Thursday, July 17, 2008

Isn't It Ironic?

IBM gained a bit of press with its recently announced Social Accessibility Project which promises to broker a service that makes Web sites accessible to users of Jaws and Internet Explorer. Almost immediately thereafter, WebVisum was touted for its tools that make sites accessible via Firefox. Both of these efforts are stragglers, wandering onto the field some four years after Serotek announced C-Saw, which enlisted the blind and low vision community to help itself by making not-so-accessible sites more accessible with graphics tags, form fields, links, etc. Serotek has a library of over 4,000 heavily trafficked sites that have been made fully accessible via C-Saw.
When we created C-Saw we approached every AT vendor and offered it to them, free of charge with the goal of making the Internet more accessible for everyone. We got no takers. So the work that has been done is the result of volunteers using Serotek’s System Access and/or the System Access Mobile Network. And these volunteers have done very good work indeed.
It is disheartening to introduce a capability that benefits the community, offer it to everyone, and get the cold shoulder only to see a behemoth like IBM waddle in and make a half-hearted gesture along the same lines and get considerable favorable press. All so they can market tools for accessibility to website designers. It’s disheartening, but not unexpected. This sort of thing happens all the time in the technology industry. Everyone pays attention when the eight-hundred pound gorilla scratches.
More disheartening is the fact that the IBM effort is unlikely to make important things happen for the community. It could, like Sprint’s voice dial capability, be discontinued tomorrow and no consideration given to those who have come to depend on it. Those who contribute to the database will be professionals, doing their part, but not invested in the outcome. C-SAW volunteers are from the blind and low-vision community. They represent the blind community doing for itself – an independent attitude we kind of like here at Serotek.
We’d like to suggest that the three efforts be merged and that the AIR Foundation become the repository for the accessibility database. We imagine there are good things to be learned from IBM and Visum and Serotek can offer up its current data base of accessible sites and our cadre of experienced volunteers. By taking the site accessibility database out of the hands of any company, we protect against the corporate retooling that can (as it did with Sprint) wipe out a non-profit service without a thought as to the consequences.
Let’s make Web site accessibility a community right! Please post your comments and try your best not to be anonymous.


Phil said...

Here, as I see it, are the problems with C-Saw.

First and foremost, people don't like having to "give up" their preferred web browser. For example, when Web Visum emerged, I tried it for fun, but did not integrate it into my daily web surfing habbits, for I use Internet Explorer and not Firefox. However, at least Web Visum boasted support for a mainstream web browser.

It gets worse with C-Saw: that uses the System Access Mobile Network, and neither Internet Explorer nor Firefox. The System Access Mobile Network charges a monthly fee for continued use, with no "unlimited" plan available; as a student, this is just not realistic when I already own a license to JAWS. Despite having to learn a new interface, I would also have to pay for access to the System Access Mobile Network, and would have to keep doing so no matter how long I used it. I have already expressed my views on this matter: this is not good.

BlindChristian said...


As I'm fairly certain you probably read the BC article on this matter yesterday ( you certainly know that I agree entirely that these three systems should be harmonized as soon as possible.

For the record, though, I would like to add that although C-Saw has been around for quite some time and has an impressive library which should surely be preserved as it also represents many hours of work, it has not received a lot of attention around the community of people who make, criticize or use technology designed for people with vision impairment. Because you are the little guys, even the best of your features may be overlooked as JAWS and GW Micro own the majority of the bandwidth and IBM (who has for many, many years been a leader in research in this area) can get on the front page of the Wall Street Journal if one of its executives farts at the appropriate moment.

This is clearly not Serotek's fault, it is just the way things are. For years, Macintosh users have proclaimed all of its merits when compared to MS platforms but they were mostly ignored because they represented such a small number of actual people. Sadly, Serotek, one of the most innovative companies in this business is often lost in the shadows of the lumbering giants.

Is this fair? No, but nor is actual free market capitalism. Yes, Adam Smith wrote about invisible hands and that the better products would rise to the top of the market on their merits but, alas, his world of ideal liberal capitalism didn't count on twentieth century concepts like propaganda (marketing) or market muscle that affords a less innovative product far more exposure than superior competitors.

Finally, the only point you raise with which I disagree is that the C-Saw data format should definitely be the one chosen as part of the process to harmonize these three nearly identical sets of features. As I wrote yesterday, everyone should come to the table with their egos left at home and work on a best solution (which may be C-Saw) or work together on software that converts one database into another. Data conversions aren't too hard and the goal is to create a unified system which best serves the largest portion of the community.

