Once upon a time, I could do all of my computing with a single screen reader, namely JAWS. Now, as I wrote a few weeks back, it seems that I need to use different screen readers for different tasks, I can use JAWS in most of the cases that I switch to another screen reader to handle but, in these cases, my efficiency drops dramatically. Later this week, a new computer will arrive at my house with Windows Vista Ultimate loaded on it and I will take my first steps into the latest OS released by MS. Virtually all of my friends who use Vista have told me that I am fortunate to have multiple screen readers at my disposal as JAWS alone won’t do the trick in Vista.
This morning, I read the announcement from TNT describing the interesting new sets of scripts that JAWS configuration wizard, Brian Hartgen has crafted. I am very happy to see Brian broadening his product line and I’ll be very happy to see Brian make more money as his efforts in JAWS scripting are among the best in the world and he deserves every penny he makes.
What surprises me are the programs for which Brian has been writing scripts. In the not too distant past, JAWS users expected the best support for Microsoft Office, including Outlook and its tricky calendar out-of-the-box. JAWS users also expected that features of the operating system, in this case Vista, would work properly without installing third party scripts – those for sale or done as community, open source projects.
In those halcyon days of yore, people who made their living writing JAWS customizations, people like Brian Hartgen, Jim Snowbarger, the Dancing Dots gang, and a few others, did so for fairly obscure or exceptionally complicated applications. Support for programs like Sonar, Dragon Naturally Speaking, SoundForge and others were sold to underwrite the cost of making the scripts and to make money for their authors. In the recent TNT announcement, though, features like the Outlook calendar and the built-in speech recognition subsystem in Vista are supported in scripts users need to buy separately as JAWS 8, including its various updates, don’t provide this functionality as part of the $1000 purchase price anymore.
In those days gone by, JAWS included scripts for VisualStudio, an essential for us programmers. That support stopped after VS 6.0 came out and, now, Jamal Mazrui and the gang on blind programming do the work. Window-Eyes works great with Skype straight out-of-the-box but JAWS users need to poke around the Internet to find Doug Lee’s scripts to enjoy the full Skype interface with JAWS.
I applaud FS for supporting the richest configuration capabilities in the industry as without them and without the third party scripters (professional or volunteer) JAWS users would find fewer and fewer programs accessible with the world’s leading screen reader.
Years ago, I remember sitting in my office at FS and talking to Glen Gordon on the phone. In a number of conversations, we would express pride in how we (meaning FS) were able to support a new operating system on or soon after the date which Microsoft released it to the public. In the years since I’ve been gone, this seems to have lost its priority as the last time we had this conversation, we were talking about Windows Mobile 2003, which we supported in PM 2.0 in December of that year – FS has since skipped Windows Mobile 2005 and hasn’t released a WM 6 solution yet, operating system releases that Code Factory supported on or near the day they came out. With Vista, people tell me that Window-Eyes and System Access do a better job than JAWS and have been doing so for months now but I can only wonder what has held JAWS back in the opinions of other users as I haven’t started using Vista yet.
Learning that, to use features built into Vista, like speech recognition and modules of Outlook 2007, like its calendar, will now require that I pay for the support, makes me question the value of the JAWS SMA I bought last fall. In the past, one of the aspects of a bug that would get its priority raised in a JAWS development cycle was whether or not something worked properly in an earlier, especially the previous release. We had such great pride in how we supported Microsoft Office in a manner that professionals could use it to do complicated jobs. Now, I need to buy scripts from TNT if I want to upgrade to Office 2007. Why has this happened?
Meanwhile, every time I start up Window-Eyes or System Access, I find myself increasingly impressed by something they do right that either doesn’t work in JAWS or, most painful of all, worked in an earlier release of JAWS but doesn’t anymore. In the article that Jim and Greg wrote that I pointed to last week, they ask why a blind person needs to pay $1000 for a screen reader in order to use a brand new $300 computer from Dell. I would expand this and ask why I, an advanced JAWS user needs to buy JAWS for $1000, Window-Eyes for $900 and System Access (I got my copy of SA for free so I don’t know what it costs but I’ll guess $500) – approximately $2400 worth of Access Technology to use an 18 month old Toshiba laptop that is probably worth about $100 at Leroy’s Bail Bonds and Pawn Shop these days.
I understand that FS has an overwhelming market share with JAWS and that it might not make great business sense to invest much time or money in a product that the majority of the market already owns and, in most cases, has plunked down the SMA dollars for the next couple of releases. From a purely dollars and sense standpoint, investing greatly in JAWS is probably imprudent as when one has a near monopoly position, why should they innovate? What would possibly motivate FS to spend more than the minimum on a product where they already own the market?
BC readers should not blame FS for these changes in what JAWS does and does not support. They are running their business following a very sensible strategy, invest in development in products in which they can take share and dollars from competitors and, therefore, grow their business rather than investing in a product which already has a lock on the market in which growth possibilities are fairly small.
Who then is responsible for the general malaise in the screen reader market? A lot of people who make purchasing decisions, people who write “everything is beautiful” reviews of new product releases, users who do not refuse an upgrade that, in areas important to them, is in fact, a setback – in short, the community of people who are responsible for keeping the vendors honest.
I have no suggested course of action on how to change this situation. I think Serotek is doing some pretty innovative stuff and that Window-Eyes has improved a lot in Office but, as I’ve said before, I still need JAWS to do many aspects of my job and will continue using it until System Access, Window-Eyes or some other solution provides me what I need on a daily basis. So, I guess I’m more part of the problem than the solution, I’m willing to bitch about the screen readers I use but will continue paying for my SMA and, in a sense, fueling the fire with my dollars as my choices are sparse to non-existent.