Saturday, July 01, 2006

Windows Vista And Office 2007 Overview For NFB Convention In Dallas

I mentioned a while back that I had a major project coming up. Well that project is a short presentation on Vista and Office 07 for the Computer Science Division at this year's National NFB Convention this Monday. I have the not so easy task of discussing the pitfalls of access with both programs under a 25 minute time limit. It could be worse though. I could have been put between the IBM and Microsoft presentations. What a sandwitch that would have been.

Below is my written notes for Monday's talk. I more than likely will edit them to better reflect the actual spoken word and the Q&A session that follows. But for those who can't make the Convention this will give you an idea of what I am going on about. If your a long time reader of this blog then some of it is old hat though. Still this is a good overview to use when talking to others about upgrading to Vista.

Oh and any grammer problems I blame on Office 07. I don't have time to nit pick this file and I took my chances with the editor in Word. Again I say I will go back and pretty this up later on next week. Enjoy!
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I would like to thank Mr. Chong for giving me the opportunity again to address the assembly today. It's been five years since I last had the privileged to speak in front of the group and oddly enough it coincided with the release of Windows XP. And now I am back for the pre launch of Windows Vista. So I imagine that the next time I will be invited will be 2011 for the next major release of Windows? [Pause for very small, if any, laughter]

Today in our brief time together I would like to speak to you about some of the aspects of both Microsoft’s new products scheduled for release in 2007. Windows Vista is currently set for release in January 2007 and Microsoft Office will be released in the first quarter of 2007. Both products will come in a variety of editions and flavors, however, my views will mainly focus today on the Ultimate Editions of both.

When Mr. Chong and I first started talking about this presentation we thought it would be one month away from the launch of Vista and Office. As fate would have it we now know that these launches are... Well they will be here eventually let's just say that. So most of my experiences with products are based upon the Beta versions of both programs and aspects could, or will change in the final release. I also will be speaking in generalities due to time constraints and I ask that questions be held to the end of my presentation or approach me at the end of the meeting.

One of the things to realize when considering moving to Windows Vista is that it has been five years since the last non network release of a program in the Windows Family. Other than Windows XP Service Pack 2 the program has seen little or no drastic changes to its look and feel. And while that is a great thing for Blind users having that kind of stability for a very long time it also means that more people will be reluctant to change when circumstances dictate to them that they have little choice to do otherwise. Let me say that for the next two years there will be few reasons for most users to drop their current desktops running Windows XP Service pack 2. If you feel comfortable with your computer and your Assistive Technology of choice then do not up root yourself for the sake of having the biggest and newest thing on the market.

Now if you are currently running Windows 95, 98, 98 SE, ME or 2000 you will need to consider making the leap to Vista as your software has reached the end of its rope for technical support and security updates. Your Assistive Technology of choice is also following suit as several of the major names in Assistive Technology are planning or already have ended their support for older versions of Windows.

If you find yourself being one of the people in the older Windows camp let me make the additional recommendation that you consider a whole new computer system as opposed to traveling down the path of endless upgrades. One thing I have learned during my time with Vista is that the older the hardware is the more painful your experience will be in the long run. Some of Vista's features and advantages over the current generation of computers are strictly based upon new hardware components and subsequent accessories. Upgrading an older system means that you run the risk of not being able to use all the powers of Vista thereby making a purchase of a new computer far more cost effective.

Another unavoidable prospect is that you will have to purchase an upgrade to almost every Assistive Technology product you currently own in order for them to work in Windows Vista and Office 2007. The current method of DCM, hooks and other technobable has to be modified for Vista. I am currently involved in five Beta testing programs and I can tell you with some confidence that you will not only have to move to a new version of your products but after a few hours with Vista you will be glad that our Assistive Technology industry is spending the research and development time to make things right so you can use Windows Vista on day of release. That's right I said day of release. This will be the first time in modern computing where we as Blind users will be able to suffer alongside our sighted early adopter counterparts as Vista will be accessible with most products when it rolls out to retail stores.