So, as we all acknowledge that you and maybe Matt invented this concept years ago, it's now time to work on the future of this feature in an entirely cooperative manner with IBM and WebVisum.

In brief, restating my thoughts from yesterday, this idea is one in which competition can only hurt and cooperation will benefit very strongly.

Happy Hacking,

Mike Calvo said...

A couple of responses: First to Phil.

Thanks for your observations however they are a bit off track. C-SAW was offered free of charge to all major AT vendors. If said vendors would have taken up the offer then C-SAW would be available to you with no subscriptions what so ever as part of your current screenreader. Serotek chooses to sell it's products as an SAS (software as service) model and that works for us. If you can't purchase our products but want to benefit from our technology then feel free to use it's free. Students K through 12 can take advantage of our new Keys For K 12 program. We offer our web services for a charge and that's how we can afford to provide our technology free of charge. In short, from Serotek, we will give you the access technology free and will charge you for the entertainment and flashy web services that our mainstream counterparts charge for as well.

We do work on IE 6 and 7, (for years now) and 8 is currently being tested and works great. Firefox 3 is also supported in version 3.0 of System Access and SAToGo due out any day now.

BC I did read your post and loved it. I also read the post by Ranger. I simply suggested our format because it has been tested for years and proven itself in the market. You know me BC and know that Serotek is a team player and we will sit down at any table with companies that truly intend to help the community not muddy the waters with self serving standards that prove they have the bigger stick. I think our recent support of Humanware, Levelstar, and Optelec show that if another player's technology will enhance our community's experience, we are going to support it..

So AT players, who's going to step up and start talking a standard?

TheBlindTech said...

BooHoo Mike.
Waaaaaa! can some one get this wining CEO a bottle please. This is or atleast should be very embarrassing to you Mike, why come out and write a wining post like this. Us, mainstream tech Company owners just sit and laugh like this, this is why I never looked at getto blind products like the humanware, freedom scientific and icon offerings because they were all garbage.

and by the way your satogo has a memory leak. and your whole network is below standard because it claims to support all blind but only works on windows, and when you did have a linux version, and when we aproached you to port it to the mac our email went unanswered.

we also approached you about breaking you in to the arizona market and that email was also ignored. and this is why serotek will fail, because you felt like you were too important.

but you sure look like a panzie with this posting.

The BlindTech

Buddy Brannan said...

A few comments:

When I first saw the announcement about IBM, my first thought was,
"Oh, that sounds quite a lot like CSAW." In fact, I posted something
like that on (I think) the NFB computer science list, and of course
that post got no response. I agree with your points and those of
BlindChristian. There's no real reason that these three efforts can't
cooperate, apart from political or ego reasons. No technical reason I
can see, though.

As for Gabe AKA TheBlindTech, while you may have some point about
System Access and non-Windows platforms, that point is really lost in
the snide, immature, and combattive manner in which you tend to
post. Do you perhaps suppose that you are ignored as much for your
approach as for any other reason? Were I a CEO of a company,
approached in the manner I have seen you post in many forums including
your post on this thread, I expect I'd ignore you as Mr. Calvo seems
to have done, regardless of the merit of your ideas.

My opinion? The AT landscape is changing. Players like Apple, Serotek,
Levelstar, the NVDA project, KNFB, Code Factory, and others, are shaking things
up. In their various ways, we're seeing how their different models are
offering innovative and usable solutions at lower prices, more in line
with what actual consumers are able to afford on their own. Why did I
mention the still expensive KNFB reader? Because its price point has
dropped by $1500 in thre three years since its introduction--a trend
pretty much unheard of. I think the days of the big guns in this
industry having everything sewed up with government contracts for big
price tags are numbered.

I've said it before in other venues, and I'll probably say it again
elsewhere. This changing landscape is great for the blind
consumer. The traditional players in the field had better keep on
their toes and learn to move fast and introduce real innovation if
they want to stay relevant.

Peter Bossley said...

First, to TheBlindTech commenter, your comment about Mike, as well as your references to the technologies you mention are way off. Mike is, rightly so, upset that the big fish in the AT field didn't take him up on an offer that was made in the good faith best interest of many in the blindness community. Having known Mike for some time now, I can tell you that what he says is what he means—of course he wants to make money, and of course he’s going to focus on Windows users (the vast majority of computer users, let alone blind computer users) But what I love so much about Serotek is that they are truly committed to their mission of accessibility anywhere.

