Monday, October 22, 2007

The Problem with Open-Source Access Technology

I recently read an interesting blog post by Chris Hofstader, which is in part inspired by Mike Calvo's recent article The Coming Crisis. He argued that open-source access technology is starting to gain traction and that open-source AT might be a viable solution to our industry's current problems. In response, I believe it's extremely unlikely that an open-source or non-profit project would match the usefulness and usability of commercial AT. In this post, I will try to explain why.

Let's consider this statement from Chris's post:

"It would also be useful if Microsoft made Narrator open source, slapped on GPL and let the bazillion Windows hackers around the world take a crack at it. There are a ton of blind programmers who program for Windows who would enjoy the opportunity to hack away at a stable, albeit feature poor, screen reader."

(end of quote)

Does this strike anyone else as naive? Sure, there are a bazillion Windows programmers around the world, but how many of them would have any interest whatsoever in Narrator? Moreover, who would coordinate all of those contributions to produce something that's useful to non-geeks? NVDA seems to fit the description of "stable, yet feature poor"; it's not as feature poor as Narrator, but it's still feature poor in comparison to its commercial counterparts. So if a ton of blind programmers would enjoy hacking away at such a screen reader, then why doesn't NVDA even have all of the features of System Access 1.0?

Before I attempt to answer that question, let me defend the assertion I just made, that NVDA doesn't have all of the features that System Access had at version 1.0. My intent is not to belittle the efforts of Michael Curran and the other NVDA developers. In fact, Serotek has contributed code to the NVDA project in the past. However, I believe that the open-source development model is not well-suited for developing a screen reader. I make the comparison between NVDA and System Access 1.0 for two reasons. First, as sole developer of System Access thus far, I know its history very well. Second, even we at Serotek considered System Access 1.0 feature poor; though we marketed its strengths aggressively, we knew the product needed more work in certain areas. Yet System Access 1.0 had a few important features that NVDA does not. It seems, then, that this is the best possible comparison I can make between an open-source AT project and a commercial one. So let's zoom in to a level of detail that has been missing from this discussion thus far, to compare NVDA and System Access 1.0 on a few points.

First, System Access 1.0 had an off-screen model (OSM). To be sure, the OSM was in its infancy at version 1.0; it needed much work for version 2.0. Still, the OSM was very useful in some situations. It enabled access to some menus which don't expose item names through MSAA, such as those in RealPlayer. It was able to detect highlighted text, such as in custom list views. It made owner-drawn status bars, such as the one in Skype, accessible. It helped us provide access to the spell checker in Word 2002. In short, an off-screen model is a very important feature that's missing in all of the current free screen readers for Windows. System Access 1.0 had one because we knew it was a must-have, and we realized that even a primitive OSM was appreciably better than no OSM.

Second, System Access 1.0 provided automatic access to the Microsoft Word spell checker. I remember well the time that I spent making System Access work well with the spell checker in different versions of Word; the aforementioned Word 2002 was especially problematic. We knew that the spell checker is one of the most important features of Word and that any serious screen reader alternative for Windows needs to support Word well. In contrast, NVDA doesn't seem to support the spell checker at all. If you press F7 in a document with a misspelled word, you will eventually hear the content of the "not in dictionary" edit box, after NVDA reads the rest of the dialog with a level of verbosity comparable to Narrator. However, as far as I know, NVDA cannot spell the misspelled word. This feature isn't nearly as difficult as the OSM, so why hasn't one of the blind programmers hacking away at NVDA attacked this feature yet?

Third, System Access 1.0 generally presented information in a more intuitive, efficient way than NVDA does. I realize that this is the most subjective of the three features I've mentioned, but I also believe it's more important than the other two. As I mentioned before, NVDA's verbosity is comparable to Narrator's. The result of such verbosity is that users must either listen through a lot of extraneous speech to hear what they want, or master the keyboard commands that are needed to obtain the desired information. Thus, System Access has always aimed to present relevant information automatically while not being too verbose. This is a delicate balancing act, but it's necessary for a product that aims to be useful to a large number of people.

So why doesn't NVDA have these important features of System Access 1.0, which was developed in about three months and released in January 2005? Jamie Zawinski, one of the original programmers at Netscape, gives us a few clues in his rant "Resignation and Postmortem." Among his list of common excuses for why the Mozilla project didn't even release a beta in its first year is this one:

"People only really contribute when they get something out of it. When someone is first beginning to contribute, they especially need to see some kind of payback, some kind of positive reinforcement, right away."

