Monday, January 18, 2010

A Look Back At 2009: Part 2

Here are two more stories from the year that was 2009.

Windows 7 and same-day screen reader access

As I said in the Blind Bargains Top 11, the fantastic ability for many players in AT to have launch day versions up and running is unto its self a great story. But in a way it is also a reflection of the times we live in now.

Back when Vista was still in the 5 year gestation phase of development, getting anyone to discuss their plans for betas, let alone full product, releases was like pulling teeth with a rusty pair of plyers. I should know well because many would run and hide from me when I approached their booths at CSUN each year. I believe that was back when I coined the phrase “Look, I know this is like beating a dead horse with a straight cane but.. “. Conversations eventually went like this..

Ranger: “Hi!”

AT Rep: “No.”

Ranger: “no? No to what?”

AT Rep: “You know darn well what. Vista… the answer is no.”

Sheepish looks, and innocent appeals to their nature, with questions like  “What about the children?” usually got me beaten over the head with whatever was being given away that year in the booth. And despite what you might think, those rubber sharks can leave a mark. Glad the famous cookie jars were no where to be found. I wasn’t alone in my barrage of inquiries as a blanket generic statement was memorized by all Reps for distribution in the case where anyone uttered the dreaded “V” word.

Vista’s launch, however, turned out to be an interesting snapshot of how tastes and needs were changing. One particular AT company saw a big jump in the number of users who were either interested in Vista or who were already running the OS with their product via the public beta program. In fact,  if nothing else, Vista and 7 have cemented the need for a public beta because it truly expands the scope of the product prior to its official release. 

The rise in the technical level of Blind users in the last five years is staggering. Just look at the number of good sites, podcasts and social media mavens who have come online and made their voices heard as a result of increased access to both Apple and Windows.  Not to mention Mobile and the drive for more to speak about Blind Gadget Culture. Vista, and now 7, showed many in the business that we Blind folk just won’t sit around waiting for the doors to be open on big named devices and software. Hence the “must have” calls for 7 to be ready with your access solution of choice.

Not to say that it was easy but.. 7 development was not nearly as hard as it was for Vista. 7, despite what some have claimed, is not Vista 2.0. However that particular spherical shaped object didn’t fall all that far away from the tree who spawned it actually. So, minus a few hurdles, existing code could be modified from Vista to give us suitable launch day versions of many AT products.

There is another side to the coin and to borrow a catch phrase from the famous Paul Harvey “Page 2!”.

For around three years now I’ve heard tons of mess about Microsoft and how it should be like Apple in the Mac’s new found approach to access. I’ve sat through more debates on “Bolt On Vs. Baked In”, “Screen Scrape Vs. Screen Grab” and “Off Screen Model Vs. Flavor of the Week” than I can count. Now I believe these discussions to be fruitful but man did they ever multiply.

Moreover, I also have been somewhat of an AT Oral Historian in many offline circles. History does repeat and I find myself being more of a curmudgeon on meetings that show me a utopia where all applications are easy to read and full of wonder. This semi negative pessimism can generally be attributed to the dark humor that surrounds the computer industry as a whole, however, my hands are a bit scarred from previous attempts at sticking them into the fire from previous claims that made similar types of promises. 

I was a user on the front lines of a zillion versions of DOS. I was a user during the infamous stare down with Microsoft over Windows 95. Additionally I’ve survived numerous releases of Office. And I, like Microsoft, have been between the hammer and the anvil several times over the years in regards to access. The tools that were forged over time are ones that let me compete with others on equal footing and I appreciate that access ,for MS, has gained a better focus in the design of products to come. I give pause though if future access means a more Apple like approach.

The strength that has evolved for Windows is that the software  is a ubiquitous platform that has numerous partners who give it ample support. If the restaurant doesn’t serve Coke then sometimes Pepsi will do in a pinch. Or, as we are seeing more and more, if Dr. Pepper is on sale then it scratches the ich on one’s need to be budget conscious. I could extend this flimsy example further about ordering watter instead and the use of NVDA .. Naaahhh…

The point is that you aren’t forced to drink one flavor of soda. I don’t care how good it tastes, eventually, you will find that you need more from your soda in some arena. Having a market of choices means that competition will always force the drive to improve any product. Therefore, we have diet, energy and other drinks you may wish to try to quench your thirst with when looking around for what fits your particular pallet.

