Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On the Shoulders of Giants

System Access to Go represents a major step forward, not just in accessibility software, but in the fundamental way software is delivered. It is feature-rich, easy to use, and amazingly inexpensive. But it is in no way the end-all and be-all of what accessibility software can be. Nor was it created from whole cloth. It rests on the shoulders of accessibility giants like Ted Henter, Doug Geoffray and Dan Weirich, Jim Fruchterman, and others who broke down the barriers to the digital world and created a structure and process by which those without sight can use the computer and Internet with nearly the same ease as those with sight.

Serotek gladly acknowledges its debt to those who went before. Without them there would be no adaptive technology industry. They gave us standards and a framework that makes innovation possible. At the same time, we must point out that we are standing on their shoulders, which means we are reaching higher and accomplishing new accessibility goals that are beyond the capability of traditional tools. We can do that, in part, because we joined the party after lots of the hard work was already accomplished. We didn't have to invent what was already there; nor did we have to carry the burden of legacy software, accommodating users with older versions and a huge investment in training. We entered the frey lighter, with fewer restrictions and the benefits of 20/20 hindsight. We have used this advantage to create an even greater accessibility advantage for our customers.

If you follow the history of technical innovation you will note that it is almost always the late comer who breaks the mold and disrupts the technology pattern to the benefit of technology consumers. It was not IBM that created the personal computer; it was companies like Commodore and Apple, among others. It was not AT&T that gave us the cell phone. The fact is, the dominant player in any technology has a very difficult time innovating the next generation. Their investment in the entrenched technology -- their bread and butter -- is great, and they cannot afford to innovate at the expense of their cash cow. As one industry veteran noted, "A cash cow can be a damned heavy monkey on your back." Only new players with nothing to lose can take the risks of doing things in an entirely new way.

This is as true in the adaptive technology field as it is in mainstream technology. However, the unfortunate truth is that the dollars are a lot less in adaptive technology, so innovation is far more difficult to justify. There are no big venture players throwing billions at adaptive technologies. It's a game that has to be played for the love of rattling the cage and changing the mix. It is a matter of commitment to community and caring that each and every one of us has the same opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The challenges thrown at disruptive technologies are remarkably similar: people say that it doesn't do everything the traditional technology did, it's based on a mistake and when the mistake is corrected it won't work, it promises more than it delivers, and so on. Often the challenges are thrown by people who haven't taken the time to even use the new technology or by those who lack the vision to see how something might be done in a new way and thus open up vistas that have never been possible.

Let's look at System Access to Go versus these challenges.

First, SA to Go is simply a new delivery approach for System Access. Whether or not all System Access features work perfectly in the beta release, you can be sure that when the full product is presented to the marketplace it will be as robust as System Access. It has to be; it's the same software.

But it is also true that System Access doesn't deliver every feature and benefit that the traditional screen readers deliver. It really doesn't need to. What it does deliver are the features and benefits used most by most people most of the time. Screen readers are no different than any other technology. The vast majority of features go unused by most users. It's a comfort, to be sure, to know the features are there, but without a specific need, there is no incentive to invest the training time and dollars to become adept at something that will never be used in day to day life. System Access is an accessibility tool for the way we live, work, study, and communicate. And from the current, highly functional base, over time, other features will be added as demand dictates. (That, by the way, is precisely how the traditional screen readers evolved.) And, because System Access can do many things traditional screen readers cannot do, we expect that whole new applications that we have yet to imagine will emerge simply because they can. Think of it like the transition from rotary dialing to touch-tone dialing. Originally SA to Go technology may be just a replacement. Eventually it will spawn its own definition of what accessibility means.

During System Access development, Serotek worked closely with Microsoft, and Microsoft was fully aware of the techniques System Access uses to effectively access the Windows operating system. Not only did Microsoft not object; they have actively encouraged us and helped us to market our approach to accessibility.

Will Microsoft change its approach in the future and close some of our access methods? It's always possible. We certainly aren't so arrogant that we expect we can dictate what Microsoft chooses to do. On the other hand, there is no particular reason for them to close this path, so we do not expect it to happen precipitously. After all, some of the access methods we used in System Access have been around since Windows 3.1 and are still used even by Microsoft. Anyone that opines that Microsoft will change things about its operating system, unless they are reading documents that we aren't, is just stating an opinion. As a Microsoft partner we are just as in touch and privy to the same information as any other accessibility technology vendor.

The one thing that the industry can be confident of is that Serotek will stay right on top of the emerging mainstream technologies from Microsoft and others, and we will always be looking for ways to apply the latest mainstream features to make accessibility more natural.

If there is any criticism that really seems unjust it is the accusation that Serotek promises more than it delivers. We believe our company is unique, not only in the adaptive technology field, but in the entire software industry, for refusing to sell "vaporware." We go out of our way to make sure that every promise made is fulfilled.

That doesn't mean that we haven't had a bug or two from time to time. We have as good a track record as anyone, but not a perfect track record in that regard. But we have always fixed the bugs and brought the performance up to snuff at no additional cost to the user in very short order. In fact we'll put Serotek's release history against anyone in the adaptive technology industry and are confident that we have been faster, cleaner, and more functional, and have more consistently met expectations than anyone. One of the reasons we do public beta releases is to exercise the software fully before the first official release. It's the best test methodology we know.

