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VNU Net: Linux penguin speaks out for the blind

Mar 29, 2000, 15:17 (1 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by John Leyden)

By John Leyden, VNU Net

A speaking version of Linux, designed to give the visually impaired an experience of open source computing, has been developed.

The talking distribution, called Zipspeak, is developed from version 7.0 of Zipslack, which is a simplified version of Slackware Linux. Zipspeak is able to talk to its user using a text-to-speech application called Speakup, developed specifically to work on Linux.

The operating system is relatively small, but might not be a favourite choice for experienced Linux users because it is designed, for ease of installation, to install on top of Windows. It does, however, offer the visually impaired a Linux system that can talk.

Phil Jenkins, communications officer of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, gave the idea of a speaking version of Windows a cautious welcome, but said that Linux is not yet popular enough for such technology to make its mark.

"For anything that isn't popular there is no incentive for adoption," he said, adding that in general blind people have to use very expensive specialist technology.

Patrick Volkerding, who founded Slackware, said the speaking product was developed by a Slackware user who downloaded ZipSlack, added Speakup to it, and is now offering the modified version of ZipSlack/Slackware online.

"As long as they follow the rules of open source and include all the relevant source code for the system online, we're happy to see them do this since it's not a market niche we try to serve," said Volkerding.

He welcomed the use of technology that allows the visually impaired to use a command line interface because "you get nowhere near that sort of control in Windows".

The new operating system has already gained much attention on a newsgroup for blind Linux enthusiasts, called Blinux, where voice support for Linux without a hardware solution, such as DECtalk, is described as "somewhat shaky".

Hans Zoebelein, who maintains the Blinux mailing list, said Linux has many advantages to Windows, including the fact that the client server model of the operating system makes it easy to adapt applications.

"Linux can be run in 'non-graphical mode', whereas Windows is locked with graphics," he said. "Linux is affordable. Windows and its blind support software is not."

According to the newsgroup, the main advantages of Linux for the visually impaired is that the whole operating system can be maintained from the command line. This is a big bonus for people using an ASCII screen reader or a Braille display. Posters to the group have also praised the patience of Linux developers with blind newbies.

However, the market share of Linux is not as big as that of other operating systems and many applications are not available under the operating system.

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