think of component stereo equipment. Every component is separate: the satellite tuner, the cable box, PVR, plasma TV, DVD, IPod, the power amplifier, the equalizer… well… you get the idea. That’s the way it is if you start thinking of your mobile life in this model. Now, think about your PAC Mate or other blind ghetto note taker. Using these examples, are they modular?

In conclusion, I would like to get you thinking about the following questions:
· What “blindness” hardware products do I currently use to accomplish my daily tasks whether at work or at play?
· With what main-stream consumer hardware could I replace these products without degradation of usability at a lower cost?
· How can I be more proactive in communicating these solutions to other blind people?

Folks, it all goes back to the buggy whip principle. Buggy whips left the market place over time as the age of the automobile dawned. Blind ghetto products will leave the market place… or not… the same way. Ultimately you get to make the decision. Money talks: What will yours say?


Wayne said...

One of the big selling points for the Pac Mate for me, at least in it's current state, is the security of no data being lost if the battery runs completely flat. Regular backups and other management options not withstanding, if the battery runs flat or if I leave my Pac Mate unattended for periods of time, I won't lose any data when I do start charging it and turn it on again. Is there a mainstream device out there that does the same things as the Pac Mate but that also includes that same security? I'm not asking in a challenging manner. I'd love to switch to a better device than the Pac Mate. However, I've yet to find one. It's that security of no data loss, and the short boot up time and long battery life that has kept me with a note taker in general and the Pac Mate in particular. Another innovation that FS has come up with that I've yet to see on other similar devices is the ability to keep your data/programs on your device when performing a device update/upgrade. Again, is there a mainstream device that offers this?

Richard Wells said...

Wayne has asked a great question. The anser is simply, all of them. Any main-stream Windows Mobile device you choose, whether it is a Smart Phone or a loaded Windows PDA has the feature, yes the mandate of maintaining all of its data, even through upgrades. Only with its third rivision has PAC Mate come up to the industry standard that has been required of all main-stream manufacturers for years. This only further illustrates my point that we have come to refer to fixes as enovation in the adaptive technology business. I hav no doubt that PAC Mate is still enriching the lives of many people. My question is, at what cost and why?

Anonymous said...

FS does deserve credit for one recent move, however. Their upgrade path from version 4.1 to an Omni was one of the cheapest I've ever seen for an assistive technology product. Consider the thousands that other companies like HumanWare and GW have charged for similar updates. I do agree with the sentiment of the article, however. For those who want a braille keyboard, this is available in many forms to interface with a mobile phone. The challenge that remains for the accessibility of mobile phones is to make them as simple to use as a proprietary device like the Braille Note. We need to keep pushing for access with little or no learning curve, much like cSystem Access does for the Windows screen reader market. Code Factory and Nuance are well on their way to doing this, and I'm confident their help and documentation features will improve over time.

Anonymous said...

the pac mate is expensive. the upgrade was very expensive whn you compare it to say windows mobile devices. a lot of the pocket pcs and smart phones offered free upgrades from windows mobile 5 to windows mobile 6. i've never sceen that happen in the pac mate or braille note. also you need to look at what you are getting for your money. you would atleast expect a unit with built in wi fi or bluetooth for the price you pay for the pac mate.
for example i bought a net book the other day this cost about £300 at most. this came with bluetooth card reader and wi fi. this really makes you wonder how freedom scientific can charge so much for a product not even including these basic standard features.

Anonymous said...

Boy. I have to say that your article offers food for thought. i definitely think it's time for A.T. product manufacturers to get with industry standards and stop forcing blind people to pay oodles of money for tiny innovations or fixes. You're definitely right in saying that progress is still too slow in the field of note taking solutions. My big gripe about your article, however, is that Braille devices such as the brailleNote and PACMate offer something that most mainstream products don't: a user friendly environment for Braille users that doesn't require us to toat a bunch of equipment. As much as I like the module model in terms of easy replacement of various parts, I find an all-in-one solution to be attractive. When I'm at an NFB convention for example, I'd rather carry a note taker with a built-in display and easy access than a mobile phone or similar device, a separate keyboard, and a separate Braille display.

I personally think it would be a sin to sacrifice what could be called "blind ghetto products" for mainstream ones. I recognize that you do not altogether advocate for the total extinction of propriatary products. However, I definitely think the A.T. industry needs to realize that we blind need real innovation on par with our sighted friends regardless of what technological model we prefer. The A.T. industry also needs to recognize that propriatary environments are fine and good, but they at least need to have some kind of smooth interface with other outside products.