Serotek probably won’t say this, but I will: its Blind users like you that cause some of us to wonder why we fight so hard for accessibility. If anyone is wining here, it’s you. Serotek and Mike in particular have proven their support for affordable accessibility by putting their actions behind their words. From their Keys to K12 to their totally free web-based screen reading offering, to their enterprise solutions which have done wonders for blind IT professionals, Serotek has shown a consistent drive for increasing accessibility for all.

Why aren’t we getting excited about this? Finally a company who provides solutions priced so that we can afford our own AT, instead of having someone else buy it for us? Not just that, but AT that works great, works in more places then traditional AT like libraries, Internet Cafes, School Computer Labs, etc.

Let me ask you this: what could it hurt for AT venders to have been part of the CSAW effort? Let’s see, better accessibility on difficult websites for a minimum of additional development effort. When the work and infrastructure was already done and they had but to chose to incorporate it into their products? The answer is they had nothing to lose, and had the potential to gain much. If we in the blindness community don’t start demanding from the big AT venders a true commitment to accessibility, we have only ourselves to blame for the state of the AT that I see complaint after complaint about on forums, listserves, etc.

I just want to close by saying that whatever format is used, I think that the AIR Foundation should indeed be the custodian of this important technology in our continued effort for equal access to the Web.

TheBlindTech said...

What you're basically saying is the same thing that happened to us.

because The BlindTechs Network or CommTech aren't well known or on anyones big radar in the dumb ass AT Community and/or field, when we approached Mike for colaboration on a mac port for Freedombox or what ever the hell its called now, back when the linux code was available, we got no where because we weren't well known, or big enough or what ever the deal was.

same thing about the arizona market, we make reccomendations that get read and acted on like if god written the report himself. this would have been a perfect oppurtunity for mike to break in to the vr market down here and again, our email went unanswered.

so there you have it, we are holding him and is little company to the same standards he is trying to hold IBM and who ever else to the same standards.

And this is why we haven't tried to be part of that neat little circle of blind companies. I am a mainstream technolgoy company owner, I have dealings on contracts with real staff and companies that have real meaning.

Peter Bossley said...

I beg to differ on this. I would guess, without having talked to Mike about this, that Serotek has made a business decision to support only the Windows platform. While we can sit here and argue this point over and over, it's their decision what platform to support, and I don't think many would disagree with me when I say that the vast majority of computer users, especially those using AT, are on Windows. Sure, there are some Mac and Linux blind users out there, but they aren't really the group Serotek is aiming to serve. One of the bigger mistakes the larger AT companies have made is to attempt to make their software one-size-fits all. While this worked in the past, it’s gotten out of hand and now they have large investments in products with so much legacy things to support that they need whole teams of developers to just maintain their existing code. Serotek’s approach to this is to support the current, stable technology and to keep their scope limited—but what they do work with works great.

So we’re all sorry about your struggle as a small company—having tried starting a business in the past and having not had too much luck I know it can be a challenging time, but I for one think that you are unfairly taking aim at Serotek for a business decision that you might yourself have made in their place.

TheBlindTech said...

Thats just it, I don't want a response from Mike, remember he's too important/big for a CEO who hold Government and private contracts that he wish he can have access to. I'll be willing to compare 1040s any day any time with him and go over my resume, bio and certificates/degrees with him anyday.

and you misunderstand my status. I currently own two companies, and they are flurishing, the reason for that is that I don't keep myself worrying about being part of that circle of blind companies. that is very much a short coming for anyone who wishes to take themselves serious.

I instead just see myself for who I am A CEO who just happenes to be blind. Now I got to go my Town Car is waiting for me outside. Hey Mike who kind of ride do you roll in?

Peter Bossley said...

Wow, you're 23 years old and a CEO of 2 companies? I wonder how seriously anyone can take you when you can't even bother to spell-check something you write. Maybe if you signed up for the SA Mobile network, you could use the spell-check function to write your next unprofessional comment.

I have never heard of you before I read your comments, but have since done a little bit of research. It turns out that your string of off color and poorly constructed writing as well as generally disrespectful attitude is not confined to Mr. Calvo, an individual who I might add has quietly supported some of the communities whom you claim he ignores (take NVDA, for instance) I would like to take you up on your offer to compare your resumes, certificates, degrees, etc with Mr. Calvo. I would be interested in verifying everything that you claim about yourself.

Both Mac and Linux have good Screen Access technologies out there—products which I might add who can access the web-based version of Serotek’s SA Mobile Network. I would strongly suggest that you take a long look at what you say before you decide to post it on the Internet for everyone to read. One but needs to do a simple Google search to read things that you have written in the past. If you are, indeed, looking to run successful businesses, posts like this will do nothing to help you when someone decides to research you before offering you a contract.

