Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Almost 2 Years Later.. Reviewing My 2006 Vista And Office 07 NFB Overviews: Part 1

This month marks my two year anniversary of running Windows Vista on one machine or another. I've also been running Vista on my main box since launch, however, I played around some and my current Windows Install is a young 13 months old. In all this time I have been and remain a fan of Vista. You read that right. I am a fan. No version of Windows has caused me less trouble than Vista. The only hard crashes I have experienced have been directly due to me using beta versions of Assistive Technology or by me purposely poking the bear with a stick to see what could take down a box running the latest version of Vista. five weeks or so from now my office will switch to Vista for internal reasons and I can't wait.

Now before you call the men in their clean white coats to come and take me away know first that I don't advocate that you toss out your old or new computers today. Nor do I say that the "future is now" and it has flowers, trees and chirping birds and .. well you get the idea. If you are happy with what you have and it works for you then great. The next several paragraphs are not designed to sway you from where you are at the moment. And this post isn't a defense or praise of all things Microsoft either. Read on and see.

In July of 2006 I did have a lot to say on the topics of Vista and Office 07 because I was asked to speak at the National Federation of the Blind's Computer Science meeting on both of these programs with an emphasis on the pitfalls of running both from a Blind and Low Vision point of view. With the convention returning to Dallas this July my thoughts also have returned to my presentation from two years ago.

This multi part post is just really a post mortem on what I may have gotten right and what I realy got wrong. Sometimes when you do this Consulting/Futureist/Evangelism stuff you kind of have to keep score on yourself in order to then market yourself to others that you indeed have two sticks to rub together for that fire somebody wanted.

So journey with me now back to a simpler time where Krispy Cream ruled the Earth and gas was a low $2.15 a gallon. Let us go back to July 2006 and revisit what I said oh those many months ago before I move onwards to the future.

Windows Vista And Office 2007 Overview For NFB Convention In Dallas

You've finished reading all that? No me neither. Quite frankly I was hopped up on coffee and heavy music. Some of it is a blur that's for sure. Well if you didn't feel like going "Back to the Future" then you are in luck. Because I am going to post the key parts that stick out in my mind and comment on them rather than have you reread that whole big diatribe all over again. As always feel free to throw your own take on all this into the comments section.

Here we go!

At the beginning I made a joke about how I seem to be asked to speak right as new versions of Windows are released. I stated that the next time I would be back would be 2011. In retrospect that sounded right, however, I'm more apt to think that Windows 7 will fall between late 2009 and mid 2010. Microsoft has often said that the span between cycles should be three years. Which means if you consider that Vista officialy released to RTM in November 06.. Windows 7 should be on target for a similar release in November 2009. But that would also mean that the Service Pack 1 for Windows 7 would hit in 2011 thereby giving me an excuse to show up again and tell even more bad jokes. Problem solved!

Speaking of funny things, do you remember when MS was playing Twister with release dates?

Quote: 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.

I was speaking about the retail editions there not the OEM and big business editions. Those did go to RTM in November 06. Where I got it wrong, and really this was a shocker, was in the release of Office 2007. In July many of us in the industry were told that Vista would go first then Office. Several AT companies thought that this would give some, not a lot of course, time to work on Vista code for release with some small window of development time built in for Office. That didn't happen. In mid to late August MS changed up the schedule and they announced that both products would be released on the same date.

Sure this decision was a great idea from the marketing, and the cost of said marketing, standpoint. Playing Armchair Quarterback for a second, this plan kind of scuttled some of the buzz on Office. The Office Team finished on time and their product was ready to go for the Summer of 2006. They gladly took the extra time given to them by the schedule change. But for us in AT it meant that one thing would have to take the lead in development. And many people had already said that they would be ready day and date with Vista. As a result almost everyone had to play catch up in Office 07. And as my good friend Curtis Chong predicted Office was the bigger product as it wasn't just a "Vista Only" program. The somewhat tired argument of slow Vista adoption can't be applied to Office 07. In fact the Office sales have been staggering and you rarely see anyone in the mainstream media talking about "Save Office 2003" campaigns.

