Prices, Quality, Rumors

I don’t have a really well formed theme for today’s blog entry so Blind Confidential today will be kind of a stream of consciousness blabbering of thoughts going through my mind at the moment.  I’ll try to maintain some reasonable level of organization but no guarantees okay?

The High Prices of Access Technology

Recently, a good friend an old access technology hacker remarked to me over a meal about how sad it is that the majority of blind people in the world cannot afford screen readers.  He specifically pointed out that such products are considerably more expensive than the computers they run on.  While we agreed that the market as small, we found ourselves scratching our heads trying to find a different category of technology product where the prices have increased while the market for said product also grew.

Our conversation led me to pull my little T-Mobile DASH out of its carry case and to start contemplating what such a massively complex device would have cost 30 years ago when I first started programming professionally.  This smart phone is tremendously more powerful than the mainframe on which I worked back in my Lincoln Savings days and it didn’t cost over $1 million to purchase nor does it require an entire staff just to keep it running properly.

This leads me to remember a mistake I made in my article about Mobile Speak Smartphone and my cute new T-Mobile phone that I wrote the other day.  I had forgotten that MSS sells for roughly $300 and not the $500 that Code Factory charges for its PDA cousin.  Thus, at the maximum price for this particular phone, a copy of MSS and a Bluetooth keyboard comes to approximately 820 five dollars, a little more than a third the cost of a blind guy ghetto PDA.

I find that due to the near monopoly position held by JAWS that few agencies, training centers and other places people by or are given access technology products rarely even consider lower-cost alternatives.  While I wrote here recently that to do my job, I NEED TO USE JAWS, many other users, however, use a computer primarily for Internet browsing, e-mail, instant messaging, word processing and a few other chores.  The training centers and other access technology organizations should take a serious look at System Access and Freedom Box as it is highly probable that they can save a tremendous amount of money without taking a single feature their consumers actually use away from them.

In the last couple of days, I received a story from Blind News that John McCarty wrote for The Fred’s Head Companion blog about a website that keeps track of prices for products of interest to people with vision impairment.  I browse to the site and bookmarked it and comment if you’re interested, you can read Michael’s entire article at

More on Screen Readers

The other day, Also through Blind News, I received the press release announcing the latest and greatest version of Window-Eyes.  Like I do with most access technology announcements, I read it with interest.  The press release contained a statement that said that Window-Eyes 6.0 was, “the first screen reader to support the Outlook calendar.”  I took exception to this phrase as I’ve been using the Outlook calendar with JAWS for a long time.  So, I said “flame on” and wrote an e-mail to Doug Geoffray with the intent of reminding him that we’ve had this feature in JAWS for a long time.

As is often the case when I shoot my mouth off before actually trying software, I learned that my e-mail to Doug was entirely unfounded.  He responded by suggesting that I actually try the product before complaining about it.  So, I did.

I apologize to Doug for sending him such a rude e-mail without even trying his latest version.  Fortunately, I didn’t write anything in Blind Confidential about this feature before writing privately to Doug who is a big boy and who knows me well enough that I can’t say anything that would actually hurt his feelings.  I will take this opportunity to tell anybody who uses the Outlook calendar with any frequency that they should try the latest window eyes.  While I disagree with Doug’s assertion that they were the “first” to support this important feature of Outlook, I will agree entirely that the new window eyes sets the bar for working in the Outlook calendar and does a much better job than any other screen reader that I’ve tried using in the Outlook calendar.

Congratulations to the GW guys for getting this difficult feature to work terrifically.

The Goddamn Rumors

The access technology industry is always rife with rumors.  I’ve been known to pass on quite a few while gossiping with friends and I enjoy hearing a lot of the rumors that bounce around the biz.  I’ve made no secret that I’ve started and a commercial venture called Adlib Technology.  I’ve heard all sorts of rumors about and Adlib and, frankly, I find it pretty flattering that people take the time to make up and spread stories about the things we may or may not be doing.

I take offense, however, when the rumors bouncing around name people who are not involved in these projects and who work for Freedom Scientific and other companies in the access technology business.  While I have a lot of friends at these companies and envied their talent pool, none of them will be coming to work for any of my ventures anytime soon.

People working in the software field’s can get in a lot of trouble if word gets around that they are even interviewing with other companies, let alone one run by a former employee of the company where they work.  Please, believe me when I say that no freedom Scientific employees or engineers at other access technology companies will be joining Adlib technology or in the foreseeable future.

