I received a number of comments to the “Cool New Technology” item I wrote yesterday. First off, I’d like to thank old buddy Kelly Ford for his thoughtful commentary regarding the WindowsVistaMediaCenter functionality and how well it works with screen readers. From what I gleaned from Kelly’s note, it is usable with the current generation of screen readers and, presuming a bit, it can be made to work very nicely with scripts or configurations of some sort. As Circuit City lets one return a PC for a full refund, I think I might do the retail rental by buying one, checking it out and return it if it doesn’t do the job.
The second comment I received came by private email and pointed out my bias against Window-Eyes by reminding me that GW implemented Remote Access before any of the other screen readers. This feature truly innovated access and went a long way to improving the lives of blind IT professionals. When I wrote the piece yesterday, I had it in mind to include remote access and knew that GW introduced it first but, in my haste to finish the piece yesterday, I accidentally omitted it.
I can’t quite remember when GW first released Window-Eyes with support for Remote Access but it not only provided very new functionality for Window-Eyes users, it really pushed the other screen reader manufacturers to catch up in this area.
Also, in private emails, readers asked why I didn’t include support for various applications in my list of innovations. The answer is that I don’t consider adding support for additional applications to be especially innovative. At this point, I must separate the definitions of the words “innovative” and “important.” When GW Micro became the first to support Adobe Acrobat, Flash and a number of other programs, they provided important support for important applications to their users. When JAWS became the first to support Java, Microsoft Project and other professional applications, Freedom Scientific became the first to provide support for these important programs. That this support was “important” does not make it especially “innovative” in that supporting these and many other important applications extends the current behavior of the screen reader without inventing anything especially new. Some would argue that supporting important applications brings greater value to the user, an entirely valid argument as, often more so than advancing the art with innovation, providing access to Acrobat or Java will provide more opportunities for screen reader users.
I will also attest to the fact that supporting new applications is not easy. I don’t mean to trivialize adding support for programs that are of importance to some or many screen reader users. Writing scripts or making internal changes to a screen reader to handle yet another slightly different variation on MSAA can be one of the hardest tasks an engineering team will face in any given release cycle. From my history at Freedom Scientific, I can say that supporting Java and Lotus Notes were two of the most difficult projects my department ever attempted and that the hackers who worked on those projects probably lost years off of their lives from the intensity they required. I don’t know how the process of supporting additional applications works at GW, Serotek or Dolphin but I’d guess it is pretty hard in the less standard programs out there.
In my private response to one of the email comments, I suggested that a formally researched article on the most important applications employed by screen reader users would be interesting. A few of we blind bloggers have come to an agreement that we will soon launch a web site dedicated to news and commentary about issues involving our community. I think an online survey about applications and how we blinks use them would be interesting, albeit not terribly scientific. As we are just a bunch of blind people with blogs, we haven’t the resources to pay for a scientific study so we’ll need to rely on the honesty of people in the community not to stuff the proverbial ballot box and, even this way, the sample will be skewed toward people who choose to read our web site which will not be a truly accurate representation of the community. Ok, I’m a bit of a statistics nerd and want to make sure that we don’t publish numbers that mislead but look official because they have things like percentages attached.
Finally, the soon to exist web site will replace the plans I had for hofstader.com. I think this new idea will better represent a broader range of opinions and will include more voices from different perspectives. I will be sending an email to the people who offered to volunteer on the hofstader.com project to ask them to join us on the new project where you will recognize the names of all of the founders and even people who disagree with me will have a forum. Lastly, we are looking for writers and editors to help with the new web site and we hope that people with expertise outside of technology will sign up as we hope to cover everything from cooking to participatory sports to legal issues and civil rights to guide dog care to fiction/satire/parody/humor so we’ll need a lot of help over time. So, here’s your chance to become a published author, just write or call me or, when we launch the site, send email to the editorial team.