Moving on, I wanted to get the most important part out of the way first.

Quote: 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.

It has been almost two years from the day I wrote that. And I still feel the exact same way.

Quote: 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.

Yup. Good luck finding anything 9x supported these days. Win2k maybe. But 9x?

Quote: 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.

Darn you NVIDIA and Creative for your bad driver support in Vista!

Ahem, this has always been the call of the tried and true Techno Geek/Nerd. However, you often have to say the most common things over and over again for those buyers and non tech types who are new to the cycle. As we approach Windows 7 I will more than likely end up cut, copying and pasting a lot of this material for the next round of talks on the presentation circuit.  

Now this next bit was probably the most accurate thing I said..

Quote: 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.

Here's what really came to the forefront in the last two years for me. "Accessibility vs. Usability", the consequences of a ATV's  dependence upon a 9 to 15 month whole number release schedule and the real kicker "subscription based sales models" for AT software. Out of those three the most exciting, and beneficial, of the points is the introduction of subscription [or rent to own] AT software. Some may say that this was just a natural and inevitable move for AT to go as non AT was already there or moving to that model. but the pressure of cost with hardware and software also gave rise to the free alternatives that we now see on the net as well.

While I still believe there is a "Digital Divide" of sorts the debate moves for me to the real issue that some will wallow in XP for too long and find themselves even more in shock when Windows 7 arrives. Skipping a version of Office is one thing. Avoiding exposure to a Windows Operating System for the working Blind is another. As XP grows even older it will find its self where Windows 2000 is now. XP Pro is cheaper and easier to implement broadly. When Windows 7 is released it moves the support chain up one level thereby making Vista the cheaper, and only in some cases, option left for some big business. Which means at some point the business environment will cuddle up to Vista because now she is a cheaper date and everyone knows what she likes. I'm gonna stop this one right here but I'll definitely need to come back to this in it's own post.. and with a better way of describing it too. You don't want to know how much I could have gone down that road with long marriage and divorce jokes a plenty.

   In this next portion I am about 50/50.

Quote: 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.

I was sort of right about the Classic thing. In Vista not so much. In Office I was dead on in a way.

Dropping to a semi classic Vista isn't awful. And it certainly won't bar you from being kept out of the loop with the majority of your sighted peers. The benefits of staying with a true Vista feel for the UI are notable though. Especially if you have gigs and gigs of data on multiple drives. Vista's indexing and Start Search [that's the search box integrated into the Start Menu by the way] are really helpful and I feel handcuffed in XP without them. The problem is other people aren't reverting back to Classic. so when others give you navigation, or if you have to follow trouble shooting steps from a list, you end up having to know both interfaces anyway. Rather than sit there and try and remember that this one means you do it in Vista and this is the way I have to do it in fo XP.. I'd rather just do it in Vista and take the good with the bad.

Now in Office 07 it is a completely different story. At the time I wrote this thing in 2006 Office was still in beta. Some of what I saw got changed before release. And to make things more complicated the Ribbon is a much bigger obstacle for Screen Magnification users because Screen Reader users really should be able to take the majority of their key commands over with not too much difficulty. Where both classes of users suffer is in the area of Ribbon exploration and the loss of the File Bar. Want to find that template you used in Office all the time and you didn't set it to your Home menu? Well here is a sandwich, a bottle of water and some traveling music. Good Hunting!

The next quote may make you hurt yourself laughing. Strap yourself down for pure marketing speak.

Quote:  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.

If, and this is a mighty big "IF", you buy into an all Microsoft solution then this isn't off the mark at all. What I didn't see coming was the iPhone, Facebook and the Windows Mobile team stumbling so badly that you would think it was a college student on spring break at midnight. Google's move for Cloud computing is in there somewhere and lack of more broadband penetration is tied in that too. But boy did I drink a little too much Kool Aid that day because I put all my eggs in one basket for sure. This Digital Lifestyle thing is real enough. I just underestimated the web's ability to be the web. Still if Google or a Microsoft/Yahoo does end up being the ultimate aggregator..  No Ranger. Step away from the Kool Aid Man.. "Oh Yeah!".