(end of quote)

Unfortunately, many of the features that are most needed in a screen reader, especially a Windows screen reader, are not the kind that can be casually hacked together with an immediate payback to the contributor. Consider the off-screen model. It took me at least a week of full-time work to develop even the primitive OSM that shipped in System Access 1.0. Thus, after a large number of easily implemented features are done, it becomes much harder for casual contributors to help the project, and the features that remain undone are the hard but important ones.

Elsewhere in his rant, Zawinski said:

"There exist counterexamples to this, but in general, great things are accomplished by small groups of people who are driven, who have unity of purpose. The more people involved, the slower and stupider their union is."

(end of quote)

Oddly, he wasn't talking about the Mozilla project here; he was talking about Netscape the company. Still, though he may not have realized it, I believe the same principle applies to open-source projects. What we need is not a large number of volunteers hacking away at an open-source screen reader; we need a small team of dedicated, motivated programmers. And to be sufficiently dedicated to the project, said programmers probably need to be paid to work on it full-time.

We need to consider, then, who currently funds work on open-source AT, and what effect the source of the funding has on the outcome. The most obvious example is Sun. Based on the rate at which Sun's work on GNOME accessibility has moved forward over the past seven years, it's safe to say that Sun's GNOME accessibility team isn't sufficiently "driven," with "unity of purpose," to use Zawinski's words. Considering that Sun is a large hardware and software company whose core business is not accessibility, it's safe to suppose that their chief motivation for funding work on GNOME accessibility is to be compliant with certain legislation, in order to increase sales to government agencies. Thus, those who make high-level decisions about accessibility probably don't care much about producing something that's actually useful to blind and low-vision people.

Consider the history of screen reader development for the GNOME desktop. As Chris rightly noted, the Gnopernicus screen reader failed quite miserably. Yet as of mid-2003, Sun could claim that GNOME was accessible to blind users, albeit barely so. As far as I know, the situation didn't change substantially until mid-2004, when my good friend Marc Mulcahy, who worked for Sun on GNOME accessibility at the time, took the initiative to start developing Orca on his own. He had to get through much corporate red tape just to get Orca released. I've seen evidence that there's still too much bureaucracy in the Sun GNOME accessibility team; refer to the Orca Documentation Series to see what I mean. Perhaps bureaucracy is just another name for what Zawinski describes as a slow, stupid union of too many people. The history of Gnopernicus and Orca is an example of what happens when AT development is funded by a big corporation that has no incentive to deliver truly useful results. Incidentally, Marc left Sun in late 2004 to start working on what is now the LevelStar Icon PDA.

Chris suggests that development of open-source AT could be coordinated by a foundation or consortium with support from corporations and governments around the world. But would the results be any better than what Sun has produced thus far? Would such an organization attract the right people, that is, great programmers who are driven to produce better AT that really improves people's lives? We must also wonder what kind of leadership such an organization would have. I suspect that especially if many large sponsors are involved, politics would get in the way, resulting in less than optimal leadership, which can be at least as harmful as bad or mediocre programmers.

Another problem with the notion of no-cost AT as the norm is that it would take power away from blind and low-vision people as consumers. In a free market, where companies compete for the consumer's business, the consumer wins. If no-cost AT, open-source or otherwise, were the norm, then most blind and low-vision people would have no say in the development of the available products, because there would be no natural incentive for any particular company or organization to rise to the top. In this light, one might argue that even a temporary monopoly is better. Chris observes that FS and AI Squared have obtained virtual monopoly status in their markets. But they got there by developing great products. And why did they develop great products? To increase their sales during a period when the AT industry was fiercely competitive. Of course, now that they have monopoly status, these companies have apparently stopped innovating. But monopolies won't last; even empires fall. Perhaps the strongest motivation to develop an excellent product is the prospect of a temporary monopoly in an industry fueled by strong competition for the wallets of consumers. If this is so, then no-cost AT as the norm would be bad news indeed for blind and low-vision people, as it would kill the catalyst for innovation: competition for sales.

Yet another problem with the notion of no-cost AT backed by a non-profit organization or government agency is that it perpetuates a sense of entitlement among blind and low-vision people. No, it's not our fault that we're blind or low-vision. But it's not society's fault either. We shouldn't depend on governments, philanthropists, or anyone else to solve our problems. They don't have our best interests at heart, anyway; only we do. Remember that by and large, politicians and philanthropists care most about what's in it for them, be it publicity, power, or an appeased conscience. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the rule. It stands to reason, then, that politicians and philanthropists wouldn't really care about providing technology that best meets our needs. No, it's up to us to buy and use technology, assistive or otherwise, that improves our lives.