Of course Mike ignores you when you E-mail him. I’m nowhere near a CEO and I’m already tired of communicating with you.

john J Herzog said...

Hi all,
Why do we want one standard way of making web sites accessible? I understand that there could be benefits to adopting something like CSAW, but just like having only one or two screen readers, this could limit innovation. For instance, suppose for a moment that CSAW had become the main way of labeling inaccessible web sites several years ago. If that were the case, then we wouldn't see cool things from web vissum like a captcha solver. Similarly, we would have had no cross platform solution, and web vissum works on both windows and linux.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not bashing CSAW. I've been a member of the serotek network before, and it works quite well. I'm just pointing out that, if we the blind feel that innovation is good for screen readers, and enjoy competition, why not encourage the web labeling projects to all flourish as well? Sure it would be a burden to have to choose/install multiple products, but in the end, I think we'd all win.

Buddy Brannan said...

John wrote:

Hi all,
Why do we want one standard way of making web sites accessible? I understand that there could be benefits to
adopting something like CSAW, but just like having only one or two screen readers, this could limit innovation.

Buddy responds:
What innovation? It's a database of unlabeled Web elements and the
pages that they go to, which are then filled in on a page to make that
page more accessible. I truly see no compelling difference between
CSAW's functionality and that of IBM's efforts and the similar
database provided through Webvisum. This particular functionality is
the *only* thing that these three efforts have in common, and it seems
to me that duplicating effort, labeling the same sites for several
different platforms solely because the platforms are different, is use
of time that could better be used to provide real additional
functionality in a product (such as, for instance, the below-mentioned
CAPTCHA solver). Having a standard way to reference unlabeled Web
elements, accessible to any tool that wants to use it, far from
stifling innovation, would free up more time for developers to
innovate. Not to mention effort would not be needlessly duplicated. A
change on one tool, submitted to a central repository, could be used
by all tools using that central repository.

John continues:
For instance, suppose for a moment that CSAW had become the main way of labeling inaccessible web sites several
years ago. If that were the case, then we wouldn't see cool
things from web vissum like a captcha solver.

Buddy responds:
Are you sure about that? How is a CAPTCHA solver and OCR of Web
graphics in any way related to the adding of tags to unlabeled Web
elements? How is it that you suppose that Webvisum (or some other
outfit) wouldn't have come up with this or other useful gadgets just
because there's a central repository for labeling unllabeled Web
elements? Do you really suppose that Webvisum (just as one example)
started out solely to do this and then tacked on a CAPTCHA solver as
an afterthought?

John continues:
Similarly, we would have had no cross platform solution, and
web vissum works on both windows and linux.

Buddy comments:
Why wouldn't we have had a cross platform solution? If the AIR
Foundation (let's say) made the data from CSAW, and the CSAW
implementation, free to anyone who wanted to use it, what's to prevent
some clever person from innovating a solution on any platform?

John goes on:
Don't get me wrong. I'm not bashing CSAW. I've been a member of the serotek network before, and it works quite
well. I'm just pointing out that, if we the blind feel that innovation is good for screen readers, and enjoy
competition, why not encourage the web labeling projects to all flourish as well? Sure it would be a burden to
have to choose/install multiple products, but in the end, I think we'd all win.

Buddy responds:
I don't think anyone's trying to say that competition is bad. But for
this very specific purpose, how much differentiation between one
database of unlabeled Web elements and another can there be? Is there
really any reason multiple products couldn't be put together, each
with add-on functionality, and all using the same database as a
starting point? I give you OCR products as a parallel. OpenBook
and K1000 both use the same underlying OCR engines, as do several
off-the-shelf solutions for the general public. Yet, these products do
somehow manage to differentiate themselves and provide features,
functions, and user interface elements that people obviously prefer
over competing solutions. How is combining resources on a central
database of unlabeled Web elements different?

Q said...

@john j herzog: While it's true that competition breeds innovation in most cases, in a limited market like blind AT one overarching solution is far more preferable to a mishmash of products that aren't interoperable. CSaw, as the existing and fairly-well entrenched solution does have the momentum factor when it comes to finding a standard, but as bc previously mentioned whatever we do finally pick should stand on its merits and not how long it's been around.
@Mike: What are the possibilities of you guys opening up CSaw so as projects like NVDA and Orca can take advantage? If you are truly dedicated to providing a better digital lifestyle for the blind, enabling access to CSaw for such projects can not but help, not to mention being a good-faith gesture on the part of the AIR foundation.