Our biggest disappointment, though, is how slow our community has been to understand the implications of SA to Go. Hello? People, we are standing on the very edge of universal accessibility. We are delivering, in this beta release, software that can be accessed from anywhere and which immediately turns an ordinary Windows XP or above computer into a fully accessible device. It doesn't hack into any touchy parts of the computer creating a security risk. It simply works as long as it is needed and is then discarded like a used tissue, leaving no residue on the host machine. It's disposable accessibility. It's accessibility anywhere. Yet somehow several members of the community are more concerned about esoteric features, used by a tiny fraction of the public, than they are about the fact that with SA to Go, there need be no inaccessible computers. The shackles that have bound us to one machine, in one place, or put us at the mercy of businesses and government agencies to think that "accessibility" might be nice to offer, are gone. We don't need to fight for our right to accessibility in court. It's simply there.

The giants gave us a platform. Serotek has used that platform to leap forward into a world where accessibility is taken for granted. We are inviting everyone to come along and hoping that among them is the innovator who will stand on our shoulders for the next great leap.


Anonymous said...

As a blind consumer, I especially find the site linked from the article titled a CashCow can be a Damned Heavy monkey on Your back interesting, because my first dreams regarding a Center of the Blind was as a place where ingenious prototypes could be tested. But my experience with Independent Living Centers has revealed them as far more apt to receive visits from salespeople who want to make possible sales contacts among the blind community than from developers. The server based marketing model excels the desktop application model in that the prototypes can quickly be turned around and tested in the server based model, and because consumer comments can be considered and integrated into the next product release. I was going to say that another large number of visitors to Centers of the Blind hav been from among dreamers and artists who want to meet the blind consumers of service. This is positive because these people can be a rich source of good ideas. How do the creators of access technology applications get participants for focus groups and solicit consumer suggestions for improvements to products? In the server model, consumers can stay home and make suggestions, since they are already using the products, but in the desktop aplication model the base for focus groups is smaller because it is limited to those who can make visits to, say, St. Petersburg or Concord who can (1) afford to make the trip or (2) have a rehabilitation agency pay to assist them to make the trip for training. I hope I can be forgiven for suggesting that probably many of the best suggestions that come in to FreedomScientific or GW Micro come in over the phone and are mentioned to salespeople or tech support, but are not passed on in a timely manner to the developers. As a user of the Franklin Languagemaster Special Edition, (shortly after its advertisement through American Council of the Blind and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic), I once did quite a lot of investigation, not only through Web searches, but also over the telephone, about whether there was any consideration given to making similar talking dictionaries that would be useful to French, German, or Chinese speakers. I was told over the phone that such products did not exist,and that no way existed for passing such suggestions by telephone to the developers. Stringent efforts to find a way of emailing these developers, or visiting Web sites relevant to them, bore no fruit. I could find no information about the topic.
Anyway, I find the articles, "On the Shoulders of Giants," as "Serotek And It's Disruptive Technologies," very interesting, for the rreasons above.

Ginny said...

Greetings, Mike and all. Actually I'm a System Access user, and I did play around with the System Access to Go, and I can imagine many ways in which it could be used. For example, if you're at someone's house and need touse the computer and don't have a Key to Freedom or don't have yours with you. You're at the library or some other public computer and want to check your email. Etc., Etc., Etc. I recently started a new job and we were using laptops for training. At that time, the screen reader I'm using now primarily, had not yet been purchased, so I had to just follow along nad listen, while the other memmbers of my training class looked at manuals online and ohter training materials. Although I did have my laptop with me, and thus was able to get some of the materials put onto my lap top, but as my laptop was not configured to to get online via their netowrk, I wasn't able to view the online materials, nor be able to go into the training software to learn how to use the applications I'd need to do the job, that is, until the screen reader they'd ordered for me came in, which is th eone I still use primarily. However, once Serotek supports the use of refreshable Braille displays this might change.

It's too bad I didn't know about you guys, or that applications such as System Access to Go were not available when I was in my training class.

Ever since I've started using your prodcuts I've been telling everyone that I know about them. Because I can think of many people and many situaitons where people could benefit from these products!

Anyway, sorry for my rambling, keep up the good work over there. Take care.

Anonymous said...

Having been a AT user for 12 years, and having worked in Technology for almost as many, I can honestly say that seldom have I run across a company like Serotek. And never have I done so in a company serving the blind.

I have been a user of the top-selling screen reader in the U.S. since 1995. In those 12 years I have seen very few major innovations with this product. While it has certainly improved, and still remains useful to me, I firmly believe that companies like Serotek will revolutionize the way we look at Access Technology. System Access to Go and similar innovations should excite everyone in the blindness community. Ever since I was introduced to Serotek early this year I have been telling everyone I know about the exciting things they have to offer—and I eagerly await word from Serotek on what is next.

I recently read an E-mail posted to a blindness-related listserve criticizing SA to go. Is SA to go perfect? No—but it has no need to be. I would submit that it is in public beta for this very reason. From the u3-enabled Key to Freedom to SA to go this company is proving that their mission is to make accessibility as commonplace as a web browser. Gone are the days of frustrating problems with Video Chaining. Gone are the days of not being able to use computers in libraries, cafes, friend’s homes, etc.

As for fixing bugs I have personally worked with Serotek on a few minor bugs and have seen them fixed literally within 24 hours. You will not see this in too many other places.

Like any other access technology System Access has things that could be improved. But I stand by Serotek and firmly believe that their commitment to accessibility is genuine and that they will continue to bring exciting new opportunities for accessibility to the disabled community.

Peter Bossley said...
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