A number of years ago, I published some articles in this blog that were very critical of Apple and the early versions of its VoiceOver screen reader. Specifically, I compared it to the high powered Windows screen readers like JAWS, System Access, Window-Eyes and NVDA. For these articles, I was blasted by friends like Gabe Vega and by my harshest critics as well. These people agreed on one thing: VoiceOver was in its early stages of development and should not, therefore, be compared to software that has had the luxury of many years of development and testing. I call this failed logic, “The Model T Syndrome.”
The source of the term “Model T Syndrome” is, of course, the automobile industry and we need to look to it as an example of new product introductions. In 2009, General Motors went into bankruptcy and was bailed out by the US Federal government with taxpayer dollars. In 2010, GM had recovered profoundly and went public again making a terrific profit for our government and its underwriters.
How did GM go from a corporate baskets to a shining IPO? They started building automobiles and trucks with exciting new designs and state of the art technology. The Chevy Volt electric car is perhaps the finest example of the new General Motors engineering successes.
The Chevy Volt, advertised as “more car than electric,” is the most interesting entry into the mass market electric car space. The Volt is not a hybrid but the first major entry into the purely electric car space. The Volt is 100% state-of-the-art technology and is an unapologetic bit of serious innovation.
What would have happened if General Motors, instead of building new, interesting and exciting vehicles instead built several new designs that were immediate derivatives of Henry Ford’s legendary Model T? While this question sounds completely absurd, it is, nonetheless, the statement made by many people with vision impairment every time a shitty new screen reader that at best, limps along providing support hardly better than JFW or Window-Eyes 1.0.
Recently, this discussion has been most frequently focussed on Android accessibility and its TalkBack screen reader. TalkBack was less than useful on Android 2.1, it got worse on 2.2 and, as some things were fixed in 2.3, other general accessibility issues were broken. Perhaps its most glaring shortfall is that it still does not support web browsing on Android handsets. that’s right folks, a screen reader that does not support web controls being developed and distributed by a huge major corporation with insanely great levels of resources in 2011.
Might I say that this is the equal to of building a Model T based automobile in the second decade of the 21st century? Sure, the Model T was a great car a century ago and JAWS 1.0 was a great program in 1995 but trying to sell either today is absolutely absurd.
To further emphasize the ridiculous nature of Android accessibility we should take a look at Spiel, an Android based screen reader written outside of Google by our friend Nolan, a really sharp free software hacker. Nolan has a full time day job where he does not work on Spiel, a screen reader that performs equally well to TalkBack in all areas that TalkBack does work and also adds a powerful scripting facility not present in TalkBack. Spiel is more useful than TalkBack and was written entirely using the resources of a young blind hacker in his spare time. Like talkBack, Spiel has some serious limitations resulting from severe failures in the Android accessibility stack. Nolan cannot fix this and the people at Google apparently choose to ignore the needs of users with disabilities and make absolutely no improvements to their fundamental accessibility support. In screen reading, Google, one of technology’s biggest players, has been outperformed by Nolan, a lone hacker working in his spare time. Google builds a Model T and acts like we should be awed by their software and be grateful that a multi-billion dollar company does anything that may even be of marginal value to our community.
Why then does our community so often jump for joy like puppies being offered a Milk Bone when everyone else is eating steak? Frankly, I do not know. When VoiceOver sucked, I was slammed for saying so and I’ll bet that there are people out there who will blast me for saying such things about Android accessibility as well. They will say that TalkBack is still just a version 1.x and shouldn’t be compared by the now excellent VoiceOver. These people will give Google a free pass and like the puppies yap happily for a portion of a biscuit while our sighted friends enjoy the rich experience of a full Android system.
It is true that Apple has improved VoiceOver into a very credible competitor on Macintosh and the absolute leader on portable devices but this does not excuse the miserable performance of the early VoiceOver releases. If Google improves Android accessibility and builds a screen reader as usable as VoiceOver, they should be celebrated but, for now, releasing a tremendously flawed “Model T” release that actually does less than JAWS For Windows did in 1995 is inexcusable. Google, Microsoft, RIMM, Palm and all other OS vendors that do not have a native screen reader built into their platform that is at least as useful as the current version of VoiceOver should be shunned by our community until they start building accessibility that is state-of-the-art.
If we look at Spiel and NVDA on Windows we can observe that tiny to small teams with little or no money can build outstanding accessibility products, we must ask the question, “Why can’t Google, Microsoft, Ubuntu, Palm, RIMM, Nokia and others build a credible AT stack and a screen reader that can compete with VoiceOver, JAWS, NVDA and other high performance solutions?” and “When will our community stop giving a free pass to companies and organizations that continue to build the Model T?” If we compare Google’s annual income to that of our friend Nolan, I’m willing to bet that the ratio would be close to an infinitely greater level of resources, why then aren’t we seeing at least a far greater level of commitment to accessibility than can be put forth by a really smart young man in his spare time?