Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Truth About Windows Vista And The Assistive Technology Industry

So this morning I was drinking my new favorite coffee "Almond Joy" [a blend of chocolate, cocanut and almond slivers] and jamming to some unreleased song from Disturbed via their My Space site when I came across this article from Peter at Magnifiers.org.

http://magnifiers.org/news.php?action=fullnews&id=205

I have read this site for years, liked the old format more than the new redesign, and I have to say I was a little shocked at the tone of that post. And it takes a lot to get me motivated to write pages of stuff on a Saturday morning, however, I stopped everything to compose the opinion piece you see below. Breakfast will just have to wait!

Now before I respond to this post I want to say that I am not looking to start a flame war. Nor am I wanting to pick a fight steal internet cred or capitalize on this post. But I have seen many posts like this on the Yahoo groups and other places where we users of Assistive Tech congregate and I feel moved to speak out about these views that Microsoft is not trying to meet the needs of you and those like you.

The most important thing I want to say is that those folks at the Microsoft Accessibility Group are human beings and they do care deeply about making MS products accessible to all. Anyone who has heard or read what Kelly Ford has said in the last few months knows that he is a blind user of this technology first and a Microsoft employee second. To say that he and others like him within the company don't have a valid stake in making the world a better place for users of Microsoft products would be very off base.

I have met, spoke with and presented alongside Robert Sinclair who is the Director of the Accessibility Group and I can say first hand that he is very dedicated and knowledgeable of what it takes to make a Screen Reader and Screen Magnifier work. He has demonstrated Vista running with Window Eyes 5.5 Beta publicly at the NFB National Convention in July of 2006. And on Vista's launch date you can be rest assured that G.W. Micro will have their solution up and running for those who are crazy enough to join up with many of us in the early adoption launch phase of Vista.

But to accuse MS of blatantly ignoring the issues surrounding Vista's accessibility is just plain absurd. Mainly because they did back in the days of Windows 95 and it got them royally sued. Since then the company has always been open with Freedom Scientific, Ai Squared, Dolphin and the like. I have been in long discussions with Eric on Vista back as early as the launch of JAWS 7.0. I was involved in some high level talks with Doug and the gang in Vermont during the Zoom Text 9.0 beta. These companies have no choice but to make their products work in Vista because that's where the money is if they want to continue to exist.

When Vista comes on line it will be the fastest roll out in computer history. It's estimated, and not by MS by the way, that 400 million computers will be running Vista by 2008. That's a far shorter time frame than the same number with Windows XP. And that many computers is a virtual gold mine of upgrades and new product sales to companies like Kurzweil Education Systems and VisionCue.

Nobility in the Assistive Technology Industry as a whole is in short supply these days. Yes there are more blind and visually impaired people in the world than say five years ago. And yes there will be even more in the next five years. That doesn't equate to more money for these companies however. A quick glance at the CCTV arm of the industry shows us that there is four times the amount of serious players in active distribution than there was ten years ago. You have more choices, sizes and types of monitors. And the same goes with Braille displays. But that doesn't mean that all of them sell well and it doesn't mean that these companies are just rolling in the dough.

The majority of Humanware's sales, 97 to 98% I believe, are exported out of New Zealand. The NZ dollar is gaining on the US dollar. Therefore they are losing money every time they export a product to the US. Freedom Scientific on the other hand will have to develop JAWS 8.0 for Vista and still support 7.1 for the thousands of Windows 98/XP users who won't make the jump to a new operating system. This will cost truck loads of money in many hours on the technical support lines not to mention the time and resources spent on doing fixes and patches for both over the next 18 months. And while you ponder that think about the number of new programs these companies have to find ways to support as well. Skype, Firefox, Lotus Notes, Oracle, Remote Access, Citrix and a dozen or so AJAX Web 2.0 initiatives that have no web standards at the moment. Not to mention Governmental requirements for these programs and hardware to work with any Government purchased equipment under Section 508 as a part of the US Americans with Disabilities Act. To be quite blunt I am amazed that they get more of all this right than wrong with every sub sequential update and version of each product.

Making JAWS work with IE7 is one thing. You know at some point if a program is in 90% of the households in any given country these companies have and will find a way to make their products work. Where the gray areas become wider spread is in things like In House or Private software and Mash Ups. That's a different discussion entirely though.