I do see these people on a social basis and sometimes tell them about things I’m working on but that’s a far cry from recruiting them to work on my new projects so, if you feel like spreading rumors that can seriously mess up someone’s career, think before you talk.  Working in the access technology business is stressful enough in these people don’t need to worry about the bullshit rumors that might get them in trouble.  Feel free to say anything you want about me but, when talking about my friends, please shut the fuck up!

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T-Mobile DASH and Mobile Speak Smartphone

Everyone who reads this blog knows that I am passionate about the concepts of technology transfer.  In brief, technology transfer sometimes called T2, means taking (or transferring) mainstream technology into access technology by making certain adaptations that provide the features that a person with a disability needs in order to operate the technology in question.  Universal design, a concept about which I’m also passionate, means designing products for everyone to use without regard to disability.  Universally designed products, however, remain rare while the concepts surrounding T2 are all around us.

Virtually all screen readers demonstrate examples of technology transfer.  By installing JAWS, a user transfers mainstream technology like a Hewlett-Packard desktop computer, a Toshiba laptop, Microsoft Windows and lots of software designed for the mainstream market into products that are mostly accessible for people with vision impairment.  Thus, one needn’t purchase a special word processor, spreadsheet, text editor or whatever other programs a user employs while running JAWS.

Unfortunately, while most computing tasks are handled using screen readers and, therefore, leverage the enormity of the mainstream market to benefit from the highly competitive prices on computer hardware and mainstream software, handheld devices seem mostly to remain in the blind guy ghetto.  A few companies, Nuance, with its Talx screen reader for Symbian cell phones, Dolphin Systems, with Pocket HAL for mainstream PDA devices, Humanware with Trekker and Maestro on mainstream PDAs and, most impressively, Code Factory with screen readers for Symbian And Windows Mobile cell phones and Windows Mobile handhelds.  Other than Talx, I’m only really familiar with the Mobile Speak line of products from Code Factory.

I’ve written twice already in Blind Confidential about my experiences with the brandy new T-Mobile DASH.  The first detailed my trials and tribulations trying to get Audible Player installed on the device and the second about the terrific service I got from Code Factory when I found some nasty bugs In Mobile Speak SmartPhone (MSS).  Now that I’ve lived with the device for awhile, I would like to proffer my opinion on it.

Plain and simply, MSS on my little T-Mobile DASH is without a doubt the coolest talking device I have ever touched.  At approximately 4 ounces (119 g) it weighs in at roughly 1/8 that of the blind guy ghetto speech only products but it’s packed with far more features than any product from an access technology company.  Among other things, this little device includes quad band GSM, Blue Tooth, 802.11 B and G, Edge, access to the most popular instant message systems (Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo), has loads of applications, a 1.3 megapixel camera and a ton of other really nifty features.

A user can add a ton of off-the-shelf programs Available for Windows Mobile like the audible player and other cool stuff like Microsoft voice command and almost anything else you can imagine.

In my opinion the coolest thing about it is that MSS reads nearly every application flawlessly.  The software from Code Factory is not perfect but I find far fewer bugs with it than I do in any other screen reader that I use with any frequency.  Also, Code Factory is really good at fixing bugs quickly and getting builds out to the consumers as rapidly as I’ve ever seen any company deploy updates.  The nature of Windows Mobile Smartphone Edition that makes it especially nice for us blinks is that it is designed to be entirely keyboard-driven.  So rather than having to simulate screen taps, the screen reader has keystrokes native to the system itself and only needs to add a few additional ones for screen reader specific features.

MSS And a Windows Mobile Smartphone is my favorite solution for my personal portable computing and communication needs.  If you are looking for a notetaker or a PDA with the fully featured Windows Mobile five, programs like Word Mobile and Excel Mobile, you would probably be happier with either a PDA phone like the Hewlett-Packard iPAQ 6915, a regular iPAQ like the 2495 or something similar.  If you plan on doing a lot of typing and you want to use either a Windows Mobile Smartphone or an off-the-shelf PDA running Mobile Speak Pocket or Pocket HAL you would probably benefit from adding a Blue Tooth keyboard to your collection of portable devices.  All of the Mobile Speak products support Blue Tooth Braille displays but as I’ve never tried them at all I can’t comment on how well they work.

The economics of a Mobile Speak Smartphone solution is pretty intriguing.  This morning, when I did a quick Google search to find the weight of the T-Mobile DASH, the page on which I found it is offering the phone for free, after rebate with a new T-Mobile contract.  I paid approximately $300 for mine with a one-year T-Mobile contract extension and unlocked versions of the phone have been seen on eBay for around $450.  A Blue Tooth keyboard runs about $50 and MSS cost about $500.  Thus, at the maximum price, the cutest little system I’ve ever seen comes to about $1100 — almost exactly half that of the blind guy ghetto solutions.

