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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

JAWS 9.0: First Look with Windows XP

Over the weekend while in my hotel room in Minneapolis, I downloaded and installed the JAWS 9.0 public beta.  Yesterday, back home in Florida, I downloaded and installed the first bug fix patch to the beta software.  After I install it on Windows Vista and do some tests on the newer OS, I will report on my experience with JAWS 9 and the fixes its release notes discuss.  Also, when I run it on Vista, I will try it out with Office 2007.  Anything I mention about Office 2007, though, must be read with great skepticism as I don’t know it anywhere nearly as well as I do Office 2003 and I will assume that there will be a high probability of user error.

 

Yesterday, I did some tests in Windows XP on my one and a half year old, highly generic Toshiba laptop using IE 7 and Office 2003.  This post describes my findings thus far.  As all such reports contain highly subjective information, I will begin by discussing my highest priorities as what one person feels is valuable may be of no use to another.  Also, the release notes mention a number of new features for users with refreshable Braille displays – because my Braille skills are poor and I have no display attached to my computer, you should look elsewhere for information on such as I have no opinion on those matters.

 

My biggest complaint about JAWS 7 and 8 was the poor performance and bugginess in MS Word.  With great frequency, I need to work on fairly long documents with 25,000 words or more.  While using the two previous JAWS upgrades, I would switch to Window-Eyes when in Word as reading and editing Word documents became unusably slow with JAWS when one approached 5,000 words and it got much worse in longer documents.

 

My second priority is support for VisualStudio as I spend a lot of time using it and believe that FS should support it out-of-the-box.  I often use Skype and would like to see it supported by default in JAWS.  Recently, I have been using gmail a lot and would like to see it supported without needing to switch to the basic html mode.

 

As I’ve been discussing for the 21 months since I started BC, I would like to see the AT vendors, including FS, start paying more attention to interface models that users can employ to improve their productivity.  I would like to see greater use of sound, stereo and 3D audio effects, haptics and other concepts that I am not smart enough to think up on my own.

 

With that said, I will state that, for my single highest priority, using Word to write and edit long documents, JAWS 9.0 passes with flying colors.  My first test of JAWS 9 with Word 2003 included a Word document version of the BC item I wrote about 3D Web Interfaces a couple of weeks ago.  I don’t know the Word count in that document but JAWS 9 did an excellent job of reading it by line, by word and in a SayAll.  I then loaded a 25,000 word proposal I had worked on for a research project; again, JAWS 9 did an excellent job in every reading mode I tried.

 

One “feature” or “bug” (I’m not sure if it happened intentionally or not) in Word is that JAWS 9 reads the text augmentations by default during a SayAll.  These items like “non-breaking space” or “hyperlink field” break one’s attention on the content of the document and, in my opinion, should be turned off by default during a SayAll.  If this feature was requested by a lot of users out there who have a different opinion on the matter from my own, I’m sure I can turn it off in a configuration dialogue somewhere which will solve my dislike of the extra spoken text.

 

One long standing bug with JAWS in Word that I find very annoying remains.  Specifically, when Word puts up some dialogue like objects (the one that comes up when the auto-saved document is newer than the one you had opened for editing) JAWS can only see it using the JAWS cursor but, using the PC cursor the text in one’s document is partially obscured.  To close such dialogues, a user needs to poke around with the JAWS cursor to find a close button or get sighted help to click on the standard close box as the JAWS cursor can’t seem to identify it.  I’ve lived with this bug for a long time and thought something at the heart of a screen reader made it impossible to handle but such dialogues work very nicely with System Access so I know the problem can be fixed.

 

Overall, though, JAWS 9 kicks ass in Word 2003 and I’m happy to report that I no longer need to change screen readers to write long documents.

 

My second set of priorities are the applications JAWS supports by default.  On this matter, JAWS 9 using the application scripts and configurations shipped with the product fails.  To use VisualStudio .Net, one still needs to use the scripts written by Jamal Mazrui and the gang on the blind programming mailing list.  Skype is only supported with scripts one needs to get from Doug Lee but, although Skype is probably the most popular communication package out there today, the powers that govern JAWS features include AIM and MSN Messenger instead. 