In short, what I am saying is that we need a hybrid solution that includes both blindness specific products with a more mainstream way of doing business. How are we blind going to make that happen? Your guess is as good as mine, but I don't think throwing the baby out with the bath water is a good idea.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you on this one. I haven't owned or used blindness-specific devices in over ten years and haven't regretted it for one minute. In my view, it's not just the fact that these devices are specialized and often introduce compatibility issues. It's also the principle of the matter: why should we not, rather than isolate ourselves, demand access to mainstream products and use it when that access becomes available?
The only reason anyone in the blindness community would think any of these notetaking devices are inovative or state-of-the-art at this point is because they have no idea what is out there in the mainstream. Even a minute exposure to mainstream devices would show anyone exactly how far behind these specialized devices truly are. Even should one choose to continue using them--as is your right--don't begin to think for a minute that these devices are amazing. That is simply not the case anymore, and these devices only serve to further isolate us and keep us dependent on these so-called agencies that claim to help us out. Well, I don't want help to get what I need... and thanks to the number of mainstream devices that are accessible, I don't have to. And before smartphones became accessible and served as more powerful notetakers... well, I simply used a laptop. Not as convenient, but much more in line with my logic.
Just my $0.02 on the matte.

P.S. Thanks for pointing me to this Redfly mobile companion. This would go very nicely with my Dash. I didn't know about it before, but I might just get one of these.

Mike Calvo said...

If you decide to purchase the device make sure you let them know that you are blind and you are purchasing this yourself with your own funds because they have created a device that works for everyone.

Richard Wells said...

I need to rebut a few things here particularly from comments made by lonejedi.
By no means am I saying that we should "throw the baby out with the bath water." To return to my modular analogy again, while all in one unit console stereos that looked like nice furniture were okay for some, folks who wanted real flexibility adjusted their thinking and went with component systems. What good is having a nice neat little unit to carry around an NFB convention if its technology is antiquated?
Again if this kind of technology is worth $3800.00 or better. let your money do the talking. As long as your buying, they're selling. Just remember folks, if you want change in this technology, all you've got to do is stop spending your money on the stuff you don't like. If they want your business, they will listen and innovate. If you want things to stay the same, just keep supporting what is out there now. The power really is in your hands.
Again, the purpose of this article is to educate on alternative technology that does the same thing for less. You have the information. Continue to think about it and debate it. The more discussion there is, the better.

Anonymous said...

Convincing blind folks, especially newly blinded folks, that they need blind specific hardware has been a real cash cow for some of the "in crowd" who would probably otherwise be selling pencils out of a cup on a train platform. Lets see; pay upwards of 5 grand for the already outdated device then spend another 12 grand to go to a "center for the blind" to learn how to use it and then repeat the process when another overpriced "upgrade" is available. Or do what I did last month and walk to your local phone store plunk down three bills for a device that has a faster processor, more memory, more built in features and install a screen reader of choice, Mobilespeak in my case. Now for less then the price of a new set of snow tires you have a fully accessible device with a learning curve of about 24 hours which you can obtain support for from countless mainstream user groups, listserv, web sites and even free from your cell provider. Now to all of you nay sayers who "don't want to carry more then one device to get braille support" ... I wonder how many of you also leave the house with a cell phone as well as your six grand replacement for a pencil and a piece of scrap paper.

- Glen - said...

I agree with the thinking in this article. I have been biding my time until software makes mainstream devices usable in a real way. I think that time is now. I am just a little hesitant to buy into the Windows Mobile Smart phones as I think other operating systems are beginning to have the same power and seem to be gaining popularity. But, I guess you can always make the argument as to waiting until something better comes along. I would only offer one suggestion for 1 more innovation. How about a "red fly"-like terminal program which runs on a netbook. Since the Netbooks are about the same size, and have around the same battery life wouldn't this just give us all the mobile flexibility in a component system about the same physical size as the "Red Fly" dedicated hardware device?? Exchanging 1 dedicated hardware device for another my not be the answer if the same functions can be accomplished through software on the Netbook.

Richard Wells said...

Hello Glen, I am not sure what you are asking for here. The Redfly is the same size as a Netbook. The difference is, while the netbook actually runs an operating system, the Redfly adds functionality to your PDA or phone that runs Windows Mobile or Windows Mobile Smartphone software. The problem with PDAs and phones is, they have very small screens, keyboards ETC. Redfly gives this type of device the feel of a netbook without the long Windows boot time. I hope this makes clearer the target audience of this device and further illustrates why it is a PAC Mate replacement which runs Windows Mobile 6.0.

Graham Page said...

I certainly agree with much of this thread. PacMate is really not ideal as it has poor connectivity and all seems remarkably silent on the Braillenote front. Braille Sense runs an old version of Windows mobile.

