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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Random Thoughts on a Sunday Morning

JAWS 9.0 Update

 

Last week, I downloaded the latest update to the JAWS 9.0 beta but, having read the release notes and making the assumption that they are mostly true, I think something must have gone wrong with my installation as lots of things I am experiencing do not correspond with the notes on the web site.  It wouldn’t be fair to FS for me to comment on whatever broken installation I have.

 

As for my report on JAWS 9.0 in Vista, I have had to postpone doing any testing as my brand new HP desktop shit the bed last week and we had to ship it back to the factory for repairs.  HP sent us a pre-paid FedEx box and we sent it off but I’ve no idea when it may come back.

 

My Accent Fetish

 

I must admit that I go absolutely nuts for women with an accent different from my own mixture of Jersey and New England.  The only accents I don’t find appealing come from the South Shore of Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island because they seem to combine all of the bad parts of the northeastern accents without any of the charm.

 

On Thursday, I spent about five hours in a dental chair.  The dental assistant came from Russia and had an accent so beautiful I could feel it in my pants pocket.  I did anything I could to keep her talking which helped make the time in the chair pass much more quickly than it would have otherwise.  I could not, however, get her to say, “We must get moose and squirrel.”

 

I guess my accent fetish started while watching Bullwinkle where Natasha Nogoodnik spoke with one of the sexiest voices (along with Jessica Rabbit and Penelope Pitstop) in the history of animation.  She didn’t look especially pretty but her voice stirred my youthful heart in ways I didn’t understand yet.

 

The next major influence on my appreciation of accents came from the mouth of Emma Peel on the Avengers.  As a kid, I didn’t quite get the overtones of S&M and sexual fetishism in the show but I really loved Emma’s voice and those cool leather riding boots and riding crop she always carried.

 

Eartha Kitt, as Cat Woman on the sixties vintage Batman show, wrapped in leather from neck to toe, purring in her cat like manner and speaking with her unique southern African American accent drove me wild when I was about six or seven years old.  I didn’t quite understand why all of that leather and that amazing voice made me feel so warm but I sure loved the feeling.

 

In my teens, I kept falling in love with girls who had accents.  I loved the Jewish girls from Long Island, the Latinas from Union City, the immigrants from Eastern Europe in Manhattan, the girls from the UK whom I met while traveling, the girls from Italy, Spain, Puerto Rico, black girls from Harlem and on and on.

 

As I started traveling around the world, any woman who spoke English with an accent immediately got my attention.  I went all over South America, Asia, North Africa, Central America and Australia and found pleasure in listening to the women talk.

 

More recently, I must admit that my friend Danielle who, although born in Long Island, grew up in London and Paris has the sexiest accent of anyone I know.  Danielle and I have a very close relationship and I think of her more like a sister (a fact that really destroys the fantasy) and her daughter Poppy is very definitely an adopted niece.  So, I love listening but I can’t touch.

 

Wondering About the Future of Software AT

 

Recently, Mike Calvo posted an article to the Serotek Blog called “The Coming Crisis.”  The article consolidated a lot of things Mike has said over the past few years and tells the reader why Serotek has such a different set of priorities and strategies than the more traditional AT software companies.

 

Mike’s article got me thinking about a broader range of challenges that all AT software companies, including Serotek, will have to face in the future.  The biggest obstacle to these companies come in the form of AT distributed without cost to users or institutions and from free (as in freedom with a lower case “f”) AT software that carries the GNU General Public License (GPL) or some other license similar to it.  Some of these screen readers, magnifiers, scan and read programs and on screen keyboards to name a few categories being addressed by the free, open source and without cost communities, are starting to gain some traction.

 

Recently, a friend showed me the new version of VoiceOver that will come with the Macintosh Leopard OS release.  The Apple team has included a number of truly innovative concepts and the software works much better than the version in OSX, Tiger Edition.  Apple includes the open source Safari browser in its operating systems, I recommend that they open up the source and slap GPL on VoiceOver as I am fairly confident that it is not a feature that drives profits in the Macintosh division of their business.