Mixing metaphors aside, some feel that this is a dead argument because Narrator isn’t as good as all the other options on the planet. Including the Thunder Screen Reader. What if I told you that Narrator was in the process of getting a serious facelift? Read on..

At CSUN in 2006 a co-worker and I sat in the big ballroom where Microsoft was going to outline their upcoming commitment to access for Vista and Office. The room was all a titter because a press release had also just dropped on Vista and Office 07’s plans to use their Wonder Twin powers in one giant move to co-market their respective launches. There is nothing like the fear and panic in a Rep’s eyes and voice when something gets announced that they had no clue about. And this was the case that day in Los Angeles.

The team was frantically on their cell phones, email and Power Points. Changes looked to be in flux and the phrase “uh, that is what we can say today” was uttered a few more times than it usually would in a similar venue. The course correction for Microsoft came later but that day they discussed the following “Ease of Access” options.    

Minor improvements to Narrator, updated On Screen Keyboard, no change to Magnifier, On Screen Alerts for the Deaf, Speech Recognition and Cognitive Enhancements.

The last one in the list never surfaced. It was demonstrated sure but I’ve never heard hide nor haire of it since 2006. From what I remember, the style of the feature acted in some ways like the methods Screen Magnifiers use to highlight buttons and other controls in modes like Focus Enhancements. Perhaps one day this part of EOA will return. I’d be interested to see it if it ever does. There were many I served in my tech support days who I think who could qualify as the target market.

Anyway, back on track, a lot of the discussion time was given to Vista’s Speech Recognition. It was said that this portion of access was the first to be given the new look and feel for Microsoft. More would come either through Service Packs or in future Windows releases.

And it did. Speech Recognition improved greatly not just in Windows but in Windows Mobile as well. Not the phones mind you, but in the offshoot of Windows Mobile that became Windows Automotive. If you have heard Leo at TWIT talk about Ford Sync then you have heard an ad for Windows Automotive. Microsoft technologies have an annoying habbit of not being integrated across their platforms. They do, surprisingly enough, steal tech from one another for big projects. Speech Recognition tech was just such a high profile project.

Windows 7 advanced Windows Magnifier. If you run in the AERO version of 7 you can enable Magnifier on the fly by pressing the Windows Key with either the number pad’s plus or minus keys. AERO allows Windows 7 to use a full screen magnifier mode instead of the narrow banner ad like strip of magnification found in previous flavors of Windows. The key is the full screen version goes away if you use a Mirror Driver that would snap you back to a non AERO version of 7. Which means you would have to use System Access, or something else, if you wanted to use Windows Magnifier with Screen Reader assistance.

Now follow me here, if Magnifier and Speech Recognition saw an an improvement, what would come next in an upgrade of on board options for MS? Before you answer consider the following items in the paragraph below.

Apple has Voiceover, Google has Talkback and even Linux has.. stuff. Microsoft, and some other big tech names, have given the NVDA project money for future releases. If the current needs for increased security to be built in to future applications remains a constant part of development, then who better than Microsoft to show how that could be done without our current forms of AT?

All signs point north and I’m anxious to see what comes in the talks on Windows 8 in the next 6 to 8 months. Remember that MS has committed to the three year life cycle again. Which means that if true, a public beta will arise from the depths in about 24 months or less. Regardless if it is good or bad, for me I’d have to say bad, a better version of Narrator is coming. and it is coming sooner than some would expect. One thing is certain, as MS improves the state of their products the rest of the Industry will have to justify themselves in new and exciting ways in order to stay competitive with the many free models of AT spawning onto the scene. 

Book Sense

The Book Sense is an amazing piece of kit that I adore. I used an ARCHOS 604 as my main player for years. It has a display that is as big as most hand held Video Magnifiers. And while not sporting speech, it wasn’t Rockbox friendly, it let me change the color and the fonts enough to make it serviceable for what I wanted it to do on my daily commute.

