Thursday, February 16, 2012

Egypt Revisited

As a lot of you know, last night I had a strong reaction to Apple and its decision to reject Serotek's Accessible Event app. The exact number of apps that do not make it to Apple's App Store is not documented but is estimated to range in the thousands. When our app fell into that category for a third consecutive time, I admit my reaction was a little hasty.

I understand Apple only wants the best apps to maintain a superior user experience. I applaud Apple for allowing that user experience to be so inclusive of the world's blind population. To that end, I submit my sincere apologies to Apple and to the blind and visually impaired community for having taken my frustrations as a developer to Twitter. If I may, I would like to provide an explanation for my reaction.

My sentiments are not unique among Apple's developer community. Hundreds of blog posts and Twitter feeds point to Apple's obscure approval system. There is no appeal process for rejected apps that meet the company's hardware and software specifications. Though sideloading has provided alternative access to OSX, Apple's sandboxing policy set to start on March 1 raises speculation about whether the company will simply eliminate what it deems inappropriate. Even apps that make the cut face an impending reality of not being able to interact with other apps. Some believe this is necessary to uphold a secure environment. Many others wonder if security is being used to minimize productivity.

Speaking from the position of a developer, I am worried about the direction Apple is taking. I am not alone in my feeling that what we are facing is really Apple's sandbox, and developers just happened to be allowed to play in it with an eye to the big bully who might one day decide he no longer wants some of the kids there. Yes, there are rotten apples that try to take advantage of the system and make things bad for everyone, but we should not dilute the very freedom that made Apple products cool to start.

On a more personal level, I have had time to reflect on the situation since my public blitz. There is no justification for my reaction, and yet I've been wondering about the origins of my feelings. Could it be that I am lashing out against the same oppressive environment imposed by the adaptive technology industry I have been opposing for the past ten years? The traditional players in the industry, after all, have grown comfortable telling blind people what they can or cannot access, and Apple has taken steps that open those old scars, not because they rejected a single app but because their system is being restructured in a way that is more limiting than it is liberating. But now it’s not just the blind community it’s the World. I have worked hard to encourage people to be more than just a company's list of features. I do not want us to wander down a path that excites us about everything that we might be able to do, only to hit a brick wall and discover that freedom is what a company decides it should be.

As you know, Serotek is no stranger to the Apple App Store. In January iBlink Radio was inducted into the AppleVis iOS App Hall of Fame. The app provides access to radio stations, podcasts, and reading services and has gained distinguished prominence among a global audience.

On behalf of Serotek, I apologize for the delay of another in a series of apps that will help blind people be productive in school and in the workplace. It is our desire to continue working in an open environment that empowers people to pursue personal and professional ambitions. We will be publishing instructions on how to sideload the Accessible Event app to work on your Mac.

Until then, stay vigilant. Innovation is about moving out of what previously restrained us.

Our Story at Ten

By the Serotek Team

The vision was born out of a desire to make blind people
more than just an afterthought. The heart that gave birth to the passion was
one never known to cringe from an impending challenge, and the voices that have
rallied around the call to action are united in their commitment to see this
dream continue to become reality. It is Serotek. We are its team, and at ten
years old, this is our story.

Ringing Liberty
If Serotek's history were synonymous to the American Revolution,
the company's first shot heard 'round the world would be the release of the
Radio Webcaster in 1998. It was a tool that allowed people to control their
computers using radio frequencies to tap into this thing called the Internet
and hear responses through an FM radio. The product was introduced during an
age when America Online was leading the stampede to the new virtual frontiers
of the Internet, but as usual, it became someone else's job to try to pave a
ramp onto the information super highway for the world's blind population.

At the time there was no Serotek. However, the person who
would go on to become the company's president and CEO, Mike Calvo, had some
ideas and stepped up to the challenge. In retrospect, it was the first of many
moves to redefine the adaptive technology industry.