 

As the Apple Accessibility API is not terribly similar to those from Microsoft and Sun, they will probably not lose much to their competition and will probably gain some useful functionality if some hackers add support for iAccessible2 and, perhaps, the Java Access Bridge.  An open source VoiceOver would push the art forward on both Apple and other platforms.

 

On the Windows side, Microsoft includes Narrator which is still not a fully functional screen reader but the Vista version is a major improvement over the one they shipped in XP.  It would also be useful if Microsoft made Narrator open source, slapped on GPL and let the bazillion Windows hackers around the world take a crack at it.  There are a ton of blind programmers who program for Windows who would enjoy the opportunity to hack away at a stable, albeit feature poor, screen reader.

 

A screen reader out of Australia called Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) is already a GPL release.  The software is written in Python and already does a lot of the DOM tricks for Internet and other programs.  The code base is reasonably stable and volunteers from around the world have already translated it into a pile of different human languages.  I know of a number of people who are already designing features and working to add them to NVDA.  This software, largely due to some technical similarities can probably leverage some code from the orca screen reader for GNU/Linux gnome desktop.

 

The gnome desktop first had gnopernicus which failed so miserably that Sun, who led the project, scrapped it entirely and launched the orca initiative.  I’ve been using orca on an Ubuntu distribution and, for what it does, it works pretty well.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t do a lot but it is available in a ton of different languages.  While the gnome desktop tries to make the user experience more similar to Macintosh or Windows, it is still a UNIX like environment and still requires difficult installation procedures, various edits to system text files and a number of tasks that are automated or wrapped in a clean and intuitive interface in Windows and Macintosh.  I like orca and gnome but I’ve also been using UNIX like systems since 1986, well before graphical interfaces arrived in that world and most tasks involved editing obscure text files.  For blind hackers, orca is a good solution.

 

Another GPL screen reader, written mostly in India, is called Screen Access for All (SAFA) and is more similar to screen readers like JAWS and Window-Eyes as it relies heavily on an off screen model (OSM).  If a good hacker could marry the SAFA OSM to NVDA all it would need is a scripting language and a bunch of volunteers to make a solid challenge to the industry leaders.

 

The last screen reader that is distributed without cost but not with source code or a GPL like license is called Thunder.  I haven’t had time to install it yet but I’m told it does a decent job of providing basic access to Windows systems.  Thunder shocked people who follow blindness related AT when they consummated a deal with the European Union to provide their program for free to blinks in Europe.

 

If we do a little math, we would probably find that consumers, dealers, institutions, corporations, educational institutions, etc. probably spend about $25 million dollars on screen readers each year.  Imagine a foundation or consortium that could dedicate less than half of that sum on free screen readers.  This hypothetical group could spend nearly its entire budget on design, development, testing, documentation, tutorials and nearly nothing on sales, marketing, packaging and other overhead items that are necessary for the commercial screen reader vendors.

 

In 2004, my last year at FS, the budget for the software engineering department came to approximately $1.3 million and had responsibility for PAC Mate, JAWS, MAGic, Open Book, StreetTalk, Wynn, various drivers for FS hardware, PAC Mate Remote, FS Reader and likely a few others that I cannot recall at this moment.  Imagine the same budget if spent entirely on a screen reader without distractions from all of the other projects, a team built of AT hackers from around the world, a bunch of volunteers and support from corporations and governments around the globe.

 

I think that someone out there will get something like this going, especially because government agencies, in the US and elsewhere are growing frustrated with high prices and the near monopolies Freedom Scientific and AI^2 have in their market sectors.

 

Is Accessibility A Right or a Privilege?

 

My friend Will Pearson has posted comments to this blog that quotes accessibility legislation in the EU, UK and US.  His quotes point out that such laws state “equal” access to various things.  Section 508 requires that all Federal Electronic and Information Technology purchases be accessible to people with disabilities.  ADA says that “reasonable accommodations” must be made to provide an accessible experience for people with disabilities.