The most common question I get these days is "will it be accessible?” And I have recently learned that the term "accessible" has varied meanings. There is no doubt that eventually all the Assistive Technology Venders in the market today will find their way to making their products work with Windows Vista. If you think about it for a second you will realize that they have no choice in the matter. If older versions of Windows are being phased out for Windows XP Service Pack 2 and Vista then there is only one path left in the marketplace. The bottom line is that there is money to be made in Vista upgrades over the next two years as it will become the industry standard. But for the second time in the last three minutes I have mentioned the cost or money needed to move to such a standard. So technically the programs themselves will be "accessible" but only to a few individuals who can afford these costs. This means there will be a large portion of our population unable to make the leap due to the sheer economics of the matter. A new Digital Divide, if you will allow me the analogy, will be formed as a result of this situation.

The Divide doesn't stop with the issue of money however. Generally a large number of users sit down with their machines and the first thing they do is reset the machine to Windows Classic mode. In Windows Vista this will now take away some options from the desktop environment meaning that those with the hardware, ability and vision will have options open to them that you may not because you opted to go with a more familiar user interface. And for those who will migrate to Office 2007 the change will be jarring as it is the only upcoming Microsoft product that does not have the ability to revert to "Classic Mode". The need for training on these new products will be a paramount concern over the next two years as some of your technology muscles will have to adjust to the new complexities of Office and Windows. This naturally will be based solely on your experience level and it too changes the definition of "accessible" as many users will find not having the ability to use "Classic Mode" a detriment to their ability to use these programs effectively.

Another aspect to ponder is that some users may not see a direct need to upgrade. These users may surf the internet, write the occasional email or generally dislike using the computer all together outside of their workplace. For them the new features involved with Vista and Office may hold little promise as they will not want to spend the time needed to master said features. Their expectations are low because their idea of what the computer is to them is not the same for what the computer is now becoming. In Windows Vista your PC moves from the realm of spreadsheets, document creation and the internet to be something more relevant to today's digital lifestyle. Vista will be your Media Center, your High Definition media creator, your phone, your calendar and much more. Vista will be the portal to managing large amounts of data in real time and it will change the way that sighted individuals’ access that information. So all the marketing of transparent Windows, 3D icons, photorealistic interfaces and an endless array of the modern equivalent to pop up balloon tips holds very little interest to us Blind folk.

My inference that there is a new Digital Divide ahead of us is based on all the topics I have mentioned so far. Experience, Expectation and Economics are what I like to call the "three Es". Each one of these pillars will have a unique effect on your individual decision as to when you will take your first dive into the pool of Windows and Office. However like the Used Car Salesman says "but that's not all!”

Even though most of these changes are visual in nature they do directly impact us as Blind users. You may have heard of the buzz word "Web 2.0". This loosely and over used term denotes the move to have dynamic and ever changing content right on your desktop. And access to all of this new content is mostly done by using the mouse. Imagine if you will a desktop screen where you have a web page with one row of links on either side, three columns of text in the middle, a full motion video presentation embedded into the page in the upper right corner of the page and a real time news ticker running along the bottom of that page. Now imagine a taskbar on the right of your screen where you have little pictures with a real time look at your local weather radar, a graphic of your battery meter, a progress bar for a pod cast you are downloading and a notification that your computer is running a check for spyware. That's right all of that on the same screen at the same time. It sounds much cluttered; however, the younger generations of computer users prefer more information be displayed on the screen at smaller and smaller resolutions. This method allows the sighted user the ability to see various options in real time with only a glance or even a quick hover of the mouse pointer.

Take heart Screen Reader users. The current trend of "Quick Navigation Keys" will be your friend in the scenario I listed above. You will, although maybe not right out of the box be able to change and jump your focus to most of the objects I listed above at will. That's nothing new as you have that functionality in today's generation of Screen Reading products. But what you will have to get accustomed to is the fact that the computer will be doing far more things at one time and you may have to move your focus to several areas on the desktop to know what is being done and when it's done doing whatever it is it was doing in the first place.