 

The JAWS 9 release notes claim that it supports gmail in the standard (not basic html) mode.  My findings while using this yesterday is that JAWS 9 works better than JAWS 8 in the standard gmail interface.  I would not, however, describe its performance as “usable” at this point in the beta cycle.  I reported a pile of gmail issues to the folks at FS yesterday and hope to see them addressed before the final release of JAWS 9.0.  This is another area in which System Access outperforms the newest JAWS release.  I can’t speak to Window-Eyes with gmail as I haven’t tried it yet.

 

When Jonathon Mosen stated in the latest FSCast that one can use the word “innovative” to describe JAWS 9.0, I think that he and I must use very different dictionaries as our definitions of “innovative” seem radically different.  Jonathon may have been referring to some of the new Braille features that I cannot discuss with any credibility as I haven’t tried them and, even if I did try them, my Braille skills are so poor that I couldn’t give anything approaching a useful opinion.

 

If, however, Jonathon meant that the features that speech users get in JAWS 9.0, I must disagree entirely.  The copy and paste html documents with formatting preserved is kind of neat but does anyone really think of this as an actual innovation on the scale of something like Quick Keys or Speech and Sounds Manager?

 

Supporting the latest beta of AIM is more of the same old same old and I’m fairly certain it will show up in the other screen readers fairly soon as well.  Other items listed in the “What’s New” are very nice and some even rise to the level of nifty but none come all the way up to “cool” and definitely do not fall into my understanding of innovative.

 

As for Jonathon’s use of the adjectives, “stable” and “improved performance,” I agree entirely.  JAWS 9.0 is downright peppy and in the programs I use a lot it seems to work better than ever.  For users who spend a lot of time in Word, I think this is the best release since the JAWS 5.xx series coupled with Office XP.

 

Like my friend Darrell Shandrow wrote in his Blind Access Journal blog last week, I think that 9.0 is a very good release of the leading screen reader.  I also agree with Darrell, though, that this release probably did not warrant an upgrade that cost the users an SMA but, rather, should have come out as an update with a version number like 8.5 as, in my opinion, the most impressive aspects of JAWS 9.0 actually remedy problems in 7.0 and 8.0 which we users also paid for with our SMA dollars.  My personal opinion is that bug fixes and performance enhancements belong in free updates and new features which seem pretty scarce in 9.0 should go into paid for upgrades.

 

Of course, if I was still inside FS I would be screaming praise for this release as I would have experienced what I am confident was a ton of very hard work by the programmers, scripters, testers and, of course, Eric Damery to get this release out the door.  When viewing FS from the outside in, one tends to be blind to just how hard some of the challenges that face the team really are and how much effort the team puts in to get releases (updates and upgrades alike) out the door.  This is also true for the guys at GW Micro, Serotek and Dolphin but as I know the people who work on JAWS personally, I tend to think of them first when I think about working whacky hours to get some software ready for prime time.

 

Afterward

 

There is one problem that exists in every screen reader I have ever tried.  Specifically, when one writes in English and puts something in quotations that ends with a comma, the comma goes inside of the quotation marks.  When one reads such a sentence aloud, though, the pause comes after the closing quotation mark.  Thus, one might read, “quote The pause should come after the quotation mark end quote pause” but, using every screen reader I’ve tried to date, with a punctuation level set to speak quotation marks puts the pause before the close quote.  I don’t know how hard this would be to fix but it would be a welcome change for all of us who do a lot of writing.

 

-- End

5 Comments:

Anonymous Dan TeVelde said...