My next few paragraphs go on to talk about how much garbage can be placed on the screen at one time. This part is true. As 800 by 600 goes away desktop geography changes dramatically. And it requires both Screen Mag and Screen Read users to do a ton more in the way of desktop navigation and exploration.

A giant widescreen is a good thing for screen reading as more of a given sentence can be read or displayed evenly [depending on the program's buffer]. Think of it like having 80 Braille cells in a line rather than 40. Naturally that only works if you have something that is mostly text. Web Developers who scale their pages have this amazing dislike of blank areas on a page. What we get, and what I thought would happen, is that information on a given page ends up anywhere and everywhere with some designs that ignore not only Web Standards but logic as well. That Computerworld article I posted a few weeks back is a beautiful, I'm being sarcastic as usual, example of just how things can go wrong on a design. Just imagine how things will go as resolutions grow higher and text gets smaller and people stray further away from the need to prioritize the space on any given page? Ugh.

And then I went on and mention Gadgets in a round about way. While these little guys are cool and useful, most people I come across end up not using Windows Sidebar. In hindsight Microsoft almost pulled a Windows 98 Channel Bar again. Except this time I actually found Sidebar useful and I didn't remove it from my Desktop immediately like I did with the awful bar in 98. Sidebar is just one of those tools that not everyone gets the beauty held within. And some Sidebars aren't written to be all that AT friendly. Still when it works, or when it talks, doing a Windows + G to get the Weather is fantastic. Of course this also assumes you haven't disabled the thing to save memory on your older hardware. If that is the case then I acknowledge your need for freeing RAM and I slowly back away from your keyboard shortcuts.

I understand from friends and early reports that Sidebar plays a bigger role in Windows 7. so I could be vindicated in 2010. For now I am going to put this ultra visual nightmare prediction in the "loss" column though. The embedded video thing, mentioned along with the Sidebar paragraphs, was on target however. 

Keeping things a rollin', I want to praise the AT Industry for this next part..

Quote: 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.

Many programs do a great job with Office and specifically Ribbon assistance. Last year I was working with a co-worker on a five day Office 07 overview. We noticed that one of our friends was struggling with their software of choice in the Overview sessions when she was trying to follow along with us as we navigated portions of Word. At lunch I secretly switched her AT program with the newest public beta version of that very same program. A Foldger's Crystals coffee strategy. When we all came back from lunch my friend was amazed. She could not believe how much better the response was and the verbal hints aided her greatly.

The trick was that I left everything at defaults and I kind of trashed her old verbosity settings. The defaults for Office were designed to help rather than slow someone down. During the beta cycles a lot of feedback is given to a program maker on how to make something more "out of the box" friendly because not everyone is going to either have professional AT training or, gulp, crack open a help file or manual. Being forced to test under defaults can actually be a neat and enlightening process. Many times i learn that a lot of thought went into the base configuration and, in a lot of cases, I end up making only minor modifications to the defaults rather than wholesale changes.

What can be really discouraging is to see someone ignore a config wizard or other new features right at the moment of install. Then five minutes later you hear a complaint that the program doesn't do something as desired because the settings the person configured don't port well over to the new version of that product. In the offline world I have a particularly long rant about alternative audible cues, multi focus output, the inability for others to accept change and people who ramp speech to 220. But I digress for now. 

Nothing stinks more than learning a new computer, new operating system, new software and a upgrade for your AT product of choice under some imposed deadline. I know because I have been there a few times. Heck at the beginning of this post I even said I was excited about doing this very same thing next month. However, whenever possible of course, you may really want to take the time to sit down and play with a default scheme when you first install an upgrade. You might be surprised at what you may find.

The look back was way too big for one post. Part 2 will be up soon!

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