Working first with a team of Russian developers, Calvo used
his knowledge of technology to guide his original concept into what would
become FreedomBox. At its simplest, FreedomBox was an Internet appliance that
facilitated communication between a blind consumer and the World Wide Web. A
person could speak to the preprogrammed device using natural language to listen
to music in various genres and eventually make purchases from
Perhaps no one, not even Calvo himself, could have anticipated the trajectory
FreedomBox would set for his then fledgling operation.

A large part of the product's successful evolution is owed
to Matt Campbell, who took over the FreedomBox project after Calvo decided to
move the system to the United
States. "Matt is my development
partner," Calvo says. "I've worked with a lot of developers in my life;
I always keep coming back to Matt... We're like an old married couple where we
finish each other's sentences and thoughts." The results spoke for

"At least based on progress to date," said
Jonathan Mosen for ACB Radio in early 2002,
"I think this product has a very promising future."

But gaining traction would not be easy. In Serotek's early
years it was common for the competition to turn its nose up at the struggling
new company that initially ran more off of inspiration than finances. The
original FreedomBox was almost the size of a microwave oven, but through
careful research and development the FreedomBox software was reduced to a thumb
drive, giving voice to a new motto of Accessibility Anywhere. When Serotek
released System Access in 2004 the chuckling gave way to cautious attention.
The establishment began recognizing that the new kid on the block was not just
touting Internet access but offering a complete accessibility experience
through a new screen reader. The stage was set for the tide to begin turning.

Breaking From the Pack
"The reason that more blind people don't have technology
is because of the cost and the cost of training," says Calvo, who has
always strived to make affordability a centerpiece of his business model.

Future generations will not understand how at one point in
history there were no mainstream alternatives. People were relegated to what
Serotek dubs "blind ghetto products," and in addition to astronomical
price points, the products were very large and cumbersome to carry. Even by
today's standards Serotek is appalled at the cost/benefit analysis of products
priced well into the thousands with feature sets so minimal as to be offensive,
but by the time Serotek entered the picture the adaptive technology industry
had grown comfortable with using a few well-chosen marketing strategies to
excite their government base. Companies like Serotek were small fish in a pond
of larger sharks.

When screen readers were introduced
in the early 80’s they were essential tools to make an electronic environment accessible.
Screen readers were, and still are, a necessary evil. Unfortunately, most
companies did not adopt to rapid developments. While mainstream applications
evolved, screen readers lagged behind. Rather than leveling the playing field,
they tended to add extra cost and training while restricting access to the most
advanced mainstream software features used in schools and in the workplace. The
difference between Serotek and the other companies is that Serotek has kept
pace with popular applications that blind people find themselves using on a
daily basis.

The establishment continues following traditional practices to
maximize its bottom line. By contrast, from its early days it has been Serotek's
mission to explore new ways to make their products attainable. Other companies have
insisted on charging for licenses per computer. Serotek told customers to store
the application to a credit card size CD and plug it in where ever they needed,
and the company received confirmation that its strategy was working when people
began reporting examples of how they were using the product everywhere from
public libraries to cruise ships without cumbersome authorization licenses.
Later the product evolved into software that can conveniently be launched on a
U3-enabled flash drive.

For people who have closely watched Serotek's development,
none of the above came as a surprise. After all, Serotek broke from the
traditional pack by setting new benchmarks as opposed to living up to old ones.

• Serotek was the first to offer screen reading and Braille
reading technology without need for Administrator Rights.
• When other companies felt that blind people would never
have need to use 64-bit Windows, Serotek
and was the first to provide this functionality. Serotek was also
the first
to offer a fully functional screen reader when Windows Vista was released.

• Serotek was also the
first to introduce support for Braille displays that complied with the Human
Interface Device standard.

• Today, Serotek continues to be the only vendor that offers
a fully functional web-based screen and Braille reading alternative via SAToGo.
• Serotek was the
first to adopt a community approach to product development.
Community Supported Accessible Web
allowed customers to share web information to make hyperlink navigation
smoother. Serotek has been the only known company in the adaptive technology
industry to offer to share the protocol with its competitors for the benefit of
all blind consumers.
• Other companies spoke of how they prepared blind
professionals for the job market. Serotek suited action to words by being the
first to offer Remote
Access Manager
and Remote
Incident Manager
to open new career opportunities in network administration
and help desk support, two key positions in the IT world.
• While other companies still charge for software
maintenance agreements, Serotek put that
practice to rest in 2009
and has never looked back. To date, it is the only
company that has done so.