Dean Martineau said...

Since we're on the subject, I'd like to vote for the elimination, or at least voluntary removal of those annoying loud and unsolicited CSAW messages whenever a site has been determined by somebody to be inaccessible. If the main Google search page is an indication of the accessibility that has been gained by implementing CSAW, since whenever one uses it, one gets an irritating CSAW message, I have to wonder how much web content is more accessible with this tool than without it. I imagine some really difficult pages have been enhanced, but I'd love to get rid of those messages.

John J Herzog said...

If small markets like the blind really benefit from only one unifying solution, then how come there is not one type of screen reader, talking watch, GPS product, etc? Each example I mention has multiple devices a blind user can buy. And the market must like them, since most competing systems have survived for quite a few years. Thus, unfortunately, the AT market itself does not support the thesis that blind people like one solution as opposed to many. Why then, wouldn't the same be true for web products like CSAW and others?

Q said...

@John: A standard, as not a physical product, is quite different than the examples which you sited. Adopting different standards for web accessibility is like saying that you're with phone company x, so you can't call people on company y's network. . . which is quite obviously a major problem.
I hope this clarifies things a bit.

lonejedi said...

A couple of things.

First, I want to applaud Peter Bossley's assessment of TheBlindTech's comments. Yes, if one is truly an executive with an amazing ride, one might want to add an amazing spell checker and an even more amazing upgrade to one's personal vocabulary and overall maturity. Not only does TheBlindTech's comments reflect poorly on the blind, but they also reflect poorly on young people. I am also 23, and I resent such representation!

Second, I agree with Mike Calvo regarding C-SAW. I've been a SEROTEK customer for almost five months (including the month of my trial period), and I've really enjoyed working with the tools SEROTEK has to offer. On the topic of web browsers and OS's, I find Windows to be far more accessible than any other OS; and I also find that the SA web browser is easier to work with than the traditional Internet Explorer interface. as to the C-SAW sound, I find it useful to know which pages have been done up by our community versus those which may or may not have been tagged by their creators. One of you asked about how much C-SAW has done to difficult web pages. I can tell you that it's done a lot. I once C-SAW-ed the home page of a local community college's web site, and it now works wonderfully. JAWS always had trouble with this web site no matter what techniques I tried (and I am a great JAWS user). Personally, I'm glad that JFW and Window-Eyes users, as well as other accessibility product users, have a similar option to C-SAW. And frankly, I think it's even better that the blind are making curb cuts for web sites versus the sighted doing it for us. Or, for that matter, I'm glad it's users on the ground versus guys with well-paying jobs regardless of visual acuity.

I guess what I'm saying is that I totally feel Mike's frustrations, and I'm glad that C-SAW is available for those who want to use it, and that non-SA users have a similar option. Who really cares who created it, who the CEO is, etc? It's a matter of informed choice folks. Do the homework and make your own decisions, but there's really no need to spend so much time complaining about a network or system that you don't use anyway.


Anonymous said...

This is Jake from Illinois, in case I remain anonymous once this comment gets posted. I would fully support a collaboration of some sort between the Webvisum extention for Firefox, IBM's offering, and Serotek's CSAW. I have tried all three and while there were problems on my end, I am excited about their potential. I do, however, want to bring to everyone's attention a problem I'm having loading System Access to Go into memory. Today for example, I got some kind of error when pressing alt+R for the second time to load SatoGo. Needless to say though, I think there needs to be full cooperation by everyone involved in order for a collaboration like this to take place. I am about to embark on a project with some people, where we are developing a website for the disability community at large to relate their experiences with various public venues as well as devices. As to the BlindTech's comments, I have this to say. I've read your comments on other blogs too, and you come across sounding like someone who (1) is not particularly interested in contributing anything positive to the blindness community, and (2) who has yet to grow up and write like the businessman whom you claim to be.

Jackie McBride said...

We as blind people can demand accessibility all we want--& our numbers are small enough that most just laugh in our faces. I'd also like to say this--these 2 sighted guys who made web Visum made the vast majority of captias accessible to us. I can now download music on sites where I couldn't b4. I can sign up for sites, get thru spam filters, etc. Why did no screenreader vender provide this? These guys didn't even initially know what the firetruck a screenreader was. To refer to them as "stragglers" hardly seems right to me. To my way of thinking, it's the screenreader vendors who are stragglers. Instead of demanding that people do what we need to make their products accessible, our AT vendors need to come up w/innovative ways to allow us to access the mainstream.
Jackie McBride