 

Thus far in the United States, major Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) fill out a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) that explains how they meet the 508 requirements for different disabilities.  One prominent feature of many VPAT posted on ISV web sites regarding blindness and deaf blindness is a statement that says something on the order of, “Works with JAWS and/or Window-Eyes and, therefore, is accessible…”  Is such a statement acceptable under the equality clause as it clearly states that, while you can buy an employee a $400 computer, you must also spend between $900 and $1100 for adaptive technology?  Do individuals with disabilities who want to access computers have a right to go to Circuit City, Best Buy or an Apple Salon shop, buy the computer they like the most, bring it home and, like their sighted counterparts, turn it on and start using it by launching a screen reader that comes with the machine and, then, downloading a better one or is it only the privileged few who can afford the $1000 on top of the cost for their new computer?

 

Also, to fill in the blindness and deaf/blind section of their VPAT, an ISV probably needs to enter a relationship with Freedom Scientific or one of the other screen reader vendors.  In some Federal agencies, State, County and municipal governments and centers for the blind like The Lighthouse, the IT people have made the decision to only offer JAWS as they do not want to spend dollars retraining on another program or they prefer the convenience of one stop shopping.  Thus, even if an ISV gets its software working with Window-Eyes or HAL, they often find themselves talking to and paying FS to help them work with JAWS which adds to their cost and makes them a bit less friendly to the entire notion of accessibility.

 

A GPL based, free software solution that provides a scripting facility that uses standard languages (VB, C#, JavaScript, C++, etc.) can provide the ISV with a screen reader they can work with on their own and it will save the entire economy millions of dollars every year.  It will also open more doors to people with vision impairment as the AT can be had by downloading it from an Internet site without any cost to the user or his employer.  It will also promote a cottage industry of people who can help the ISVs extend and configure the software to work with their applications.

 

I can also see a volunteer community growing around such a bit of free AT as, unlike the commercial screen readers, they don’t have to pay $1000 for the right to extend the software themselves. 

 

Mainstream free software, programs like Apache and many others, run most of the Internet.  Numerous studies of “massive collaboration” have demonstrated that, when applied to software, the number of bug’s drops dramatically when compared to commercial programs with the same functionality.  A book called “Wikinomics” describes how massive collaboration works for software but also provides case studies showing how it can work in other, very diverse, markets as well.

 

Of Course, I Might Be Wrong

 

Ted Henter has always made the argument that competition and the free market is what drives innovation in the adaptive technology market.  This may be true.  Delivering a credible free screen reader may damage the commercial AT vendors ability to push the state of the art forward which might also cause the open source screen reader hackers to slow down on their efforts as much of their motivation will be to harpoon the shark.

 

In the past, I have written in this blog on the topic of how the free market and competition doesn’t work well in the AT market niche.  Today, JAWS and ZoomText have monopoly positions.  Both of these products hold shares greater than 80% worldwide and, in some cases, they are the only blindness products available in certain countries. 

 

As I wrote last week, I believe that JAWS 9.0 is much better than any of the last three releases of the industry leader.  I commended the JAWS team for doing a great job to improve quality, reliability and performance.  However, I also think that JAWS 9.0 is light on new features, contains few new ideas and is not innovative in any definition of the word I can find.

 

So, maybe competition fueled innovation in the past but when the leading screen reader and magnifier have virtual monopoly positions, what would motivate them to innovate or take risks by trying new concepts?

 

-- End

6 Comments:

Blogger Matt Campbell said...

Chris, thanks for this thought-provoking post. However, as you might expect, I strongly disagree with your opinion on the benefits of open-source or no-cost AT. I believe it's extremely unlikely that an open-source or non-profit project would match the usefulness and usability of commercial AT. In this rather lengthy comment, I will try to explain why.

Let's consider this statement from your post:

"It would also be useful if Microsoft made Narrator open source, slapped on GPL and let the bazillion Windows hackers around the world take a crack at it. There are a ton of blind programmers who program for Windows who would enjoy the opportunity to hack away at a stable, albeit feature poor, screen reader."

(end of quote)

Does this strike anyone else as naive? Sure, there are a bazillion Windows programmers around the world, but how many of them would have any interest whatsoever in Narrator? Moreover, who would coordinate all of those contributions to produce something that's useful to non-geeks? NVDA seems to fit the description of "stable, yet feature poor"; it's not as feature poor as Narrator, but it's still feature poor in comparison to its commercial counterparts. So if a ton of blind programmers would enjoy hacking away at such a screen reader, then why doesn't NVDA even have all of the features of System Access 1.0?