I personally am not a great fan of Windows phones so stick to Symbian and Talks. I don't mind the boot up time so when I am out and about for work purposes I use an MSI Wind netbook. the Samsung NC10 is also an excelent product. It has better battery life and currently the NC10 would be my choice. If you are not a Braille user there is now in my opinion no compelling reason to buy a PacMate, Braillenote or Voice Sense. One big limitation these products have is that Windows Mobile was never really designed to be used on something that is really a laptop. So in Windows Mobile you can read powerpoint presentations but not edit them. You get basic Microsoft Word functionality but if you use documents with tables and various styles in them they do not always translate well. This Red Fly could be interesting if it also communicates with symbian devices. I wonder if it is available outside the US? will have a good look at the site.

I do think that things get a little more complicated when you introduce Braille displays. If you have a separate Braille display you need to charge it and most of them do not charge from the USB port and even if they did, this could signifficantly reduce the battery life of a netbook such as the Samsung NC10 which is by far the best of the netbooks for battery life at the moment.

I realise you can use a Braille display easily enough but it is something else to remember to charge and of course you have long boot up times. If you are working in the UK there is a scheme called Access to Work which can help fund these devices. My Braillenote is broken and I am seriously considering whether or not to get another Braille notetaker with the convenience of quick boot, an all in one solution which is great for reading books and the like or whether to sacrifice convenience for functionality.

In summary then, using Braille is the only reason I can see for not moving to a mainstream device such as a netbook.

Anonymous said...

Several posters have tried to raise this issue, but it hasn't been addressed meaningfully by Mr. Wells. That is Braille. I agree with Mr. Wells in his primary points, and I am no fan of the hideously over priced PAC Mate or the PK which is even worse. However, the alternative solutions are only fully useful if you either don't like, or cannot use Braille. Audio is great, and in its place, I have no quibble. However, as Jedi mentioned, if you are traveling, and really want to "read" not listen, you need braille. In a meeting, nothing is really better than, , nor can it replace Braille which can be read silently. Nothing currently available from the mainstream manufacturers addresses this, nor is it ever likely to as we Braille users are in even a tighter box than blind people in general as we are even a minority among blind people. For my part, because I just won't spend $3500 for a PAC Mate, I've compromised by buying a refirbished Braille Lite which you can now obtain for between $900 and $12,00. It isn't as inexpensive as a netbook or cell phone, and it isn't as fully functional either, but it does provide Braille. If only we could find a solution that enabled a genuine Braille display to be a piece with a netbook or other small device, rather than a wired attachment, and if only we could get it for a reasonable price.

Anonymous said...

If only we could get braille displays at a reasonable price in general. There are bluetooth displays, which would eliminate the wired connection, but they're not exactly cheap even by refreshable braille standards. I'm a speech user for that reason--I'd love to get braille, but no way i'm going to afford it any time soon at the prices they want, and I have no interest in a braille lite or other notetaking device. I miss my old Powerbraille 80, it died about five years ago. I kind of acquired that one by accident--it was purchased for someone else in my school, but they ended up not using it and they figured it'd be better I have it then go to waste. Anyway, it spoiled me :), and I'd really like to have a display again. But I can use speech fine, and I'm not going to any rehab agency for something that would, for me, be a luxury.

Andy the Angry said...

Frank states my point EXACTLY. The Braille Note, PAC Mate, and Braille Sense and other similar things are cool, but they are a massive money drain and lack modern touches like wireless, bluetooth, and little learnign curve. Obviously, there's going to be a learning curve like any new device/software, but making it rediculous (like JAWS) is just counterproductive and regressing in my opinion. For instance, I started using JAWS in 2000. I learned it in a week and boom that's all there was to it. Well FS in their infinite wisdom keeps changing the keystrokes for important things like virtualizing windows, something I used to use a lot. JAWS 11 is nothing more than a CEO getting a massive check and more blind folk expecting 'inovation' when really it's just being a corporate lapdog. FS will go bankrupt soon, and Humanware is soon to follow. Why? Well for a start the BN original cost couple grand to get it updated to the mPower series, the upgrades cost loads as well, and still no wireless out of the box. Well, The BraillePlus and Icon are finally understanding something: we want what everybody else has with a few Braille friendly features, and a simple, uncluttered approach that is easy to grasp and is consistent. In fact, the BraillePlus offers bluetooth and wireless right away! Wow! Somebody gets it right! Instead of spending $70 for a new card for the PM to have to gain wireless, maybe install a driver and do the ActiveSync thing. For six grand for a BX440, you'd think FS would stop screwing people over. I don't think you should charge anything for blindness software as it's a genetic or accidental thing. Linux and Orca is what I use, or NVDA on a netbook. I did buy Mobile Speak for a smartphone because they're actually making what I consider a screen reader, not a junk pile like JAWS.
Wineyes is also good but instad of spending 900 bucks on a screen reader, I'd rather spend it on important things, like you know, RENT? FOOD? BILLS?