I have many friends with a victor Reader Stream, and I’m in no way putting that device down in the slightest, but it never caught on with me. I was in love with the Book Sense the first day I held it though. The size, weight, interface and that blessed switch for the key lock. mmmm… I pre-ordered mine right then and there. I had no idea how the clock, radio and support for docx. would save my bacon until later on when I made my goodbyes with the ARCHOS.

the $64,000 question remained on if someone could dethrone the King of all Blind friendly players. The question, and some of us in the wings, were stunned by the reception the unit got at its unveiling at Convention.

To say that there was a rush on the G.W. booth would be an understatement. I saw credit and debit cards outstretched eagerly to the gang in the booth. And when their machine went down, the throngs hit the ATMs. It was truly shocking to see how fast they were purchased honestly.

That isn’t my reason for choosing it for the list however. That inspiration springs from this intrepid soul who decided to take an improvised poll on if each person who left the booth already had a Stream in their possession. 60% of more than 20 people polled said they already had a Victor Stream. While this is in no way a scientific method for determining buying habbits, it did show that brand loyalty and the better mousetraps ideals were in a state of upheaval.

It also got me to thinking about the rise of products coming from overseas. Also, how often would someone buy the same thing with similar features rolled through my mind’s lint brush too. Better yet, at what price does it trigger someone to buy the same thing again? Or when is good vs. price vs. good enough helping or hurting the community? I’m all down with the idea of cheaper products, however, I’m not sure if I want to start a product cycle where you replace your treasured items every 20 to 36 months at the current prices seen in the market for lots of things. This thought is why I didn’t go with the iBill on the Top 11 list. It is a cool doo dad. I’m just not sure if it harkens the bountiful harvest that others are hoping for in the cry for cheaper and durible products.

This series centers around me being more opinionated than usual. In no way do I suggest that you subscribed to the points I view here, or anywhere for that matter  on the thoughts that emanate from my fevered brain. I invite you to toss your thoughts into the comments section, email me or hit me up on Twitter. I love to debate these things and I love even more to have someone show me the errors in my ways. Part 3 is in the works, and barring real life, it will be up soon.

1 comment:

John Herzog said...

Hi Ranger,
First, I want to say that it is always good to read the opinions of someone who is well informed about technology. I am, however, a bit surprised that you seem somewhat pesimistic about built in screen reader technology, and what it will offer the market. You expressed a view that is similar to one I have heard many times before. The built in technology will force other competitors out of business, and blind people will only have one main choice for their AT. I appreciate choice as much as the next guy, but really, when you look at it, how much different are screen readers from one another now anyway? System access, JAWS, window-eyes, and NVDA all support word, outlook, explorer, firefox, and at least one instant messaging program. Yet, not one of them supports microsoft Money. Not one supports the newer versions of quicken or turbo tax. Not one of these products, without a lot of tinkering first, supports WordPerfect X4, which is used in many law firms. As a student in law school, I find this quite problematic. And, so far as I know, not one supports Microsoft One note, Microsoft groove, or even most flash content, which now just shows up as unlabeled buttons that do not work when you click on them.
I understand that there are different methods and keystrokes each program uses to give us access to IE, firefox, outlook, etc. but the analogy of different sodas is really not applicable here. Instead, the changing of keystrokes and in what order information is presented is like giving blind folks the same kind of soda with the same flavoring, and a slightly different level of carbonation from each fountain.
Let's face it, the market has not worked well for giving us access to software on its own. Long gone are the days of JAWS 3.7 when you got compelling access to third party suites like PC anywhere, family tree maker pro, Compton's encyclopedia, etc. The market has somehow stooped to a minimum of supporting only microsoft products, and not even all of them at that. Thus, I think the addition of narrator will truly spark some innovation, as companies will have to, gasp, make some other programs accessible, in order to receive more money from the consumers and governmental agencies. Will narrator be perfect? Nope. Is voiceover or Orca perfect? Absolutely not. But, like every screen reader, narrator will have areas in which it will excel, giving blind folks more weapons to use in their arsenal.