Before I attempt to answer that question, let me defend the assertion I just made, that NVDA doesn't have all of the features that System Access had at version 1.0. My intent is not to belittle the efforts of Michael Curran and the other NVDA developers. In fact, Serotek has contributed code to the NVDA project in the past. However, I believe that the open-source development model is not well-suited for developing a screen reader. I make the comparison between NVDA and System Access for two reasons. First, as sole developer of System Access thus far, I know its history very well. Second, even we at Serotek considered System Access 1.0 feature poor; though we marketed its strengths aggressively, we knew the product needed more work in certain areas. Yet System Access 1.0 had a few important features that NVDA does not. It seems, then, that this is the best possible comparison I can make between an open-source AT project and a commercial one. So let's zoom in to a level of detail that has been missing from this discussion thus far, to compare NVDA and System Access 1.0 on a few points.

First, System Access 1.0 had an off-screen model (OSM). To be sure, the OSM was in its infancy at version 1.0; it needed much work for version 2.0. Still, the OSM was very useful in some situations. It enabled access to some menus which don't expose item names through MSAA, such as those in RealPlayer. It was able to detect highlighted text, such as in custom list views. It made owner-drawn status bars, such as the one in Skype, accessible. It helped us provide access to the spell checker in Word 2002. In short, an off-screen model is a very important feature that's missing in all of the current free screen readers for Windows. System Access 1.0 had one because we knew it was a must-have, and we realized that even a primitive OSM was appreciably better than no OSM.

Second, System Access 1.0 provided automatic access to the Microsoft Word spell checker. I remember well the time that I spent making System Access work well with the spell checker in different versions of Word; the aforementioned Word 2002 was especially problematic. We knew that the spell checker is one of the most important features of Word and that any serious screen reader alternative for Windows needs to support Word well. In contrast, NVDA doesn't seem to support the spell checker at all. If you press F7 in a document with a misspelled word, you will eventually hear the content of the "not in dictionary" edit box, after NVDA reads the rest of the dialog with a level of verbosity comparable to Narrator. However, as far as I know, NVDA cannot spell the misspelled word. This feature isn't nearly as difficult as the OSM, so why hasn't one of the blind programmers hacking away at NVDA attacked this feature yet?

Third, System Access 1.0 generally presented information in a more intuitive, efficient way than NVDA does. I realize that this is the most subjective of the three features I've mentioned, but I also believe it's more important than the other two. As I mentioned before, NVDA's verbosity is comparable to Narrator's. The result of such verbosity is that users must either listen through a lot of extraneous speech to hear what they want, or master the keyboard commands that are needed to obtain the desired information. Thus, System Access has always aimed to present relevant information automatically while not being too verbose. This is a delicate balancing act, but it's necessary for a product that aims to be useful to a large number of people.

So why doesn't NVDA have these important features of System Access 1.0, which was developed in about three months and released in January 2005? Jamie Zawinski, one of the original programmers at Netscape, gives us a few clues in his rant "Resignation and Postmortem." Among his list of common excuses for why the Mozilla project didn't even release a beta in its first year is this one:

"People only really contribute when they get something out of it. When someone is first beginning to contribute, they especially need to see some kind of payback, some kind of positive reinforcement, right away."

(end of quote)

Unfortunately, many of the features that are most needed in a screen reader, especially a Windows screen reader, are not the kind that can be casually hacked together with an immediate payback to the contributor. Consider the off-screen model. It took me at least a week of full-time work to develop even the primitive OSM that shipped in System Access 1.0. Thus, after a large number of easily implemented features are done, it becomes much harder for casual contributors to help the project, and the features that remain undone are the hard but important ones.

Elsewhere in his rant, Zawinski said:

"There exist counterexamples to this, but in general, great things are accomplished by small groups of people who are driven, who have unity of purpose. The more people involved, the slower and stupider their union is."