Mind you, I'm by no means an advocate for the status quo. It's widely accepted that because most current AT products are so expensive, they're purchased mostly by government agencies. This, too, deprives blind and low-vision people of the power that normally belongs to consumers, and perpetuates a sense of entitlement, as discussed above. Furthermore, as Mike Calvo points out in The Coming Crisis, the community of blind and low-vision people at large is grossly underserved by current AT. Yes, FS and AI Squared dominate their markets, but these markets certainly don't represent blind and low-vision people at large. It's odd, then, that the most commonly cited reason for the high cost of AT is the small size of the market. If AT is developed for more than just a niche market, maybe competition will be effective again.

The solution is neither high-cost AT that has a virtual monopoly on a small market, nor no-cost AT that isn't widely useful because it lacks the drive of competition for consumers. Rather, the solution is low-cost AT that competes for the business of a large and mostly untapped market. If this happens, then blind and low-vision people all over the world will ultimately win.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

So you think you can impress your consumers by putting down others' products to make yours look stronger?

This is something that GW Micro has been doing with Window-Eyes for some time, and guess what--they're in second place. Freedom Scientific doesn't need to compare JAWS to anything else, they fill up the space that Serotek and GW use for "product comparisons" with lists of new features found in JAWS.

I personally think that, while open-source screen readers will face many challenges, and will probably not advance to the maturity of commercial screen readers, they are nevertheless a worthwhile endeavour. Some people simply cannot afford a screen reader, and could benefit from a free alternative; others appreciate the challenge of programming. If an operating system can be open-source, why can't a screen reader?

I would consider the current version of NVDA and the current version of System Access quite comparable: no "mouse pointing" functionality; the lack of in-depth support for graphical apps like Power point; and so on. Furthermore, NVDA has some features System Access does not, such as a customizable scripting language. Guess what JAWS has, too? And guess who's leading, JAWS or System Access?

Come guys, stop your political rants and get developing!

P2PIsGood said...

This is a rather interesting post to read. I'm not sure what to make of it. I myself have a dual boot windows XP home and Ubuntu 7.04 box. I was hopeful I could do more with Ubuntu than I can as a totally blind user. I'm not happy with the way JFW 8.0 has performed for me under XP, I feel 7.0.135 was the last decent version of JAWS released. However that said, I also like windows XP and refuse to go to windows Vista do to it's bloated nature, not to mention how many things I won't be able to do with my computer since the RIAA and MPAA want to control how I use content stored on my box. Ubuntu therefore seemed like a neat option, not to mentioned where else can you take a CD, and boot from it and try an OS to see how you like it before even installing it? I've always loved linux operating systems as server operating systems that are command line driven, and thank goodness I can at least access the terminal in Orca. However such apps as skype and even Ubuntu's own network config applit are useless. Good thing I can use the command line to get done what I need to get done. But are you saying that the only option blind users can count on to make software work is a closed source one? Should a blind person not have the option to use linux if that's what they want to do in order to get away from Microsoft's bloated newest OS that they force down our throats? Should we be forced to use screen readers like JFW, which give us very restrictive activation nonsense, so when I for example go to a friends house I can't install my screen reader on his computer without using up 1 of my only 3 activations which can't be put back when done like the old authorization with Quella could? I'm frustrated with all this nonsense and wish I could do something about it, even though I'm no programmer.

Anonymous said...

I welcome everyone to join the Orca user's list and join the #orca IRC channel on irc.gnome.org. There, you can engage the team and end users in an active and constructive discussion. The direct contact with end users and the Orca development team, who work all hours of every day of the week -- well above the typical 8-5 job -- might help with the formulation of an informed opinion.

I'm confused about how designing, planning, and involving end users directly in the creation of Orca is an indicator of "too much bureaucracy." If the transparency of the design/development, the ability for users to get bug fixes and features the moment they are checked in, and the fact that Orca features are driven directly by end users are an indication of such bureaucracy, I guess I'm now a fan of red tape.

--Willie Walker, Orca project lead

Chris Westbrrook said...