As bad as that sounds be glad that you’re not a Screen Magnifier user. In the scenario I described a Screen magnifier user will be generally dependent on wearing out their mouse pads when scrolling and panning to see the various objects I listed earlier. In fact a better way to think of the situation is to imagine a small square inside of a rectangle. There will constantly be something visual going on outside of the field of view of the Screen Magnifier. And setting the program to change focus every time a new object is displayed will be like riding a rollercoaster after eating five hot dogs. The entire concept of stealing or borrowing focus momentarily will need to be re-examined.

Now you might be saying to yourself right about now that I am being a little over dramatic for the sake of making a good impression here at Convention. And to some extent you are right. The vivid scenario I painted may be a "worst case" situation for most users; however, it is very probable that those in mainstream corporations and those in higher education will be faced with this dilemma on a daily basis. The need for web based training is becoming more dependent on video and real time graphics. And it is traditionally big business and Colleges who instrumentally drive the desktop presentation movement forward. So the scenario is very real for those Blind individuals who are in career exploration or job retention in both of those fields.

Again the visual aspect of both Vista and Office are not restricted to just one specific use or task. Let's look at Office 2007. I mentioned before that there is no longer a "Classic Mode". In fact there is no longer a traditional static toolbar as we know it today. The old menu system of File, Edit and View are renamed or changed completely into something that Microsoft calls the "Ribbon" User interface. A simple way to envision this Ribbon is to think of it as one big dialog box with several tabs. As you change tabs from say "Insert" to "Preview" the options listed below change to reflect each tab's heading. For example when you go to your Display tab in the Control Panel in Windows XP the first view you have is that of the "Themes" tab. Moving to the next tab will give you all the options under "Appearance". Office 2007 operates under the same principal, however, you can use your arrow keys to move up/down and left/right to access choices in the Ribbon it's self.

As you might have guessed I now invoke that phrase "but that's not all!" again. These tabs are also dynamic and they will change the longer you work in a particular program within Office. Imagine that you are working in a Word document. You have written a few paragraphs and you now want to insert a table. You change your focus to the list of tabs up in that Ribbon thing I just mentioned. You go to the "Insert" tab and you select the table option. Word will now place a "Table" tab up in the row rather than taking you to a dialog box for you to select a table. If you change your focus to the Table tab the list of various table options is now displayed below the Table tab visually from left to right. This and other controls like it are called "galleries". Visually a sighted person can rapidly scroll through these pictures of various tables to select the specific one they desire. Until you become more familiar with this part of Word you will find yourself having to move your focus manually as you pan through the options from left to right. You can use your application key to do just about anything in Office if the idea of using this Ribbon sounds a little off putting. However, the use of the application key [or right click for you mouse users] is strictly context sensitive. In other words you can't get to the options for your table unless your cursor and focus is in or on the table.

The good news about Microsoft Office 2007 is that all of the current 1,500 hotkeys/commands from 2003 have been ported over to the new Office Suite. The bad news is that they don't always do what they used to do in Office 2003. Being a power Office user actually works against you as the commands that have become instinctive will now take you places you have never been before. For example I was not sure how to jump my focus initially to the tab portion of the Ribbon interface. I tried several commands and modifier key combinations. It was only after I decided to do an Alt + H combination did I find myself sitting on the "Home" tab. of course I thought that Alt + H would take me to the "Help" tab instead. This is just one of the surprises in store for you when you first start using Office. It becomes even more readily apparent that we as Blind users are at a real disadvantage when you look at a more visual based program like power Point. The Gallery alone for the "Animations" tab is far too complex for me to even begin to describe non visually.

As an experiment in terror I showed my sighted wife the new Office 2007. She took to it like a duck to water. In minutes she was creating a power Point presentation with advanced features in only minutes. She told me that the new interface was very intuitive and she liked how the program would give her visual indications as to what options were open to her at a glance. She could make changes to the format of a document without changing the document it's self by hovering her mouse over a picture of the format or scheme displayed in the Gallery up in the Ribbon interface. For me as a mid level user who can use either Screen Reader or Screen Magnifier products I found that it took me twice as long or longer to perform the same tasks my wife was doing in seconds. For once all the millions in marketing and user research have paid off for Microsoft as this new version of Office will dramatically change the way future releases will look and feel.