I would like to respond to the issues of using JAWS with Braille. since I migrated to Windows in my job I have used a variety of Braille displays. I find Braille support in Windows disappointing since screenreader vendors look at Braille as an afterthought. In the case of Freedom Scientific the situation is further complicated by the fact that they sell displays and despite their rhetoric to the contrary, they aren't really interested in supporting third-party displays. I think this is unfortunate since it locks the blind user into having few options to use Braille. I have only used a PowerBraille display so I can't comment on the focus displays. I have used other third-party Braille displays which have inovative features like an extra vertical row of Braille cells, and an a joystick like access bar which allows ovement of the Braille display in all directions. At least users of other screenreaders can chose from the complete variety of screenreaders on the market and don't have to worry that the vendor for their screenreader will only support one product. Freedom Scientific also doesn't offer some features in their Braille displays like Bluetooth connectivity. I also find their technicians less than helpful when providing Braille support. I am using JAWS 8 and JAWS won't display quotation marks in Microsoft Word at least on my computer at work. A technician gave me a solution which didn't work. A related issue to Braille which none of the screenreader vendors want to address is the possibilty of using haptics as an aid in reading the screen. Access to graphical information is essential for blind peope to compete in today's work environment. Using Braille embossers and proprietary graphics software is a cumbersome solution. There are already products on the market which provide tactile feedback which could be useful to a blind person. Yesterday I was reading about the Novint Falcon and it sounds fascinating. i also read that Applie has a haptic interface for their new phone which simulates butons on a flat touch screen. Whether this particular approach works I don't know but it is worth trying. Unfortunately, only using Braille and speech means that a blind person is using a translation method of dealig with computers and not interacting in terms of how sighted people use them. If we had access to geraphics in realtime it might be easier to commnicate with sighted people when we run into accessibility problems. It would also help us compete on their terms. the only dynamic graphics display device we have ever had which was widely available waqs the optacon which provides information in real tiime. I used one in high school Spanish class and was interested to know what an accent mark looked like. Using a scanner doesn't provide this information since the accented letter would be translated into an ASCII value. If anyone wants to pursue this topic further e-mail me at dan.tevelde@comcast.net. finally, I think we need more partners in the assistive technology field who would have a vested interest in trying other approaches to provide accessibility. Universities all over the world work on fascinating research projects which I read abot from ti8me to time. why not tap into this valuable resource instead of allowing the screenreader vendors to continue the status quo.dan.tevelde@comcast.net

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Jake said...

Hi BC and Dan. I have had the beta of JAWS 9.0 for just over a week, and I really like it. Specifically, I like the reorganization of the Adjust JAWS Options and the Startup Wizard. This version also seems to cut down on some speech such as saying, Virtual PC as opposed to Virtual PC Cursor, and so on and so forth. One thing which I'd really like to see improved upon, and which has yet to happen, is this: When reading a list of items and there is only one item contained in the list, JAWS always announces "List of 1 Items," as if 1 were actually in the plural. But overall I am really happy with this beta so far. I haven't devoted as much time as I'd of liked to with it though, since I'm in the process of moving to another apartment within my complex. I have also not used VISTA yet so will refrain from commenting on JAWS 9.0's performance there.

6:26 PM  
Anonymous Will Pearson said...

Having studied linguistics and communication for a while now it doesn't surprise me that Jonathan and yourself associate different meanings with words. We all have our own vocabularies, gramatical rules, and pronunciations that are unique to us , and this concept of what we know about our language is called an idiolect. For the most part people's idiolect follows the standard diolect for their country of origin, as that is what they are taught in schools, but deviation from these standard diolects is very common. These differences between idiolects and the misinterpretation that often arise from differences in idiolects has given rise to the whole split between semantics and pragmatics and all the conferences and academic journals dedicated to the topic. Given this, what does surprise me is that we can actualy use natural language to communicate at all. Maybe basing an entire user interface on natural language isn't such a good idea after all. Oh, wait, isn't that what screen readers do?

One thing that I've been thinking about a lot recently are the differences between accessibility and equality. The two concepts are often used interchangeably. For example, people often believe that if something is accessible then blind people have equal access to that thing. I'm starting to conclude that accessibility and equality are not interchangeable concepts, at least not yet. I recently took a look at the web sites for screen reader vendors, blindness charities, and accessibility consultancies. I found that every website that I visited contained a host of inequalities between blind and sighted users to that website, which is amusing given that quite a lot of the websites that I visited contain statements that the organisation promotes equality. These websites were accessible according to what I believe to be the general definition of accessible but they failed to provide equality. This state of affairs certainly goes against the spirit of disability discrimination legislation if not the legislation itself.