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Birth of the Cool

“Birth of the cool,” The first album Released by Miles Davis as a bandleader, radically changed the way we would perceive American music forever.  It contained the seeds that would take us from standard bebop into modern jazz.  Recently, Joe Lavano released a new album with help from the great Günter Schuler, one of the original members of the Miles Davis band that made the historical recording back in the late 1940s.  The new album preserves in a near museum like manner the original Gil Evans arrangements but introduces us to how they would be played by some of today’s hottest musicians.  If you’re a jazz fan I strongly recommend checking this album out.

The release of “Birth of the Cool” also introduced the word “cool” into popular American English describe something other than temperature.  Today, nearly 60 odd years later, virtually all Americans understand what one means when they say “Samuel L. Jackson may just be the coolest man in history.”

Over these same 60 years, the value of “cool” has increased dramatically and I’m certain that somebody at a business school or some MBA type somewhere has some equation that can be applied to the market value of the relative “cool” of a product.  Thus, companies that sell consumer products, especially those who want to sell products to young people, do whatever they can to maximize what I will call “the cool quotient.”

I fully understand why Apple products, especially the iPod, seem “cooler” than their competitors.  Apple Computer spends far more time and money on maximizing the cool quotient in their products than do their competitors.  This makes sense for a product like the iPod as its primary selling factor is the “coolness” of the device.

What happens, though, when the “cool quotient” causes problems with accessibility?  Furthermore, why do authors of products with little or no “cool” potential waste their time and development dollars making flashy, nonstandard and fundamentally inaccessible interfaces for their software?

Recently, I bought a USB Blue Tooth dongle to use to test some of my programs.  The dongle is tiny, pops right into my USB port and, unlike my previous Bluetooth dongle, chose to be incompatible with the Windows hardware profile for such a device.  Kensington, the manufacturer of this product, for no reason apparent to me chose to add a bunch of useless software on top of their hardware and by doing so they threw away the convenience of what is usually a “plug and play” experience.  To make matters worse, all of their so called value added software was very difficult to use with a screen reader.  Virtually all other brands that make USB dongle’s are happy to have their customers just plug the thing in and start working, perhaps with a few settings you might want to tweak in the Windows Control Panel where standard Blue Tooth devices are configured.  What, if anything, did Kensington improve with its “cool” interface to what is ordinarily a highly standard and highly accessible type of hardware?

This morning, I went into my home office with the intent of hooking up my brand-new APC UPS.  When you live in the county where people have the highest probability of being struck by lightning in the entire United States, one takes continuous power supplies and surge protection very seriously.  I attach the cable from the UPS to one of the USB ports in the back of my trusty old Dell desktop and inserted the setup CD.  The installer read nicely with JAWS and I thought things were going smoothly.  Then, I ran its configuration program.  I found that I can get some information by poking around with the JAWS cursor but I received no indication whatsoever about whether or not I could click on something, change a setting or do anything else.  With the PC cursor turned on all that JAWS would say is “blank” and the tab key and other standard navigation keys did absolutely nothing.  What could the APC developers be thinking when they decided to make a nonstandard interface to the configuration program for uninterruptible power supply?  What can possibly be “cool” about an UPS device?

For the past six months or so I’ve been dabbling in programming using Visual 2005.  With the scripts written by the guys on the blind programming mailing list (available on the empowermentzone website and, soon, on, a blind programmer can do a credible job of slapping together a very usable, albeit not likely very pretty, user interface.  To remove basic accessibility from an application built using the Visual Studio designer actually requires extra effort.  So, companies like APC and Kensington are probably using older tools but, nonetheless, ignore accessibility entirely in hopes of having a unique or “cool” interface to products that at best have a very low “cool quotient.”

Other products that seem superfluously inaccessible because of an attempt by their authors to create a “cool” interface include spam filters, virus protection products and other security related programs.  The only time a person with or without a disability cares to interact with such software is when they’re installing it and when something has gone terribly wrong.  Lots of flashy graphics, animations and other user interface elements intended to make the product look “cool” has nothing to do with the purpose of such products whose users rarely interact with them and, when they do, they may be in a total panic.