Like anything else more time with the products will increase my speed and abilities to navigate through Both Office and Vista. And again I am not doing myself any favors by learning both at the same time. It is very realistic, however, that this will be the case for a lot of Blind users who take my advice that I offered at the beginning on waiting to buy a new computer rather than upgrade piece meal. For them and others this will be the only option open when both Vista and Office come bundled with new computer systems. So there is a method to my madness for tackling both programs in this manner.

And there's the real rub to my entire presentation today. We have never encountered two major and highly visual driven products of this magnitude being released near or at the same time before. And I am quite sure that we haven't seen all of that with a whole host of Assistive Technology products being rolled out in the same launch window to boot. My brains want to escape through my ears as I venture through the process of learning Vista, Office and JAWS or Zoom Text [or whatever you use] all at the same time. And I consider myself a good all around user. Others who fit the mold of being task specific will have an even longer time span in learning some of these programs. And as gloomy as I portray this impending assault I caution you that I am only scratching the surface of what's in store for 2007.

Due to what little time we have here today I haven't discussed that there are some features of both Windows Vista and office 2007 that are version specific. So in other words you might have a friend with Vista Home Premium and Office Student Edition who could not afford the ultimate Editions I am using in the Beta program. My options for creating and viewing files are far more vast than what your friend can do with his or her versions of Vista and Office. However, if your friend has enough money on hand they can upgrade their copies of both over the internet with On Line Distribution. Hopefully they won't alter their Assistive Technology in the process by going from what we now know as Home to Professional but that's another discussion for another time. The fact is that a person can rapidly change their Operating System's look and feel by purchasing an upgrade via the internet. Vista will even tell you that you will need to upgrade your software when you try to access an option in a lower priced version of the product. Better yet if you chose to ignore my advice and you upgraded your computer and it cannot use a particular function of Vista... it will let you buy the upgrade and then tell you that you will need to upgrade your hardware to take advantage of your new purchase.

Vista will scale it's self up or down to more readily adapt to whatever hardware you throw at the thing. So a copy of Windows Vista ultimate on a new computer will look and act very different from a computer made two years ago. Again it will run on the system but it will remind you when it cannot do something due to hardware limitations. Every system will respond and act differently if you take the upgrade path. That’s why I say that it may be worth it to you to wait for the Vista Ready machines to roll out next year before you decide to buy.

But I believe that everyone should have the freedom to do what they feel. So if you do want to upgrade or buy a new system for Vista here's a mini buyer's guide. Please remember that this information refers to the needs of some specific Assistive Technology programs like Screen magnifiers. And I am shooting low so you don't buy a system only to find yourself having to upgrade again in 18 months.

Desktop:

Processor: Intel Dual Core at 2.4 GHz or higher. AMD equivalent will work just as well. A Dual Core processor with Hyperthreading technology may not be worth the money to you unless you do a lot of video editing or massive data creation.

Memory: 2 GB of memory is recommended if you are going to use this computer with Assistive Technology. You can get by on 1 GB; however, Vista directly and dramatically increases its speed with more memory on board. Vista ultimate, for example, can recognize up to 128 GB of memory.

Video Card: A dedicated Display Card of at least 128 MB is a requirement for some versions of Vista's AERO Glass interface. Screen magnifier users however should think about 256 MB based cards if they can afford them. All Assistive Technology users are better off using 128 MB cards though as this will free up system resources and it won't get in the way of your computer's memory/processor.

Sound Card: No longer can you scrimp on going with On Board Audio chips. It's in your best interest that you look at a dedicated sound card as Direct X sinks up audio and video for every program running on your computer. Having a fast video card won't help you if it has to wait for your low end audio card to do its work in order for both to sink properly. So if you want to avoid stuttering speech or lags in Screen Magnification you want to go with a real true blue sound card.

Hard Drive: 80 GB or higher. Windows Vista and Office 2007 took up 17 GB on my laptop's 60 GB hard drive and that's before I loaded anything else. Remember that files are getting bigger all the time and you can't get away with a smaller drive unless you plan on backing up your data... a lot.

