On Saturday, I found it surprising that Friday’s article on Apple’s ridiculous claim to having invented the self-voicing interface and having made it all the more unique by adding the fairly obvious idea of reading a song track to a user had received no comments. On Saturday, as I wrote the article about their patent application that seems to make an attempt to grab a monopoly on the user agent concept, one person posted a comment to Friday’s item telling us that the MPower does, in fact, provide both a self-voicing interface and, indeed, it reads the track name from the MP3 or other media file, thus, our readership has demonstrated public prior art and disclosure of the invention. I hope Apple takes notice and does the right thing by admitting Humanware beat them to the punch and recalls their patent application.
Yesterday, someone named Gabe took an alternative position, supporting Apple and attacking me for having a bias toward Freedom Scientific and other Windows based products. Gabe does not, in any way, address the issue of Apple’s patent filings nor does he speak to whether or not they could limit choices for people with vision impairments in the future. First off, Gabe should either retake English 101 down at his local community college or, perhaps, by a copy of Strunk and White (there is an online edition) so he might learn a bit about the English language and expository writing and, possibly, learn how to present an argument that doesn’t sound like it came from an angry ideologue. Gabe also attacks both Jay Leventhal and me for publishing propaganda against Apple because we criticized VoiceOver. He obviously neglects to notice that Jay printed an extensive update in Access World correcting his factual inaccuracies and, in my post on Friday, I actually led with the statement that I had spent time lately using VoiceOver and had grown to like it a bit.
The articles about Apple’s patent filings and ridiculous legal maneuvers addressed these monopolistic actions specifically and did not, in any way, speak to their screen reader or the quality of their products. I will also point out some factual inaccuracies in Gabe’s posts. First, Freedom Scientific didn’t even exist during the time when both Henter-Joyce and GW Micro argued against Microsoft including a full blown screen reader in their OS. Second, neither HJ nor GW ever threatened legal action against Microsoft but, rather, spoke out against a screen reader that might not meet the quality standards set by JAWS and Window-Eyes. Ted Henter made the most articulate statement on this topic in his 1996 speech at the NFB conference which I believe remains online for your reading pleasure.
Ted’s thesis, one which I have discussed in Blind Confidential, expressed doubt that a company that makes a wide variety of products for mainstream purposes could maintain the commitment to and focus on properly maintaining a product for a niche market like users of a screen reader with the same level of intensity as a business dedicated specifically to that purpose. I do not recall Doug or anyone else from GW having made any public statement on the matter and, if one does look at Doug’s statements over the years, he disagrees with Ted on concepts like MSAA and other accessibility API concepts conceived outside of the assistive technology industry. If one goes back through the archives of old mailing lists, one can also read how Doug and I have traded jabs about approaches to screen reading and in no way can we be accused of having been involved in some kind of secret collusion to maintain Microsoft’s primacy.
Madelyn Bryant McIntyre, when Director of the Microsoft Assistive Technology Group (ATG), addressed the 2003 meeting of the Microsoft Assistive Technology Vendors Program (MATVP) described other incidences in which Microsoft sold off niche products because they do not have good skills at managing and supporting low volume programs. Specifically, she described selling SourceSafe, the revision control system, to Rational because Microsoft couldn’t do a good job of maintaining its quality or provide adequate support to their customers. Without actually looking up sales figures, I will venture a large bet that there are far more SourceSafe users than users of all screen readers combined.
Gabe also asserts, “I’ve been using a Mac since 94
back then I use outspoken back with all the so called blind community was bitching that it too was not accessible. I’ve been on the www in about 96 with
outspoekn.” Aside from his obvious language and typing impairments, I can only ask Gabe why outspoken no longer exists? If the Windows version hadn’t totally failed and the Macintosh version had actually proved useful to more than a few hardcore Microsoft haters, one would assume that the market forces would have made it into a thriving success. Instead, Alva has fallen into the AT history books and, although Optilec has purchased its assets, I would doubt that hoards of outspoken for the Mac users keep Larry Lewis up late at night pounding on his door to purchase copies.
The outspoken screen reader failed because users didn’t like it. Alva itself, in its home office in Holland, became the largest JAWS dealer in their country. Alva, although willing to give a user outspoken for free with their Braille displays found that their customers would pay full price for their Satellite plus full price for JAWS. If you cannot give a product away, one must assume that the usability falls far below the line of acceptable. When Apple shopped for a partner to make an OSX screen reader, Alva was the clear front runner but they refused the gig as they assumed that the market couldn’t bear the development costs.
Other than these third party references, I won’t state an opinion on the actual quality of outspoken as I have only tried it out a couple of times. If someone out their in readerland wants to chime in as to why they believe outspoken for both Macintosh and Windows died a forgettable death, please add comments.
Gabe continues, “I am sorry that you have this beef but I wish you would write nutrally instead of so harshly about a company who wrote in a full functioning great screeen
reader for free.” I can only respond that “for free” doesn’t mean with freedom but, rather, without additional cost to the user. In my post Friday, I agreed that VoiceOver was a pretty good screen reader and that, if it performed all of the tasks a user needs, it is a reasonable alternative. I know, without a doubt, that I cannot perform my job using VoiceOver alone. The Windows screen readers, especially JAWS, give me the tools I need to get the richest contextual information available from any screen reader out there today. To wit: I often work on large documents in a highly collaborative environment. JAWS and, to a lesser extent, Window-Eyes, make the incredibly useful collaboration, version control and other writing tools accessible to a professional who writes for publication in a team. JAWS gives me the tools to navigate Excel spreadsheets quickly and with a level of efficiency unknown to any other screen reader (except possibly Window-Eyes which I haven’t tested thoroughly in a spreadsheet) and profoundly more so than anything I can do on a Macintosh with OSX or with outspoken ever. It’s the same story for PowerPoint and other presentation packages, VisualStudio and other programming tools and in Internet Explorer and Firefox with JAWS or Window-Eyes. Gabe pointed out that I have criticized Freedom Scientific in these pages and, somehow, this means that I shouldn’t criticize Apple for hiding behind patents instead of actually innovating. Thus, because I’ve criticized Microsoft, does that mean that I cannot criticize Sun? Or if I criticize Sun that I cannot criticize IBM? Where is the logic here?