I'm always amazed at the people who still defend Freedom Scientific at every chance, even when they are not specifically targetted. I think Matt's main point was that the comercial screen readers as a whole generally outperform the open source ones by far, and I believe he's made a pretty good case for that. I agree on the scripting part, but I believe Serotek is working on that and, frankly, I think the scripting language in Jaws has caused Freedom Scientific to get lazy because a script writer will do it for them. How many applications has Freedom Scientific themselves provided access to in the last five years? I say keep doing what you're doing. Keep up the good work, both Matt and Chris.

Anonymous said...

I am a research scientist for the Veteran's Administration. I have multiple engineering degrees and has worked as a assistive technology instructor as well as a rehabilitation engineer in the past. It was almost thirty years ago that I touched my first computer, a TRS-80, and I have had access to some of the most advanced computing systems in the world sense. My baby brother is a super-computing expert and working on his Ph. D. n super-computing. I specialize in Systems and Human Factors engineering and that is why I easily see the "problems" related to each of the screen-readering programs onthemarket. I currently own licenses for JAWS and Window-eyes and also have a system access to go licence through the Veteran's ADministration. As was the same reasons I use multiple screenreaders in DOS, I have to do the same in Windows. I am setting up my Linix box again and came close to purchasing a MAC today as well.

JFW, Window-Eyes, HAL, and System Access all some short comings that keep me from utilizing any one of them primarily. Window-Eyes can be quite limiting some time and JFW is the most unstable screen reading program I have ever seen inm my life! At the current rate, System Access might give me the functionality I need in a couple of more years of development. I am currently working withthe the latest HAL demo to determine if I need to add this to my repetoire as well.

I intend to start working on my Ph. D. in Human Factors engineering soon and I absolutely refuse to leave my behind hanging in the wind with any of the short comings of any of the products on the market. I just enjoy eating too much to rish that.

Peter said...

I would like to address the first anonymous commenter to this blog post. First, a little about my background: I have been a technology enthusiast for around 12 years. Professionally, I have worked in Information Systems for the past 7 years. From the days of Windows 95 and JAWS 3.0 to the present of Windows Vista and JAWS9, I have worked in various parts of an Information Technology department—from the technical support field to the Assistive Technology Specialist and finally to the Systems Engineering / Systems Administration side of the road. Now, I work for a Research department of a major Higher-Education institution, one of the top in the nation. In that time, I have had the opportunity to use many kinds of technologies—JAWS, Window-Eyes being the most common. So in short, technology is my passion and talent and AT (assistive Technology) is nothing new to me.

I would like to address this commenter point-by-point:

“So you think you can impress your consumers by putting down others' products to make yours look stronger?

This is something that GW Micro has been doing with Window-Eyes for some time, and guess what--they're in second place. Freedom Scientific doesn't need to compare JAWS to anything else, they fill up the space that Serotek and GW use for "product comparisons" with lists of new features found in JAWS.”



Serotek, like any for-profit company, will, of course, wish to portray its products in a positive light. However, you will not hear Serotek employees tell their customers that other screen readers don’t have a place out there. In the past, in fact, Serotek has praised the efforts of other AT venders. On the contrary, Serotek need not put other company’s products down—they can let their products and customers speak for themselves. System Access, like every screen reader out there, has room to grow, however not so far to grow as this commenter would have you believe. Let us review the progress of System Access—I challenge anyone to find a bug in System Access and report it to Serotek—watch how long it takes them to correct them. I can personally attest that sometimes within hours of reporting a problem, the folks at Serotek will have a fix and an update out. I am 100 percent sure that no one can say the same about any of the other commercial products.

“I personally think that, while open-source screen readers will face many challenges, and will probably not advance to the maturity of commercial screen readers, they are nevertheless a worthwhile endeavour. Some people simply cannot afford a screen reader, and could benefit from a free alternative; others appreciate the challenge of programming. If an operating system can be open-source, why can't a screen reader?”

I feel it necessary to point out that the adoption rate of open-source operating systems is significantly lower than that of even the second leading consumer commercial product (Apple’s MacOS). While I firmly believe that there is a place and benefit to open source AT, you will not be able to show me an Open-Source project that comes near the functionality of any of the commercial products. Does that diminish their value, no, I don’t think so.

“I would consider the current version of NVDA and the current version of System Access quite comparable: no "mouse pointing" functionality; the lack of in-depth support for graphical apps like Power point; and so on. Furthermore, NVDA has some features System Access does not, such as a customizable scripting language. Guess what JAWS has, too? And guess who's leading, JAWS or System Access?”

