The two companies said they will work together to integrate Microsoft Reader software with Pulse Data's BrailleNote, a family of screenless devices that translate text into speech and braille.
Publishers are beginning to take e-books seriously in the wake of some high-profile successes, but they have a long way to go in winning broad consumer acceptance. In the meantime, e-books may offer an enormous improvement for distributing publications into niche publishing markets, such as braille.
"We think the promise of accessibility...will impact the world of usability for the disabled community. It's just an extraordinarily powerful thing," said Mario Juarez, group product manager for Microsoft's e-book team.
Juarez said it takes on average 18 months after a book is released for braille versions to become available--if ever. With e-books, blind and visually impaired readers can read books as soon as they are published.
To read an e-book with BrailleNote, a person would download an e-book title from an online distributor to a BrailleNote device, then open the file. The person could then listen to the speech version of the e-book or read the electronic braille display.
BrailleNote, which is expected to be available in mid-2001 and cost from $3,400 to $5,000, also has a built-in modem that lets visually impaired users send and receive email messages.
The announcement comes as advocates for the blind and visually impaired attempt to narrow the so-called digital divide by pushing for devices that bring the Internet within reach of the disabled.
In July, America Online settled a discrimination lawsuit brought by the National Federation of the Blind by agreeing to make its software compatible with devices designed for blind and visually impaired customers.
In addition, a U.S. government standards body has long backed research and development for an electronic braille reader.
In September, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) unveiled an e-book reader for the blind that transforms electronic text into braille. The braille reader connects to a computer or a portable device and translates any document--be it an e-book, email or other text file--as the customer browses the Web.
While current Braille models can run up to $15,000, NIST estimates that its reader would cost about $1,000.