To set the record straight Microsoft offered several meetings on their Main Campus to all the AT Venders. At these meetings they were told about the changes that would come in Vista. They were shown UI Automation, Mirror Driver models and the new "Ease of Access" center that would replace the "Accessibility Options" icon in XP. They were told that the former way of using DCM, MSAA and other hooks would not work with Microsoft's pledge to provide more security and stability with the Vista engine. Microsoft offered grants, resources and other materials to everyone all they needed to do was ask. Some Venders balked, some jumped on the bandwagon and others just sat noncomittal. Those who chose neither side were probably the ones who made out best for the short term because Vista, at that time code named Longhorn, would end up being delayed another year.

The companies that balked did so with good reason. The changes in Vista forced some Assistive Technology Venders to rebuild their programs from the ground up. That kind of development is not easy to come by and boy is it not cheap. Free lance programmers were sought out and the bids were pricy. Still like I said above there was no choice. The bad part in all this mess was every time Vista had a delay it cost these companies more time and money. At some point the investment will pay off but remember the time was pre $3.00 a gallon gas back then. No one knew what was coming. And when the announcement hit at CSUN that Vista would be delayed again there was open and visible anger on the floor of the Exhibit Hall at the prospect of not having a stream of cash coming in at the end of summer 06 [one of many Vista promised launch dates]. And as we see now the need for that revenue was too great for them to wait around for Microsoft to finally ship Vista. What is falling through the cracks a bit is that if you upgrade with some products now you will be covered when Vista does finally ship. You are not paying double if you go to JAWS 8.0, Window Eyes 6.0 or others that release in November.

There's two other points I want to address while I am on this rickety old soapbox. The first is this notion that AT in general should be cheaper than it is for the customers of these products. Let the word go far and wide that the largest purchaser of Assistive Technology is the US Federal Government. And while you may want to make jokes about $600 for a hammer remember that when you get right down to it there really aren't many copies of Magic, Open Book or Zoom Text being bought each year when compared to say Office 2003. The Assistive Technology Industry is a very small market. They have little wiggle room when it comes to creating, updating, marketing and shipping product. It takes a lot to keep the lights on in any business let alone one that may see a limited number of sales with a worldwide distribution model in place. Some Venders even rely on being back ordered on their most popular products because at least that way they know for sure just how much money they will get in the next month's budget. An upswing or dip in sales for these guys can be catastrophic and most people in the industry remember the recent rise, fall and rise again of Telesensory in 2005. So supply and demand dictate X number of dollars for any given product. Hence the reason why software Y has to sell 100 copies a quarter at a given price if they want to pay everyone's salary and keep the lights on along with research and development for something like Vista. And if you don't believe me about the daily operations and expenses of a global business just ask your favorite Vender how much it costs to make one Braille cell. The answer may surprise you.

While Governmental purchases via the Veteran's Administration and Vocational Rehab Agencies make up the bulk of purchases the number of private prchases is very very low in comparison. It's not due to the price either. It's mainly due to the size of our population and the skill level involved. I hate to use generalities but older people don't like using computers. Throwing them on Windows and the internet is scary enough but tell them they have to learn this other thing in order to make it work? Furthermore explain to them the amount of time needed to master all of this just to send their grandkids an email with a JPEG attachment? I work with populations like these for a living and I know that the numbers that can or who are willing to learn are just a fraction of those who are blind or visually impaired.

The way that the business model works is that your initial product, say Lunar Plus, is bought by the Government. As a part of the perception of rehabilitation in the US the responsibility of keeping Lunar up to date for your job is up to you. Upgrades and SMAs are far cheaper and easier to purchase than the original cost of the hardware or software. And in some cases, say the $95 that it takes for you to go to the new Kurzweil 1000 version 11 shipping this November, the cost is not so unreasonable that it will break your piggy bank. Some Dealers even have installment plans. But more importantly you have TO

PAY for good access. That's why the subsidized or open source model doesn't work for us who use this technology daily for maintaining their jobs. It's only as good as the money spent and community based projects, for me, are not reliable enough for me to base my needs for access on completely. Those who don't like the current way things work are just going to love the subscription based model that looms on the horizon. The software costs will come down but you will have to pay monthly or yearly for this concept to work.

The second point I want to make is this.. Microsoft is not the evil empire that some make it out to be in the blind community. If it wasn't for Microsoft leveling the playing field by giving us all a place to start when learning computers then more than likely a lot more of us would be unemployed. Before Windows 3.11 there was DOS and it wasn't as good as some would like to think. There was MSDOS, IBM DOS, Compaq DOS and about 16 others I can easily remember at this sitting. The command structure was not universal by any rate. Two or three standards emerged, just like Linux, and the rest just kind of sat there. Windows dominance forced NFB and others to act and demand equal access. This would have been much harder to do in a multi platform development cycle. So as much as people complain about Windows they forget how much it has done wonders for us in the areas of communication, entertainment and opportunities for work.