You would be wrong in this opinion. I have to question whether the poster has even used System Access as his or her information is obviously wrong.

Mouse pointing: System Access has a rather unique, and in my opinion, more user friendly and intuitive approach to mouse pointing than that of other Screen Access tech. It’s a change to get used to for those of us used to other methods, to be sure, but its effectiveness is very good.

In-depth support for graphical apps: System Access works very well with Power Point, in fact much better than that of other products in the Office 2007 arena. System Access’s support for Office 2007 goes all the way back to Office 2007 launch—when our University got its Enterprise release, SA supported both Office 2007 and Windows Vista out-of-the-box. As for scripting, I have heard a few times from Serotek that it is on its way. Regardless, I agree with another commenter that the scripting language in it ‘self isn’t the problem. What incentive does the AT vender have to increase native support for products if they can just rely on others to write scripts for them? I would be willing to be that when Serotek releases its scripting engine that it will be done in a similar way to their CSAW (Community Supported Accessible Web) whereby everyone using System Access benefits from members of the community labeling websites. And I would also be willing to bet that Serotek will continue to be on the forefront of cutting-edge accessibility solutions.

“Come guys, stop your political rants and get developing!”

Laying aside the grammar and spelling errors of this post, I have faith that Serotek will do just that—keep developing. Why am I so excited about this company? Well, I believe that this company, like no other before it, is firmly committed to their mission of accessibility anywhere. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that its CEO Mike Calvo is blind himself, and so are a few others who are key players in the company. I believe that those of us who have discovered the true potential of this company will continue to support it. I purchased my Serotek products myself—no one bought it for me. It was affordably priced and I felt like it was money well spent.

Anonymous said...

sounds like this rant is coming from someone that feels open source is a threat to their bottom line $$$. For those blind people in countries that only can get the equivalent of $10 a month in their country even the $40 a month plan that Sarah Tech has for their screen reader doesn't sound like a viable option for them does it? See that is the problem with alot of the US based blind companies, they don't take in to account those blind people that can't afford the expense of the screen reader. In any way that you add it up, you are basically paying either the total cost of a new computer or 1 to 3 times more than the cost of a new computer just to have equal access to it. Of course Microsoft also had this same attitude about Linux when it was released and tried everything possible to discourage people from using it but in the long run, when we take a look around at the very OS that is running the internet what do we more commonly see? Why it is the Linux servers of course. True NVDA doesn't have the same funtionality that System Access had in their version 1.0 release but what the blog does fail to mention is that the official version number for NVDA is only at 0.5. 1.0 for NVDA has not even been released yet. Ok now, let's take into account some real world math. Our wonderful and all knowing screen reader, Jaws. The fully downloaded version of Jaws is around 60 megabytes in size. To buy Jaws for the first time it can cost a blind user 1,095 dollars US. That equals around $16.85 per megabyte to buy that version of Jaws. Now take that math and apply it to any other software product out there around the world and I am sure you will find Jaws to be one of the most expensive bits of software per megabyte in the world. That in my opinion goes a bit far beyond those companies just calling the blind community a niche market. To the blind around the world, the real story is these blind companies understand that there biggest consumer at the moment are the government agencies. They also understand that with laws such as section 508 in place these government agencies are required to provide equal access. Up to now there has not been any real competition for the companies that have been providing these assistive technologies so that has given them the freedom and the clout to charge whatever they wanted for their products and with the excuse of simply calling us a niche market. I am of the opinion that why these open source and or free solutions are cropping up is because the blind community has been wise to these companies for quite some time and they have grown tired of being called a niche market, grown tired of having to beg their government agencies to buy the next version of their screen reader just so they can chat to their friends on messenger, check their email or burn an occasional cd. NVDA can of course do much more than that but I can guarantee that Sarah Tech or Freedom Scientific wouldn't want you to know that. Now, in fairness, while Sarah Tech is beginning to finally realize their is a problem with their pricing structure by offering the $40 a month plan, they need to realize that even that is too expensive to your casual computer user around the world. That does after all equal to the same amount or more than you would pay for System Access if you were to pay for it in lump sum. And that does of course still equal the amount that anyone could pay for a brand new computer every year just to buy the screen reader. My opinion is, that is still not acceptable and I believe that the reason why this blog was written is because they are scared that I am not the only person that does find their pricing solutions unacceptable.

Mike Calvo said...