The Business of People
Serotek began with the intent to serve older computer users and
computer novices. Its products were built to help people who did not want to
learn complicated systems to achieve simple tasks. As the company evolved,
Serotek discovered its easy-to-use interface had an appeal for an even larger
audience. The problem was that novice users and experts alike had fallen into
the mindset that their future productivity was contingent on the next screen
reader or Braille notetaker upgrade, and even these costly options did not place
them on completely equal footing with sighted peers.

Lynda Canaday of Kansas
is a stark example of the kind of tangible difference Serotek has made in
people's lives. "In 2004 I was very depressed," says Canaday. "I
was ready to check out of life altogether... A friend who is a psychologist
wanted me to have a FreedomBox. I was able to get back into doing some things I
enjoyed doing... I guess that's what I'm really trying to say is that Serotek
opened up a doorway to a support system using their equipment and
devices." Ms. Canaday has since gone on to college and is still using
Serotek products and services.

Calvo understood that to succeed, Serotek would have to
treat its customers as people and not just as byproducts of government
contracts. He took time to understand what people expected out of adaptive
products, and while some might credit this to good entrepreneurship; it is more
accurate to attribute it to a sincere interest in what blind users seek.

"I’ll never forget the joy of a newly blind lady in her
sixties who had never in her life used a computer when, with just her voice,
she got on line using our product and made a purchase," recounts Calvo,
looking back at the early years of the company. "She was so excited. Our
little product had opened a door she never thought she would go through."

Jonathan Mosen says, "I did discover one or two small
problems with the screen reader. I immediately reported those to Serotek, and I
would say overnight those issues were fixed. When I woke up in the morning
there was an update available for me to download."

Placing such a high priority on customer care did not go
unnoticed. In 2007 Serotek came under legal attack from a competitor over
intellectual property. The community rose in defense of the smaller company.
For years Calvo had spoken of the importance of using the community's
collective voice to make differences. The community heard and acted and took to
blogs, petitions and other public online forums to voice their disapproval of
the lawsuit.

"To see the community rise up on our behalf as they did
during that very tumultuous time," says Calvo, "for me emotionally,
for us financially, for the company in general is something for which I will
forever be thankful."

The experience laid the groundwork for a strengthening bond
between Serotek and its customer base. In the past several years Serotek has
evolved into more than just another technology vendor. In an effort to really
get to know the people it serves, Serotek has designed a multimedia arm that allows Serotek to
render content to its customer base while simultaneously allowing customers to
communicate with it and each other. iBlink Radio, for example, is a free iOS and Android app
that offers radio stations, podcasts and reading services of special interest,
and as comprehensive as that may sound, it does not begin to scratch the
surface of the more elaborate System Access
Mobile Network.

"We place great emphasis on the accessible digital
lifestyle," remarks Matt Campbell after Serotek helped customers transfer
the multimedia content to their portable devices. "Bear in mind," he
adds, "this was even some months before the release of iTunes 8."
Indeed, Serotek had gone out of its way to help its customers embrace and
integrate with mobile technology even before the mainstream made it a priority.

Evidence of the appreciation of the company's innovative
strategies is best exhibited in its customer testimonials. "Serotek is an involved
company," says J. Schmidt, a recent adopter of Serotek products and
services. "I've never known any company, adaptive technology or otherwise,
where customers frequently hear from the chief executive officer himself. I'd
be surprised if anyone could even tell you who the executive officers are at
the other adaptive technology companies. The idea that Serotek actually holds
town halls to address pressing current events makes me feel valued as a
customer and, more importantly, as a person."