Of course, even the programs with the highest potential “cool quotient” with the most extremely nonstandard interface can be made accessible with a minimal amount of extra effort on behalf of its developers.  When it comes to these programs I’m frankly quite sick and tired of hearing mainstream developers first say, “for our audience it has to be very, very cool…” and, even worse, “we’ll build a separate, text only version for your people.”  Returning to Thurgood Marshall, “separate but equal isn’t,” so my advice to the mainstream developers of the world is to make your software or website as cool as you want but, follow the well-established accessibility standards and guidelines and learn principles of universal design and you can make super cool programs and websites that can be enjoyed by everyone — with or without a disability.


Recently, I’ve read a few things in Blind News about Google’s accessibility improvements.  While I applaud Google for making the effort to create an accessible search facility, I am discouraged by their approach to solving this problem.  Only a tiny fraction of users with vision impairment who use computers require a special, text only interface to Web content.  Dr. Raman has made tremendous contributions to the world of computing for people with vision impairment but, it’s time to realize that it’s no longer 1985 in that text only solutions are no longer necessary nor optimal for blind computer users.

Google should reevaluate this strategy and choose a path that follows the guidelines and standards that have been widely adopted for Web accessibility.  Access technology software that are not compliant with the user agent guidelines do not provide the level of access necessary to level the playing field for people with disabilities.  As I say above, separate but equal isn’t and suggesting that developers, web or application, maintain separate interfaces for each group of people that may have different use needs is simply ridiculous.

In my well-informed opinion, the solution to universal accessibility will only be achieved with universal standards exposed by technologies and then read by as many different user agents as necessary to serve as interfaces for as many different use cases as possible.

Returning to the Google example, a user who prefers a text only console for doing their work can use a text-only web browser as long as said browser is compliant with the user agent guidelines.  If such text only browsers, most popular on the GNU/Linux platforms do not comply with the user agent guidelines, that is not the fault of web developers but, rather, of the people who work on such browsers.  In the GNU/Linux case, the source code to at least two text-only browsers is freely available so anyone with a few programming chops can make them compliant with the user agent guidelines.  Thus, I respectfully request that the anachronistic, text only aficionados shut up and program instead of whining at the world of technology has progressed since 1984.

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The website was scheduled to go online today.  As this is a project run entirely by volunteers, many of whom have day jobs, we fell behind by a bit.  So, the website has what amounts to an “under construction” page that describes the goals, values and what we expect to be the future of  So, if you want to take a peek at what were planning head on over to the page and I hope you find our ideas interesting.

One of the major aspects of the website is to encourage volunteerism among the community of people with disabilities.  Another is to promote a community-based mentoring system in which people with disabilities who want to learn a new skill can match up with experts in the field and work on professional quality open source programs that people with disabilities can use without impediment.

The community of people with vision impairment, the group of people with disabilities that I know the best, has authors tremendous amount of energy.  Some members of our community focus on applying this energy to constructive purposes; others, grow frustrated and spend a lot of energy yelling about problems but offering no solutions.  I hope that our volunteerism project can help channel energy toward solutions rather than just criticism.

The  site also hopes to serve as a one-stop shop for people with disabilities to find free, open source programs that they will enjoy using.  In the beginning, we will be focusing on Windows and Windows Mobile software as that is what we know best.  I expect that scripts for JAWS will dominate the early content on the site as all of the blind people working on this project use JAWS and that is the area with which we are most familiar.  Some time in early 2007, when the site will have its Windows section in some reasonable order, we’ll start adding software for the GNU/Linux platform and after that software for Macintosh and other platforms.

If you are interested in volunteering on this project in its early stages, we mostly need people to help us research and find as many free and open source projects pertinent to people with disabilities that run in the Windows environment.  We need help finding all of these projects, categorizing them in writing a sentence or two describing them for people who visit the website.  If you think you’re interested in helping, visit the under construction page and click the link to send a mail to

Blind Confidential will announce important changes to the website but it’s probably best to check their from time to time to watch it grow.


The other day I described how I had trouble being objective when talking about commercial screen readers.  Since then, I’ve received a number of e-mails asking me to recommend a sites where people can find more quote fair and balanced quote reviews of technology products for people with vision impairment.  I had intended, in that post, to suggest a few places but I managed to forget to do so.

At the top of the Blind Confidential page, you’ll find a heading labeled “Blog Related Links.”  In that list you’ll find a link to Desert Skies, Ranger Station and a number of other blogs written by blind people about technology issues.  Also, there is a link above to Access World a terrific publication that has all sorts of news and reviews of products involving our community.

Undoubtedly, there are others out there and if you do a blog or find some sites especially helpful that I don’t have on the list above, please send me an e-mail And We’ll Add It to the Blind Confidential page.

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