Whilst most of the inequalities arise as a result of how screen readers present information and facilitate navigation I also found inequalities that could have been rectified by changes in the design of the websites. Part of the problem seems to be that people are designing things to be used by screen reader users and not by blind people. By this I mean that people are only designing things to support the features of a screen reader and often not designing things to meet the needs of blind people. One good example is navigation. Blind people cannot switch their attention based on perceptual groupings, because screen reader user interfaces don't currently allow for this, and this slows down navigation and information processing; however, similar functionality could be included in a website using same page links, and this would mean that navigation and information processing would be more effective and efficient. Whilst a lot of people encourage websites to use structural HTML tags, such as those for headings, this isn't the same as switching attention between perceptual groups. The reason why structural HTML is promoted whilst perceptual groups aren't is that navigation by structural HTML is a feature of a screen reader and is therefore considered to be a requirement for accessibility. So, designing to meet the needs of screen reader features does not provide equality.

Whilst I think that the screen reader vendors have a large part to play in providing equality I also think that other people have a part to play as well. One group that have an important part to play is ourselves as blind people. We need to change the idea of accessibility from being compatibility with a screen reader to being real equality, or as near to it as we can get. It's pretty laughable that organisations that calim to promote the interests of blind people actually treat them unequally, and maybe it's these organisations that we should deliver the message to first.

6:28 AM  
Anonymous Richard Wells said...

As a public critic of Freedom Scientific, when they do something right, I would like to acknowledge it:
1. JAWS 9, while not particularly innovative as far as new features is concerned, it seems to have been optimized for speed. Both on my Vista Business machine and on a laptop running XP home, I find the performance to be far above any JAWS version I have used and I have been using this product since 3.2.
2. Public thanks goes to Eric Damery for honoring the SMAs I brought with me to Henter=joyce/Freedom Scientific, to Peter Ruscoe and Grant Patterson for their help in working out a couple of authorization issues!
3. If you have not yet used the latest version of FS-Reader... Freedom Scientific's DAISY reader... the desktop version, you have not seen what is in my humble opinion the best application of its type. The user interface is intuitive. It has the best sounding audio speech rate experience I have ever heard.

Whatever we may think of Freedom Scientific from a corporate decision standpoint, they still attract some of the best developers around.

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to break up the lovefest but.

Why did it take almost a year for Freedom Scientific to create what people are saying is "better Vista support" when everyone else was there months ago? And why do you have to pay twice for that support? After all 8.0 was meant to be the catalyst for upgrades promising Vista support last year. Oh wait there is a catch of course. Only those who have paid FS more money by being an up to date SMA holder get to even play with their support while it is in beta. Then what was given from all that free feedback from the public was reheated leftovers from the Public beta cycle. Now in JAWS 9, and now two SMAS later thank you, we are given the support for Vista and Office 2007 that other programs have worked out for themselves months earlier. And in some cases that support came for free with no restrictions.

I am all for improved JAWS folks but to play this carrot and the stick for it and Magic and all the other FS products is getting old and it is getting expensive. It is also anti competitive when you begin to tie all your other products together in ways that the other commenter spoke of above with the Focus. JAWS is not itunes and a Focus is not an ipod. Writing code to promote your own line of braille displays is one thing. But controling the same code to give yourself a leg up on features is a whole unique problem all on its own.

What you have to ask yourselves is 9.0 too little too late when there are so many better alternatives on the market today for far less cost than the yearly SMA. I wish they would just go to a subscription model and be done with it. In that situation you wouldn't have to justify each whole number upgrade and you could cut down on the need to market your product each year as new and improved". Updates would just be updates. Plus in this way you avoid many of us crying "money grab" too.

4:57 AM  

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