Yet serving customers is only half the equation. Calvo
understood that to stay on the cutting edge of innovation, he would need to
attract and retain solid talent. To do so, he needed to provide a working
environment that allowed people to feed their natural passion for technology. Serotek
started as a virtual employer in an age where telecommuting has only recently
begun gaining popularity. The forward thinking approach has led to the
introduction of many beloved voices now very familiar to Serotek's customer

Ricky Enger, known best for her roles in the SeroTalk Podcast and End of Line, started at Serotek in the late
summer of 2007. She now recalls it was over Labor Day weekend that she had the
opportunity to speak with Calvo via telephone. "I just picked up the
phone," recalls Enger, "and from the moment Mike and I began to talk,
I was so impressed by the company's mission and his vision and his enthusiasm
was just infectious. I remember thinking I really wanted to be a part of what
this company was doing."

Serotek is a dynamic working environment. The fact that the
team is scattered around the globe does nothing to detract from the company's
strong sense of camaraderie or its collective desire to disrupt the adaptive
technology market with products that redefine how customers lead their digital

"As much as I loved helping Blind folks find the right
product to fit their needs for their job," said Joe Steinkamp when he came
aboard in July 2010, "I longed for the ability to delve into specific
technologies and subjects outside my four walls... I was offered the
opportunity to participate in the company's vision and I readily jumped at the
chance to share in that grand adventure."

The Ultimatum
No move in the adaptive technology market has ever caused
such a stir as Serotek's now famous call to arms. On March 1, 2010 Serotek declared
war on the traditional adaptive technology industry.
If the introduction of
FreedomBox was the first shot fired, Serotek's public ultimatum was a trumpet
blast to rally the blindness community around a campaign to throw off the constraints
of tyranny.

"For the past two decades the technologies originally
conceived to give us freedom have been our shackles," wrote Calvo in an adamant
post. "They have kept us tied down to underperforming, obscenely expensive
approaches that only a small percentage of blind people can afford or

News of the post was blasted across many public forums. The
call was heard, and while some reactions were cautious in their optimism, the
vast majority of blind computer users were swept up in the battle cry for
something more than the usual attempt to mimic innovation.

"Even we who have done it right are on a path to
obsolescence," went on Calvo. "The universal accessibility principles
we see Apple, Microsoft, Olympus, and others putting in place are
going to eliminate the need for these specialty products in a matter of just a
very few years."

And it is perhaps this sentiment that truly defines the
worth of Serotek. No other company has ever sought its own demise. There is
absolutely no one else in the adaptive technology industry who has ever
advocated for a world that would mean the end of its services. Such an
idealistic position is typically reserved for the nonprofit sector, and even in
that arena one would be pressed to find an organization that would not cringe
at speaking of its own closing. For companies that seek to compete against the
trend that is Serotek, therein lies the true ultimatum.

The Road Ahead
There are far more achievements, large and small, that
pepper the life of Serotek at ten years old that could not be covered with
adequate justice. What this proves to the team working hard day in and day out
is that the future is full of enormous possibilities. Regardless of the form
Serotek will take in the next decade, there is a special kind of fuel among the
company's representatives. It's the kind of energy that compels people to think
outside the box and consistently deliver products that help the blind compete
on equal footing.

The team at Serotek understands that in general, the
mainstream marketplace does not consider blind customers as viable consumers. The
millions of dollars spent on learning about customer habits from year to year generally
do not encompass blind people, because even at the outset of the 21st
century blind people are seen as a special class of consumers who cannot
possibly want access to mainstream products or know what to do with the
products even if they had the access. While Calvo has relished the ability to
give blind people a means to tap into popular commercial services through innovations
like System Access, Accessible Event, and DocuScan Plus, the vision that has
propelled Serotek from its infancy is one of universal access without class
systems. Until such a reality becomes more of the norm than the exception,
Serotek remains committed to providing equal access in a way that is attainable
for all.