(end of quote)

Oddly, he wasn't talking about the Mozilla project here; he was talking about Netscape the company. Still, though he may not have realized it, I believe the same principle applies to open-source projects. What we need is not a large number of volunteers hacking away at an open-source screen reader; we need a small team of dedicated, motivated programmers. And to be sufficiently dedicated to the project, said programmers probably need to be paid to work on it full-time.

We need to consider, then, who currently funds work on open-source AT, and what effect the source of the funding has on the outcome. The most obvious example is Sun. Based on the rate at which Sun's work on GNOME accessibility has moved forward over the past seven years, it's safe to say that Sun's GNOME accessibility team isn't sufficiently "driven," with "unity of purpose," to use Zawinski's words. Considering that Sun is a large hardware and software company whose core business is not accessibility, it's safe to suppose that their chief motivation for funding work on GNOME accessibility is to be compliant with certain legislation, in order to increase sales to government agencies. Thus, those who make high-level decisions about accessibility probably don't care much about producing something that's actually useful to blind and low-vision people.

Consider the history of screen reader development for the GNOME desktop. As Chris rightly noted, the Gnopernicus screen reader failed quite miserably. Yet as of mid-2003, Sun could claim that GNOME was accessible to blind users, albeit barely so. As far as I know, the situation didn't change substantially until mid-2004, when my good friend Marc Mulcahy, who worked for Sun on GNOME accessibility at the time, took the initiative to start developing Orca on his own. He had to get through much corporate red tape just to get Orca released. I've seen evidence that there's still too much bureaucracy in the Sun GNOME accessibility team; refer to the Orca Documentation Series to see what I mean. Perhaps bureaucracy is just another name for what Zawinski describes as a slow, stupid union of too many people. The history of Gnopernicus and Orca is an example of what happens when AT development is funded by a big corporation that has no incentive to deliver truly useful results. Incidentally, Marc left Sun in late 2004 to start working on what is now the LevelStar Icon PDA.

Chris suggests that development of open-source AT could be coordinated by a foundation or consortium with support from corporations and governments around the world. But would the results be any better than what Sun has produced thus far? Would such an organization attract the right people, that is, great programmers who are driven to produce better AT that really improves people's lives? We must also wonder what kind of leadership such an organization would have. I suspect that especially if many large sponsors are involved, politics would get in the way, resulting in less than optimal leadership, which can be at least as harmful as bad or mediocre programmers.

Another problem with no-cost AT is that it would take power away from blind and low-vision people as consumers. In a free market, where companies compete for the consumer's business, the consumer wins. If no-cost AT, open-source or otherwise, were the norm, then most blind and low-vision people would have no say in the development of the available products, because there would be no natural incentive for any particular company or organization to rise to the top. In this light, one might argue that even a temporary monopoly is better. Chris observes that FS and AI Squared have obtained virtual monopoly status in their markets. But they got there by developing great products. And why did they develop great products? To increase their sales during a period when the AT industry was fiercely competitive. Of course, now that they have monopoly status, these companies have apparently stopped innovating. But monopolies won't last; even empires fall. Perhaps the strongest motivation to develop an excellent product is the prospect of a temporary monopoly in an industry fueled by strong competition for the wallets of consumers. If this is so, then no-cost AT would be bad news indeed for blind and low-vision people, as it would kill the catalyst for innovation: money.

Yet another problem with the notion of no-cost AT backed by a non-profit organization or government agency is that it perpetuates a sense of entitlement among blind and low-vision people. No, it's not our fault that we're blind or low-vision. But it's not society's fault either. We shouldn't depend on governments, philanthropists, or anyone else to solve our problems. THey don't have our best interests at heart, anyway; only we do. Remember that by and large, politicians and philanthropists care most about what's in it for them, be it publicity, power, or an appeased conscience. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the rule. It stands to reason, then, that politicians and philanthropists wouldn't really care about providing technology that best meets our needs. No, it's up to us to buy and use technology, assistive or otherwise, that improves our lives.