The flipside of this debate is not "look at Apple and Tiger". It's true that Apple has a Screen Reader and Magnifier within Tiger. But what other choices do you have? Better yet if developers do not use the Universal Access tools given out freely by Apple then you have no Universal Access what so ever. That means your Screen Reader may work in Safari but the third party program that is completely community supported doesn't speak to you because those developers did not follow the Apple guidelines. Last I checked most Windows based AT finds ways of making their products work via scripting, set or map files. My point here is that you do not want just one source for your access and you really don't want it to be solely in the hands of the company who brings you only so far to leave you hanging in other areas. And the second Microsoft does make a built in Screen reader or other such tech the current Assistive Technology Venders will cry Anti Trust so fast that it will make your head spin. I also have to say that having Tiger in only 2% of homes and iPods in 80% of the MP3 player market makes one pause about which one needs Universal Access.

Finally the last thing I want to rant on about this day, and congrats if you stayed with me this long, is that the biggest error in Peter's post was that the options in Vista's accessibility have not changed. This is not true. Narrator is far diferent in quality and verbosity. Magnifier, although not a full screen model, allows for smoothing and other Zoom Text xFont like enhancements. You can even change the cursor's length and thickness through Vista's control panel. But the biggest changes in Vista's "Ease of Access" is the on board Speech Recognition and it's Cognitive modifications. Both are new additions to the Access Group and they will go a long way into introducing disabled users to the world of Assistive Technology. Microsoft has been accused of abusing their power so much that they may never offer a true alternative to JAWS or Supernova. But in Vista if you find that Narrator isn't enough or if you want to learn more about Speech the "Ease of Access" options will link you to Microsoft web sites that list all the AT Venders. Thereby giving everyone a choice rather than forcing you to use just what's on board in their operating system.

I mentioned nobility several paragraphs ago. I have another rant on this subject coming in November after everyone releases their upgrades and patches. As a preview of that diatribe let me say again that Assistive Technology is a business. It needs money to survive. There will always be new programs and formats to support and I for one think it's admirable that each one of the leading companies in this industry will have some version of their product on line when Vista ships at launch. We have never seen this before in the world of blindness and for that alone I am thankful that I can go and buy a copy of Vista just like everyone else and use it on the first day it's available.

Okay rant over. It's a little late for Eggos but never too late for more good coffee.

2 comments:

Jared Rimer said...

Hello.
I read your post, and I agree with the fact that this will be the first time that assistive tech was able to keep up with Vista. I run a blog at technology.menvi.org and someone has mentioned problems with Hal and IE7. While I have an issue at one place where I use a machine, I'll be able to figure it out. I plan on interviewing Kelly Ford on my podcast, and we'll see where it goes. I've read a lot of articles on vista via computerworld and SFNL. This will be interesting.

BlindChristian said...

Hey Ranger,

Nice post and excellent rant. I've made the same arguements on Blind Confidential (http://www.blindconfidential.blogspot.com) about MS not being the bad guys and the struggles of the AT companies and the low volume model pretty often over the past year.

I just wanted to add a few little notes clarifying some of the upcoming upcoming releases as I understand them. First, you neglect to include Serotek's excellent System Access product in your discussion. While SA may not support as broad a range of applications as JAWS, WE or HAL, it is incredibly stable and, as far as I understand things, will be the only screen access utility to provide access to Glass, the native UI on Vista. JAWS, WE, ZT and others will require that users switch to "classic" mode to run in Vista. (Note: I could be wrong so check with the vendors but this is my understanding).


Also, I have been really rough on Apple since I started writing BC last January. If the rumors are true, Apple will be releasing the first screen reader to use really advanced audio techniques to provide more complex contextual information to its users in a meaningful and easy to use manner. This breakthrough alone should receive applause for their choice to break away from the same old, same old and move into using some of the new UI metaphors explored by we egghead types over the past number of years.

Finally, Apple is not entirely to blame for having only one screen reader on its platform. While I have argued loudly that iPod accessibility is tremendously important and against Apple's frivolous attempts at patenting the self voice interface that exists in RockBox, I must also state that Mary Beth worked very hard trying to get the Windows screen reader vendors to make versions for Macintosh and she was rejected by all of the players.

Certainly market sizes of Windows versus Macintosh had a lot to do with these decisions (one of which I was involved in making) but Apple is not alone in the blame for having only one screen reader.

Keep up the excellent work on the blog and check us out over on BC once in a while.

Enjoy,
BlindChristian