What's in a Name?

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The latest version of Amazon’s Kindle, unveiled last month at a press conference in New York, has a big screen aimed at newspaper readers. However, a problem with turning the Kindle into a screen reader for newspapers emerged recently when The New York Times reported May 8 that the Kindle came up short when trying to pronounce President Barack Obama’s name. The device uttered something closer to the sounds in “black” and “Alabama,” the paper said. 

Nuance Communications, the company that provides Amazon with the Kindle’s TTS technology, has since corrected the situation, The Times added.

The Kindle TTS misfire came to prominence at the same time many news organizations began speculating about whether the Kindle could create a viable, nonpaper-based means of distribution. The failure of Kindle’s TTS to pronounce the president’s name correctly might put at least a temporary crimp in any Kindle paper-saving venture.

But don’t blame Nuance. According to Mike Thompson, senior vice president at Nuance Mobile, the company invests “significantly in the technology of audio output. We invest and pour money into the continuous optimization of that over time. Over time, things change, and there’s continued investment and refinement.”

 It’s an ongoing exercise, he says. “It’s a little bit like when someone new jumps on to the scene and the Web search companies haven’t had many searches for him. They have to optimize around that.”

Thompson says Obama’s name was added to Nuance’s TTS dictionaries almost a year ago, which at least on the surface seems to suggest that Amazon’s version is more than a year old.

Amazon could not be reached for comment, and Thompson, for his part, could not comment on which build of Nuance’s TTS engine was packaged into the Kindle 2.

If the engine is more than a year old, however, that could present problems to users who would want their Kindles to read the news. If familiar names and places in the headlines are rendered incomprehensible, who’s going to want to listen?

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