The anonymous comment makes some good points. First, though, let’s correct a misconception. Yes Serotech does offer a $39.95 per month software as a service option with no strings attached. It also offers a $24.95 per month software as a service option if the user is willing to commit to forty-eight months of service. That’s well under eighty-five cents per day – less than a can of soda or cup of coffee.

Nonetheless, it is more than some people can pay in some developing countries. We have in the past and will in the future work with organizations in developing countries to deliver accessibility for much less. If we have volume commitments we can do that. But one user at a time, the administrative costs alone make it impossible. Like it or not, accessibility is currently a niche market and that means volumes too low to bring pricing down to where it should be.

Unfortunately, the way the accessibility market has been structured it is doomed to remain a niche marketplace. Government subsidies of overpriced software restrain market growth. We are working to change that, but it takes time and it takes blind people and forward thinking organizations willing to break with the past. To change the “niche” market status for accessibility tools, blind people have to step up and be willing to pay their eighty-three cents per day for accessibility and not wait for a government hand-out.

As to Open Source, we at Serotek are big fans of Open Source software. Some of the most creative software coding ever conceived is going on in the Open Source arena. However to-date Open Source software is pretty much a geek’s world – geeks writing code for geeks. For those of us who love getting down and dirty into the guts of an application, it’s great. But by far, the majority of potential customers for accessibility software are not geeks. They need software that is so easy to use they don’t even realize they are using software. That’s why Serotek is committed to making its accessibility tools intuitive and easy to use. We are looking at millions of newly-blind and low-vision people becoming accessibility customers as baby-boomers start to feel their age and experience the very normal disabilities that come with aging. There aren’t many geeks in the baby-boomer population but there are a heck of a lot of people who use e-mail, word processing, and surf the net.

The best way to change the accessibility market from a high-priced niche market to a reasonably priced market where vendors compete on delivering functionality and ease of use, is to support those companies, like Serotek, who are delivering /Accessibility Anywhere/ at a reasonable price.

Anonymous said...

Niche
• Term referring to a specialized target market characterized by a particular interest, topic or subject. Niches are usually potentially profitable, but
depend an inordinate amount on the loyalty of the audience to whom it is catering.
I hope these screen reader companies do see why parts of the blind community see being called a niche market can be taken as offensive. Currently the screen reader market is a pretty closed market. It may seem to the screen reader companies like 4 major screen reader companies is enough to spur competitive growth. I beg to differ. The screen reader companies need to also keep in mind that one of the definitions for niche market is also called captive market. Those that feel they are part of a captive market will eventually begin to rebel. They will eventually begin to organize. They will eventually begin to become less loyal. They will eventually begin to distrust their captores. I think there is one factor the AT companies forgot to take into account. The knowledge their products provided their slaves. The knowledge that many years ago with Microsoft's development of narrator, Microsoft wanted to create a much more powerful screen reader than what Narrator even currently is in Vista. The screen reader companies begged Microsoft not to do this. Microsoft did back down. Of course that is both a good and bad thing but, the screen reader companies have since seemed to have lost sight of their actual audience. Microsoft also told the screen reader companies that they should not use a bit of technology called display chaining manager (DCM) because in later versions of Windows, they would not be supporting it. Again the screen reader companies did not listen. They instead began production on their screen readers with DCM and video intercept drivers because they felt that MSAA did not provide the functionality they would need. Let us try and shed a little light on the above situation. Microsoft makes an announcement that they want to provide the blind with a very usable screen reader for their operating system called windows and because of current market pressures Microsoft backs down from this announcement, thus also halting further development on their core accessibility technology called Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA). It kind of makes me wonder what further development could have taken place on MSAA if the screen reader companies hadn't basically shot themselves in the foot. Lets take a look at the recently emerged screen reader for the Mac operating system for a moment. In merely two version releases Apple has created a quite usable screen reader for their operating system called Voice Over. Let's look inside the core of the Mac operating system these days. Have any of you ever heard of Free BSD? For those of you that haven't, Free BSD is one of those many flavors of the Linux operating system floating around the net. One of the screen readers available for Linux is called Orca, a free open source and scriptable screen reader for Linux. Now for those of you that have been paying attention, you may have noticed that many of the ways that Voice Over operates is very similar to Orca. For those of you that are not aware of this, at the first opportunity to compare the two, plese do. Could the similarities between the two be because Apple has begun to use Linux as the core of it's operating system? Could the core of Voice Over itself actually be Orca in disguise? You be the judge. Now while I am not the biggest fan of Apple products I do have to commend them for not trying to bow to company pressures put forth by our friendly neighborhood screen reader companies and creating a quite usable product for their blind Mac user. To the screen reader companies that this knowledge scares. Just remember that you are the ones that continually called them a niche market. You are the ones that probably even unknowingly have stalled your own market. You are the ones that said an open source screen reader would never happen. If you are not careful your own business practices may even cause your own demise. I should hope that even the blind hardware market is paying attention because the blind community is watching you too. All they ask is you treat them with the respect they deserve. All they ask is you treat them as a customer and not just a consumer. All they ask is you provide them the things that make their life better for resonable prices without blaming them for your prices by calling them names like a niche, because like any word, it has multiple meanings to multiple people.