That, in a nut shell, is our story so far. We are proud of
what we have been able to do for you over the first ten years of our life, and
we are even more excited about our relationship with you in the next decade. We
are more than just a vendor. As we teeter on the edge of a new chapter in
technological developments, we are turning to you to help us write a narrative
of huge achievements in universal access that make blind people just another
segment of the population. Together, we are a catalyst for change. By uniting
our strengths we can inspire change on the critical issues that matter to us
all as consumers. We at Serotek will continue doing our part to see those
needed changes come about. The evolution of technology is such that there is no
telling what next week, next month or next year will hold, but of this we are
certain: The best is yet to come...

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Disney Standard

This past Sunday my family and I accompanied some friends to Disney World. Living in Orlando, I guess it's not as big of a deal as it would be for the common tourist. I myself have always found it more or less enjoyable, something to do with the kids anyway. Last weekend I decided to satisfy my curiosity about a new audio description device that I had heard about somewhere, and while looking over the Disney website I was reminded of its existence once again. WOW! At the risk of sounding totally cliché, it's like I stepped into a whole new realm.
I have always known Disney to take a special approach to all its guests. I mean, they're in the business of making dreams come true, right? I have never encountered issues with accessing any of the attractions. My guide dog has always been welcomed. In fact, Hurley was riding around with my Son and me in one of their go karts on this trip, with no one batting an eye, but I have to confess this past weekend totally rocked my view of Disney's effort to make their park a universal experience.

The device with no real name is offered free for the duration of your visit with a refundable $25 deposit. It is a 7.2-ounce handheld computer with over the ear headphones. It provides an interactive audio and visual menu that allows you to choose the type of information you would like to receive about outdoor areas – from a description of your surroundings to information about nearby attractions, restaurants, and entertainment. It gives audio descriptions for key visual elements like action and scenery. I've never experienced the Carousel of Progress in quite that level of vivid detail before. The device features assistive listening for persons with mild to moderate hearing loss. The unit even features captions for various audio and dialog. While we were only able to visit the Magic Kingdom this time, the system is available for all four Disney parks in Orlando. One of the things I'm looking forward to in a future visit is going to the Animal Kingdom and using the handheld captioning feature to learn more about the animals my family and I are visiting. I think it will be great to offer my children information about the animals with the same ease as any tour guide. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of joy I experienced being able to talk to my children about the amazing workmanship and attention to detail on attractions like “It’s A Small World” and others, and how I was able to connect with them and share my own experiences as a child at Disney. I can’t express how great it was to be able to use this technology to “see” the park like they did.

The technology is so sophisticated that at any point it would have been possible for me to venture out on my own and never feel at a loss as to where I was headed. Now, before you ask, no, the user does not get directions as to whether the facility is to your left, right, ahead or behind, but I attribute this to the early stages of any product development and the lack of pinpoint GPS accuracy that is absent in all mainstream orientation tools. Perhaps Google’s local map technology may help with this in the future?

As you may know, Disney does not believe in wasted real estate. Their idea of roller coasters consists of packed adventures that are just as capable of being heart-pounding as they are visually enthralling. Before, it was enough for me to bask in the delighted screams of my children and feel good that they were having fun. With my handheld device, however, I was plugged into an instant feed of information that allowed me to perceive the rides from a more highly involved angle. We're not just talking front row seat here. We're talking front and center detailed audio descriptions of costumes, props, settings and background scenery. The closest comparison to the experience I can think of is descriptive video. In 2001 I was brought to tears while experiencing “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” on DVD with my family without anyone having to tell me what was going on. As unforgetable as that day was, the problem is that video description is still quite two-dimensional. There is something completely different about a multisensory experience being aided by a voice telling you exactly what you are passing. You’ll hear details about the attraction that will in all likelihood escape the notice of even those who can see. There's just too much competing for visual attention that the average guest will not be able to take it all in.

Like Serotek’s System Access to Go in 2008, Disney’s handheld device received the American Foundation for the Blind's prestigious Access Award in 2011. I now know firsthand that the recognition was well-deserved. As AFB's President and CEO Carl R. Augusto noted, "“Too often, swift advances in technology bring the rewards of convenience and entertainment to an eager world while inadvertently leaving those who are visually impaired behind.” I can testify that as far as I can tell, Disney has made people with disabilities a fully integrated part of their customer base.