DVD ROM: All future software releases from Microsoft will be in DVD format. The size of Vista alone is 3.4 GB.

Monitor: A widescreen monitor will give everyone, including Screen Reader users, a better experience with their Assistive Technology of choice. Using a more traditional square monitor means that a program will have to resize or reformat a page that is designed for wider displays or monitors running at a higher resolution. Think of it like a 40 cell braille display versus an 80 cell model. Speech products have a tendency to read better in some cases because they don’t have to pause between more lines of text. A wider display shows whole sentences which makes some products act differently. Weird I know but not all Assistive Technology products access and read text the same way so your mileage on this may vary.

Laptop:

Processor: The lowest I even suggest is an Intel Dual Core Mobile at 1.66 GHz. If you can go higher than do so. The obvious difference in performance is based upon the number of application running at the same time. In other words running more than four apps in open windows is not a good idea on laptops with lower speeds.

Memory: The same 2 GB is highly recommended. Although Windows Vista can be set to use a flash drive as virtual memory. A 4 GB USB Flash Drive could give you a 10% boost on some programs if you allow Vista to use the entire drive for its needs.

Video Card: 128 MB cards are a must. Higher is better but 128 MB dedicated non memory sharing video cards will make your life a whole lot easier.

Sound Card: The rule here is to go with a card that will not share system memory. You may have a laptop with 512 MB of RAM; however, the On Board Video and Audio cards take 64 MB or more away from that 512 MB. One of the laptops I tested that had just such a configuration only shows that Vista has 384 MB out of 512 MB available. Trust me and shoot for a non integrated card.

Hard Drive, DVD and the rest is the same as the desktop recommendations.

I mentioned that some functions of the various versions of Vista are dependent upon the hardware configuration of the system you are using. We don't have time today to get in the hundreds of changes in Vista but you may want to keep your ears open or you may want to research these Windows Vista features.

Windows Sideshow: This part of Windows allows you to view files wirelessly from a Tablet PC, picture frame or from a LCD monitor on the lid of your laptop. This secondary screen on the lid of the laptop can even let you view email or see your photos without you having to manipulate controls in Windows.

One Note/Meeting Space: Imagine being in this room a year from now and me saying that I have a file folder open on my laptop and you can download this presentation on your Vista based system. Its Peer to Peer file sharing on a whole new level and it will do wonders for the class room.

Windows Media Player 11 and Internet Explorer 7+: While both programs will be available for Windows XP both have specific features that only come with Windows Vista. For instance IE7 has a "safe mode" that lets it run in a protected memory file so you can avoid programs that hijack or redirect your browser.

Just about every aspect of Windows is different in Vista. Even hitting the Windows Key places your focus into a text box for instant file searches. To get to the Control Panel via the Start Menu you must hit the Windows Key then use the tab key followed by the C key to reach the Control Panel option. Like I said everything works the same you just not sure at first what you just did.

Before I conclude today I want to stress that all of this is very specific to today's technology. Windows Vista will use Direct X 10 for all of its video. But no one can test how well that works yet as no Direct X 10 cards are on the market as I stand here today. The information I have spoken about today is based on the Beta releases of Vista and Office with older hardware. It's a whole new ball game come this Xmas season when the new generation of hardware that is made with Vista in mind hits the streets. I urge you to do your research before you do absolutely anything. Seek out your local Assistive Technology Venders and try before you buy. Just don't base your needs off a demonstration on the Exhibit Hall floor. There is no way for you to get a real feel for all of these changes in a few minutes of a sales demonstration. My real fear is that many of you will have serious Buyer's Remorse if you don't spend some time kicking the tires of all this new fangled technology. So read, listen and talk to as many people as you can before you enter into anything.

I would also like to offer that all of this information and much more is on my personal blog at

www.therangerstation.blogspot.com

And I will be sending a copy to Mr. Chong for the List Serves. I again would like to thank the Computer Sciences Division for extending the invitation to me to speak before you today and look forward to seeing many of you again in 2011.

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