Mike Calvo said...

Right on! (Pumping fist!)
Now if you would only say your name instead of speaking anonymously! Hopefully Apple will make sure that programs like Pro-tools get on the Coco bandwagon. Serotek is keeping a close eye on Mac developments. Our focus is to provide accessibility anywhere so that includes Macs and any other computing platform we can provide access for. Your points are well taken and I agree on all fronts.

Now if the government would just have the gumption to look at other products. Believe me when I tell you that the government is at least 50% to blame for the current monopoly. GW Micro has one heck of a great product and it should be in many many more installations than it is, however, the government insists on only buying hammers. When all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. Let's stop buying people hammers and let's start using tax payer money to buy tools that fit the job. If that's a Serotek tool, then so be it. If it's a GW tool, then so be it. If an open source product fits the bill, then so be it. The point is that we do have choices and blind folks need to learn what they are and insist that government agencies purchase the right tool for the job. But, with shrinking budgets and more and more clients, agencies are having trouble keeping up with the growing product and service providers. Guess what? As the world ages it's going to get worse. The system needs an overhall.

Actually both Serotek and GW provide ways for users to purchase technology without government subsidy. While Serotek is here to sell our products we don't live in a vacuum. Others in this market can fit with certain applications better than Serotek products. That line is shrinking with every release, however, the market is also growing. Why would I want any other company's customer when under 1% of the world's blind use AT products. That tells me that we have a wide open market. I am a blind guy first and the founder and CEO of this company second. Believe it or not, I care more about a blind person having his or her AT needs met so they can live a more independent life, than I care about a sale. If Serotek makes good products, and I think we do, then they will sell without us having to bash and stomp on others in the market.

Let me make it clear folks. Even if you disagree with what we believe at Serotek, please do post your names. The reason for a blog is for open dialog not just for a company to pat itself on the back.

Anonymous said...

My name is John Greer. My purpose was to show that open source does have its place in the blind community. I also believe that a free open source solution can survive despite pressures by the companies that feel threatened by such a venture. I feel that an open source solution is a much more friendly way of providing access to the under priviledged than through piracy. While Freedom Scientific currently still has the upper hand in my opinion due to its scriptable screen reader model, this trend is beginning to shift. My hat's off to the makers of System Access and to the makers of NVDA for being on the forefront of change. There are however still many changes yet to take place. Some are only just now beginning to be seen. There have been many in the blind community that have learned the term "open source" and have learned how it can help them. I personally have been coaching 4 individual blind people in making a switch to Ubuntu. I have also noticed many that have been making the switch to the Mac operating system. I am certain that by now their reasons are clear. As I said, what the blind want is to be able to go to a computer store, purchase a computer, take it home and not have to spend another 400 to 1000 dollars on it just so they can use it. Perhaps one day one of the screen reader makers will be able to contract with Microsoft to create a usable screen reader that is built right into the operating system. Until that day though, I will continue to fight for equal access. The screen reader makers can take it as a blow against them, or they can take it as it actually is. What it actually is, is that the blind community is awakening and finding ways to adapt. They are finding ways not to have to pay so much extra money just to use a computer. They are also finding fault in the hardware markets too. In case the makers of the Trekker haven't noticed, it is now possible to purchase a GPS system with text to speech for as low as $150. Does the fact that they were the first to do it by simply taking a standard PDA and using free GPS software adapting it with text to speech and gluing some rubber buttons on the screen give them the right to still charge over 1400 dollars for it? You be the judge, and in the meantime blind people will start to discover that they can also have that very same functionality on their cell phones these days. Now, let's not forget to mention the cell phones. Today, many of the cell phones are basically minature PDA's. Case in point is the Nokia N75. The fact is, the N75 also has a very basic screen reader built right in the phone itself. There has also been a push to create an open source screen reader for cell phones. Has this happened yet? The answer is no, not yet, but it is happening. So, in short if the AT companies that exist today won't do it, the blind community will do it for themselves and share what they have learned with others. Already, no more does the blind community have to hear they are a niche market and that they have to spend more money to use their computers because like it or not that has already changed.