Mind you, I'm by no means an advocate for the status quo. It's widely accepted that because most current AT products are so expensive, they're purchased mostly by government agencies. This, too, deprives blind and low-vision people of the power that normally belongs to consumers, and perpetuates a sense of entitlement, as discussed above. Furthermore, as Mike Calvo points out in The Coming Crisis, the community of blind and low-vision people at large is grossly underserved by current AT. Yes, FS and AI Squared dominate their markets, but these markets certainly don't represent blind and low-vision people at large. It's odd, then, that the most commonly cited reason for the high cost of AT is the small size of the market. If AT is developed for more than just a niche market, maybe competition will work well again.

The solution is neither high-cost AT that has a virtual monopoly on a small market, nor no-cost AT that isn't widely useful because it lacks the drive of competition for consumers. Rather, the solution is low-cost AT that competes for the business of a large and mostly untapped market. If this happens, then blind and low-vision people all over the world will ultimately win.

2:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can totally relate to having an accent fetish. You can be the biggest asshole in the world, but if you have a British accent, I'll love you anyway. I was born in South Africa and can kind of switch back and forth between South African and Ammerican, but I wish I hadn't lost the accent.

As for jaws 9.0, I couldn't even get it to read listviews with any consistency, though jaws 8 works perfectly. I am still as baffled with office 2007 as ever, but I doubt that this is fs' fault. And .... I want my classic laptop layout back. *whines piteously*.,

9:11 PM  
Blogger Chairman Mal said...

Howdy Comrades!
It’s odd that I would read BC’s post today. I spoke to a Russian lady concerning a defective cable modum this morning, and she was speaking nearly flawless English. She still had not mastered the long and short e sounds in our language, however, and other clues ledme me to conclude that she was likely from Moscow. Moscovites are very proper with their Russian, and it’s obvious when one listens carefully. She was delighted when I thanked her very much and wished her a good afternoon in my badly accented Russian. Perhaps, Chris should purchase the Dictionary of Russian slang before making another dental appointment. Be careful and study beforehand. I still cringe from the memory of telling a Frenchman who worked for Raytheon that “I recently baked a cat.” Onward through the fog and GoRedsocks!
Regards,
Chairman Mal
Power to the Peeps!

12:00 AM  
Blogger TheBlindTech said...

lol about your hp. my mac has been running for years! 24x7. so ble! also leopard is out! its out leopard is here!!!! all you windows users bow down!

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blindtech,

I, and I am sure many others, are getting sick of these "Apple are so great. Windows users bow down!" ramblings.

I have actually thought of getting a Mac, but am afraid that if I try to ask a question about using the Mac, I'll get a response from hundreds of blind Mac users going, 'OMG u use Windows u r not cule n00b!"

If people want to use Windows, fine! If they want to use a Mac, fine too! People need to grow up and stop attacking people who don't use the same operating system as them.

P.S. If I have offended anybody here, I apologize. i am extremely tired, but had the urge to speak up which can get me in so much trouble.

6:12 PM  
Anonymous Jake said...

Hey everyone. I really enjoyed reading this post, as I have all of them thus far. Regarding the latest beta update to JAWS 9, I installed it and attempted to type out my grocery list for the week using MS Word 2003. For some reason I could not get anything to read. None of the letters even seemed to come out, as I only heard repeated blanks when navigating around the screen. So I exited Word without a care as to whether or not my grocery list had been properly saved. I do have my trusty Braille writer up in my new apartment anyway. So then I launched Outlook Express with this latest beta, and the same problem occurred. At that point I knew it was time to downgrade to JAWS 8, so I did that. I may or may not send in a bug report. As I have stated here before, I think FS has tech support that is perhaps unmatched by a lot of places. Regarding free vs. paid for software, I just have this to say. I think it is rather unfortunate that a lot of adaptive software, including JAWS, comes with such a high price tag. What about those people on limited incomes, or perhaps even those people who cannot get any type of support from their state voc/rehab agencies? The latter has been the case with me. I had to install NVDA at work because, despite numerous tries at contacting my state VR agency and telling them what I needed, nobody listened. This of course is not to say that NVDA is in any way a bad screen reader. In fact I really like NVDA, and I think it has tremendous market potential. I just wish these VR agencies would stop being so arrogant and actually listen to their clients. Or are we customers? Honestly I don't care anymore, as I'm pretty damned sure my days with VR are over.

8:47 PM  

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