The Michigan-based software company cheerfully acknowledges it: Giving away a computer program that reads text out loud to help visually impaired or literacy-challenged students is a blatant marketing gimmick. “At this point, we’ve given Scan and Read away to more than 4,000 schools and libraries,” said Steve Timmer, president of Premier Programming Solutions.

The company is offering every school a free single-user license for its Scan and Read software, so a student who needs it can have the opportunity to use it.

“Our competitors sell the software starting at $1,000, and that’s ridiculous,” declared Kenneth Springer, chief operating officer. “Schools are on a tight budget.”

“We’re a very small company, and we don’t do much marketing,” Springer added. “Our products don’t cost very much, so our budget is small. But we don’t want to sell it for $1,000.”

Premier Programming Solutions, which has only three employees, said it expects to get subsequent sales from customers who first try out the software in schools, libraries, and other non-profit settings.

“It’s inexpensive enough that if a child has been using it at school, then a parent can afford to buy it for at home, too,” Timmer said. “Sure it’s a marketing scheme, but it’s easier to show people how it works than it is to explain it.”

Timmer, a software developer and former nuclear engineer, developed the Scan and Read system in his basement after losing most of his vision to macular degeneration in 1996. He needed something to assist him in reading, but found the products on the market too expensive and complicated.

“When I first lost my vision, I quickly became frustrated with the price and complexity of other text-to-voice conversion programs,” he said. “Some people can pay $1,000 but most people can’t.”

Scan and Read, which is available to the public for $89.95, translates written text into spoken language. It will read any type of printed material, including computer files, eBooks, books, magazines, and forms.

“You can pull up any existing text file or scan in any text–like a book or newspaper–and it’ll read it to you,” Springer said.

It works with any Windows-based PC and any standard flatbed scanner. Users must turn the text into a digital format by scanning the text.

The software highlights each word on the screen as it reads the text aloud. “You can read a letter or line at a time, so it helps students follow along,” Springer said.

It also lets users control how fast the computer reads, and it can read in 17 different voices, according to company literature.

Dianne Yarnell, technology coordinator for the Arkansas Adult Learning Resource Center, which operates 53 adult literacy centers in the state, was delighted to get the Scan and Read software for free.

“I’m a scrounger, so the first thing I did when I heard about Scan and Read was to call for a free copy,” Yarnell said. “This is one of those programs that if it wasn’t offered for free I would have scraped together the money to buy it.”

Although Yarnell didn’t compare any competing products, she liked the Scan and Read program on the first glance.

“When I first loaded it and looked at it, I watched to see if I had to do any training with our teachers, and I didn’t have to do anything,” Yarnell said. “It’s that easy to use.”

Some competitors, such as Kurzweil, part of the Lernout & Hauspie group, sell text-to-speech programs that are more robust and more expensive than Scan and Read.

Kurzweil offers the three different scanning and reading products, the company said: The Kurzweil 3000 for $1,895 assists those with learning disabilities, the MagniReader at $349 is for people with impaired vision, and the Kurzweil 1000 for $995 is for the blind.

Unlike Scan and Read, the Kurzweil 1000 can read text in 170 languages and switch between different languages instantly.

“There’s always a market that wants something for free, but those aren’t the customers who buy Kurzweil,” said David Bradburn, director of product management at Kurzweil. “We’d like to give our product away too, but we’re a for-profit company.”

According to one market analyst, newer companies with cheaper, smaller products sometimes threaten more-established products like the Kurzweil line, but not always.

“Unless the product serves a real need of the institution, [giving it away for free] is not going to get the marketing bang they’re expecting,” Stokes said. “The critical challenge for that strategy to succeed is moving beyond schools saying ‘Yes, they’ll take it,’ to schools using it effectively.”

Links:

Premier Programming Solutions
http://www.cloneware.net

Lernout & Hauspie’s Kurzweil Education Systems Group
http://www.lhsl.com/education