As corporate citizens where people with vision impairments are involved, I think FS stands pretty near the top of the heap. They have added more truly innovative concepts to screen reading than anyone else and have built their market share through honest competition and quality. I put GW Micro near the top of the pile as they have valiantly pushed HJ/FS with their good ideas and high quality and have continuously helped to raise the bar for screen reader functionality. Apple has certainly made its contribution by providing a usable, albeit feature poor, screen reader at a very affordable price. Apple gets points for lowering the cost to entry but loses in areas of providing the tools many people need to do their jobs get an education or play games and enjoy computing for all sorts of purposes.
To Gabe and all of my other readers, please do not take either my word or your personal experiences as the defining factors when comparing screen readers. While I often accuse Jay of being too nice to too many products and having an “everything is beautiful” approach to criticism, AccessWorld has much higher standards for its critiques than any individual might. It also affords the companies whose products it reviews space to provide counter points. If you do not like AccessWorld or AFB for some reason, I suggest then that you create a huge table with the names of screen readers across the top and features running down the first column. Use the manuals, help files, tutorial information, technical notes and any other materials you can find to build the list of features. Then, under each screen reader, put in a simple 1 or zero as to whether or not the particular screen reader provides the functionality and then, when you are at the bottom of the exhaustive list, sum up all of the columns and see who, in terms of raw numbers offers we blinks with the largest number of tools that we can opt to use.
Then, to make this a little more scientific, survey the users of the different screen readers included in the survey and ask them to place a value (0-9) on each feature, whether their screen reader provides it or not. Then, you can play around with the raw data a bit to determine which items our community wants the most and which of these are available in the existing screen readers. Once again, I’m highly confident that, given a large enough sample, you will find that JAWS, followed by Window-Eyes, will dominate both the list of raw numbers as well as the weighted values.
Moving onto the API exposed by an operating environment, I have spent years working with Microsoft, Sun, IBM and, yes, Apple in forums and conferences in which we “so-called” experts gathered together to come up with a canonical API that would work for both AT and OS vendors alike. I spent many hours studying all of the results and, back when Peter Korn and I exchanged some items about such, brought myself up to date. In my opinion, the API created by Sun for the gnome desktop and User Interface Automation from Microsoft both afford the AT, the application vendor and the OS to expose truly rich information about the data on the screen rather than simply the words and numbers without any context. Apple’s attempt is certainly an improvement over MSAA but Apple had many years of reading about the problems with the first Microsoft solution to avoid some of its mistakes. Apple did not, however, take the notion of delivering rich contextual information to users with vision impairment very seriously and, in its API, provides very little ability for AT, even if its written at Apple, to access interesting bits of useful data that may not appear on the screen but has tremendous value to the user. This includes data points like whether or not a word is misspelled in a word processor without running the spell checker, whether or not a line of text has been modified by a collaborator or not, where a button in a dialogue layout program is located and whether or not I am dropping it on top of another control when I make programs and, in a spreadsheet, whether or not a cell’s content is the result of a formula or not. Looking forward to using multidimensional audio information to express concepts like that is shown in a flow or organization chart will be impossible without the ability for the AT to suck out context from the application in the manner afforded a programmer with a MS DOM, UIA or with the gnome accessibility API.
Once again, my last two articles specifically criticized Apple for its two most recent patent disclosures and the lack of innovation they represent. I also pointed out that Apple has had a long history of aggressive use of intellectual property law to stifle competition and innovation at other companies. As previously stated, these two new patents may prevent a number of innovations from happening if companies believe they will need to meet Apple in a courtroom and do the high priced battle there rather than in the market where we consumers can choose which device suits us best. I also pointed out that these kind of patents will not just limit choices among AT products nor on Microsoft platforms but, rather, could possibly prevent other mainstream companies from putting self voicing interfaces and user agent functionality into their products. Regular readers of this blog know that, wherever possible, I stand for technology transfer and adapting mainstream consumer products for use by people with vision impairments rather than creating “blind-guy-ghetto” solutions. If someone decides to make me king, I would have talking interfaces right out of the box on almost everything sold at Best Buy or Circuit City. Even better, I would have all of them wirelessly expose a common interface that people with all sorts of disabilities can access via a user agent designed to meet their specific needs. Apple’s two recent patent disclosures seem to suggest that they should be the only game in town as regards such advancements. Thus, if Sony, HP, TI, Diamond, Bose, Mitsubishi, Panasonic or any other consumer electronics company tries to make something similar, Apple can possibly keep them from market. Is this in any way a good thing?
To conclude, my criticism of Apple was directed at its patent strategy. As I state above and in Friday’s post, VoiceOver is quite an acceptable screen reader for people who only need to use information that it exposes. Try comparing the actual feature sets of the different screen readers on all platforms and see which provide the user with the greatest number of tools they can employ to perform various tasks if they need or want to. Take a look at the full documentation of the gnome accessibility API, UIA and the Apple accessibility API and determine what may or may not be available in the future on each of these platforms. Finally, take into account that Microsoft and Sun have not filed patents that might, if fully enforced, limit choices for us blinks. No company is above criticism and, once again, I find myself attacked not on the content of my articles but, rather, for suggesting that the almighty Apple does do bad things.
Innovate, don’t litigate!