MUDA said...

hi, i am a blind user and have been using jfw and zoomtext since 1998.
I have had many problems with zt and jfw one does some tasks better and some not so good.
I have just downloaded my tryal version of system access,
1, in the first day i was able to go to a friends house, pop in my u3 drive and was able to be using the computer in under 2 minutes flat, without having to restart, install video chaining driverrs, etc etc.
all the crap i have been doing for the last 14 years.
on the second day i was able to go to another friends house and was able to pop in my u3 open up google chrome and use it!
Ie is slow and prone to viruses, firefox is slow and when u put jfw or zt on top of that it is not a fun process.
back to my story,
I was able to use a brouzer that jfw has no plans of supporting any time soon,
SA has done out of the box no scripts etc etc.
built in zoom for those things that it is needed for,
and all on my u3 drive, and or going to SATOGO.com and clicking ctrl R 2 times and be up and running with my screen reader in under 2 mins.
I love this application and will buy it in the next month or so.
I do not have the money to buy jfw out right and or SA, but SA is the only application that can be boght by paying small monthly payments.
I have also used orca, narrator windows eyes, voiceover, nuance talks on the phone mobilespeek,
so i believe i know what i am talking about when i say, that opensource is ok but in some cases when a programmer has some insentive to program more than just the feeling of have helped,
a much better product is created.
it is like a marketer who is paid per hour and no percentage, what insentive is there to work hard?
what insentive is there to listen to your custommers?
i give Serotek 2 thumbs up and would give more if i had.
i love this product and am shocked it was never menchioned to me by my assistive program vender.

sory about the grammer or the spelling.
but i had to state my views.

DougS said...

Well, many years have passed since this conversation started but not terribly much has changed. Unless of course you're talking about Serotek. Can you script with it? No. Since I like to script, this is an issue for me because I run into stuff that isn't right out-of-the-box software that isn't directly supported by screenreaders in general. This isn't because screen reader manufacturers are evil people. It just so happens the applications I speak of are only in existance because of the smallish company that needs them. Unless you worked in my call center, you wouldn't know or care about these applications. The ability to get in there and make them work was most valuable to me as a jaws scripter because if that app didn't work for me, I didn't eat and food is one of my favorite things. I've been an SA user since 2008 and am three quarters of the way through my four year plan with them. Even though I won't save any money on AT costs, what I have saved in headaches and gotten even some good free food from is the ability to have my, (to borrow a catch phraise) accessibility anywhere. Training for stuff on my last job where they couldn't do it at my desk used to mean IT had to know about it a few days ahead so that the necessary arrangements could be made to get my tower from my desk to the training room. With SA, be it by U3 drive or logging into SA to go, my company could handle me like anyone else and make me aware of this new important training pretty much the way they did everyone else. "when you're done with that call, go to training room X. Most of this one shot training was done oddly enough in powerpoint presentations and even with system access, I did just fine. My credibility as a blind computer user increased on a personal level when friends who can see had trouble and so long as it wasn't with their USB ports or their internet, I could go in, work on their stuff and leave their computer working and without any trace of my presence.

The other big change is pricing. Serotek has a plan to account for many many pricing needs. The most note worthy is although I may still pay near or better than the price of a computer for a full license for SA, I will only do that once. No picking of my pocket every couple of years just to keep it current. Even if I replace my computer, the SA license can be moved either with a simple process on line or a short phone call to the help desk.

Just so everyone knows, I'm not anywhere near a full on AT expert but I am an end user to the highest degree and I can say this. No one screen reader paid or free does everything I want every time I want it. Based on what random stuff catches my ear, I can see the day when Windows comes with something on the level of voice over and the only nitches that will remain will be the rare call managing app and whether or not that app gets accessibility will depend on how motivated the one charged with making that happen will be. Said motivation will either come from a big fat cash bonus for getting it done or the satisfaction that the individual for whom the access is being provided is one that the individual providing the access really likes or can otherwise get excited about. Put another way, in addition to their being a need for motivated and tallented geeks that can string the zeros and ones together to make it all work, we also would do well to be a community that doesn't feel the need to kill them just because our particular need or want didn't get addressed first.