Visiting the Disney World Resort prompted me to think about a couple things:

First, it occurs to me that as blind consumers, we spend so much time fighting for equal access that we too often forget to really praise the innovations of those companies that are doing it right. Apple may have needed the threat of litigation to make accessibility a higher priority, but unlike most companies, Apple rose to the challenge in such a way as to make accessibility one more selling point of their core functionality and blind people just one more highlight of their TV commercials. Olympus is another company that continues to make something as simple as voice guidance a key feature of their products to make them enjoyable for a wider segment of their customer base. So I wonder, why is it that our social networks buzz when there are critiques and gripes about the lack of accessibility in this or that product or service, but no one says a thing about achievements that are better than anything we could have hoped for? I mean, I expect to be treated as an equal by product and service providers but, as we all know, that isn’t true for the most part. So, when a company does do something right for us, shouldn’t we really let them and others in our community know?

Don’t get me wrong. I would never suggest we lay down our arms and stop asking for equal access. In fact, I am a big promoter of using Yelp, Twitter, Facebook and other mainstream channels to express our opinions of restaurants that do not have Braille menus, retailers that do not produce eReaders that speak out of the box and facilities that think adding a wheelchair ramp is enough to make a place accessible. Just this morning one of my reviews on Yelp was blasted via email throughout Orlando. People will now be able to read the opinions of a fellow foody who just happens to be blind. Perhaps other restaurant owners will see my reviews that not only talk about the quality of food and customer service but also cover things like, did they freak out about my guide dog or did they have Braille menus. What I am saying is that whether we are praising a product or damning it, we need to break out of our blindness bubble of list-serves, forums, and chatroom communities and take our comments to the general public where their impacts are more likely to be felt by the parties responsible. We need to write product reviews. We need to send e-mails, and far be it from me to suggest we do something so outdated as picking up the phone to talk to a company about our experience with their product or service. And don’t tell me that you’re just one person and your voice doesn’t matter. That’s simply not true. When you combine individual voices they become a crowd.

Every voice counts, and if we are going to gripe loudly then we need to selibrate just as loudly when a company gets it right. Our feedback should not be limited to those aspects of life that have a direct bearing on our blindness either. We need to participate as consumers to be taken seriously as consumers. If you think about it, Apple and Disney must have spent millions of dollars on research and development and implementation to make their experience more than just accessible. Universal design is creating an experience that is simultaneously enjoyable to all, as opposed to creating a hierarchy of access to the same encounter. The least we could do is say "thank you" with our wallets, our reviews, and continued encouragement to make it better. I have a feeling that such encouragement would prompt more companies to use the secret sauce of their success to create some accommodations that are out of this world.

Second, taking a little of my own advice, I call upon all companies to rise to Disney's standard. My dollars as a blind consumer are every bit as important as the dollars of my sighted neighbor. It is not enough to add a layer of accessibility to your products and services because a law directs you to. I am using my hard-earned money to pay for the same privileges as my sighted peers, and those privileges include my walking into your restaurants and ordering from Braille menus just like all your other customers. Asking your wait staff to read the menus to me is not being hospitable. It is being patronizing. We deserve better. Just as Apple now depicts blind people actively using their mobile technology, Disney ought to consider showing blind people enjoying the same facilities as anyone else, because the same marketing strategies that feed the bottom line can go a long way toward changing public misconceptions.

The landscape for blind people has not changed all that much in the ten years I've been involved with Serotek. What has changed is my attitude and my approach to these types of consumer challenges. I've decided I can either choose to look forlornly at the world I wish I could enjoy and get angry, or I can shatter the dividing line and be an active participant in that world. I hope for the sake of our collective progress that you will join me. So, when are you going to right a review? When are you going to call that company that has gone the extra mile and thank them or express your frustration with the lack of accessibility in a product or service? In short, are you going to have a little faith? Even though every time you ask for accessibility you may not get it, you have to continue to believe that there will be companies, like those I have covered in this post, who will heed your cry for equal access and amaze us all with the outcome.