About Yesterday’s Article on Competition in the Screen Reader Market

I am growing quite bored with writing about different screen readers and the Windows Vista OS.  I think that, after this post, I’ll spend more time comparing and contrasting JAWS, System Access and Window-Eyes and write up an evaluation of the three in a few weeks.


After writing my article on competition in the screen reader marketplace, I received a number of phone calls and emails asking me if I had lost my mind.  Virtually all of the people who contacted me regarding the article complained that it suggested that JAWS was the “best” screen reader or that I had proposed the elimination of all other screen readers or that I believed that JAWS would always be the leading product in this category.


The article I wrote yesterday states, “JAWS remains the standard that one must use to measure all screen access programs.”  This sentence doesn’t say that JAWS is the best screen reader but, rather, that JAWS is the benchmark.  If I wrote an article about graphical user interfaces, I would use examples from Windows as few readers know much about Macintosh or the gnome desktop.  Thus, if I tried to use Macintosh as the benchmark product, few readers would understand comparisons of features as they would have no personal experience that they could use as a point of reference.  As most BC readers and most blind computer users in general have some experience using JAWS, it must be the product against which the others are compared.


Nowhere in the article yesterday did I say that because it is the benchmark screen reader that JAWS is also superior to its competition.  I do say quite explicitly that I think JAWS help system and, somewhat less explicitly, its configuration capabilities are, in my opinion, the best out there today. 


The article also describes a number of economic and entrenchment related reasons for why it will be very difficult for any of the JAWS competitors to take over the lead position in this market.  Again, none of these issues relate at all to the quality of the screen reading products but, rather, to the hegemony of JAWS in organizations, training centers and agencies.


One friend, who called me yesterday, did raise a very pertinent point.  He said that while JAWS may have a 75% share of current screen reader sales, this number is artificially inflated as only 10% of blind people in the US and 1% worldwide use computers so an enormous portion of blind people have yet to choose a screen reader at all.  I did neglect to mention the great potential in the population of people who haven’t started using a computer yet but I did mention, “The market for products that address blindness and low vision grows annually as the boomers age.  Thus, the opportunity to make inroads with access technology products to this new group of people who have used computers their entire career and have no plans on stopping now, is better than ever.”  As none of the aging boomers have any experience with any screen reader, they will become, along with those still unserved, the greatest potential market in the future.


In yesterday’s article, I mention what I believe is the greatest deficiency of Window-Eyes and of System Access.  I neglected to mention problems that I find important in JAWS which might have made the piece seem a bit more balanced to those who misunderstood the points I tried to make.


So, for the sake of fair play, I will add that I believe that JAWS’ greatest deficiencies are, in no particular order, performance (Window-Eyes and System Access tend to be faster in many applications I find important), stability (I find that the VisualStudio Just In Time debugger pops up more often when I am running JAWS than System Access or Window-Eyes), its continued dependence on specific video drivers and its inconsistency (I find that JAWS will repeat some things, speak items in a different order or work properly sometimes and, for no reason I can explain, suddenly speak differently).  In general, I find JAWS to contain more obvious bugs than the other two.


Some people who contacted me said that they disapproved of Freedom Scientific’s business practices and, therefore, wouldn’t use JAWS as they didn’t want to support such a company.  I submit that the majority of blind computer users don’t pay any attention to the goings on in the AT industry and that few really care about such political matters.  I do not mean to imply that how a company acts as a corporate citizen has no importance but, rather, that most people haven’t the time or energy to follow the AT industry as closely as us “insiders.”


One anonymous individual added a comment to the blog yesterday which contained a pointer to a web site: http://www.jawssucks.com.  This site plays the old Doctor JAWS parody when you launch it in spite of the fact that Doctor JAWS retired quite a long time ago.  It also contains an anonymous quote from someone identified as a blogger that repeats the ancient myth that one must learn a scripting language to use JAWS effectively.  At the same time, the JAWS Sucks web site points out that FS should have included support for the Office 2007 Calendar and Vista Speech Recognition features, a point I made in this blog a week or two ago.


One person who called me mentioned that upgrading JAWS costs much more than I had previously thought.  I had made an erroneous assumption that upgrades cost fairly little and I stand corrected.  I do believe, though, that training costs resulting from switching screen readers are very significant and that the JAWS competitors, if they hope to get people to switch to their product, will have a greater likelihood of success if they make the transition as simple as possible.  I did mention that I felt that System Access does an excellent job of making the transition from JAWS to the Serotek product very simple and comfortable.


I am sorry for any misunderstanding that arose from the article I wrote yesterday.  The goal was to explain why I used JAWS as a benchmark and then went on to describe some of the hurdles I felt stood in the way of JAWS’ competitors.  These days, I’m using three screen readers on both Windows XP and Vista.  Each offers me some functionality that the others do not and, for a number of different reasons, I find that I prefer different screen readers in different applications.


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Competition Among Screen Readers

Today, I will address a few comments I’ve received over the past few days.  To start, I should tell BC readers that I didn’t do any of the programming on JAWS or any other FS product during my six years there.  Instead, I managed the team that did the programming for JAWS, MAGic, OpenBook, PAC Mate, Connect Outloud and the other software that FS sells.  My proudest accomplishment there was having had the opportunity to build the team of software engineers at FS, much of which remains intact today.  I also enjoyed mentoring some of the more junior programmers and watching their skills and careers grow and, in almost every case, exceed my expectations.


Yesterday, a comment posted anonymously questioned why I as well as others used JAWS as a benchmark against which other screen access tools should be compared.  This concept has a greater level of complexity to it and I believe that, for better or worse, JAWS remains the standard that one must use to measure all screen access programs.


Estimates demonstrate that JAWS commands something on the order of a 75% market share worldwide.  I would, therefore, assume that at least three quarters of people who read Blind Confidential have some familiarity with JAWS and, therefore, comparisons to it will make sense to most of our readers.  If I used HAL as a baseline, far fewer people (including me) would have any idea what I meant with an analogy.


I also try my best to state where I find other screen access programs perform better than JAWS.  I’ve written quite often that Window-Eyes provides a much more usable MS Word solution than does JAWS.  At the same time, System Access outperforms JAWS and Window-Eyes in the VistaWindowsMediaCenter.  My most recent comparisons have stated that making global configuration settings, like changing keystrokes, is easier with JAWS than its competitors.


I’ve also written very favorably about the different JAWS contextual help features and, to a lesser extent, its Virtual Viewer functionality.  I do not expect all screen readers to try to emulate JAWS in every way but, especially for keystrokes I use infrequently, I think that FS did an excellent job with this very robust help system. 


Some people have written to me to say that they believe that a screen access tool should have an interface so intuitive that it would obviate a very rich help system.  Others have said that the Window-Eyes manual provides enough information and flexibility for its users. 


Yesterday, still on my journey to figure out how to make a large number of global hot key changes to Window-Eyes, I stopped and read the help topics I felt might describe the task I wanted to perform.  Thus, I read the entire Hot Key section, the Thinking Globally section which discusses global settings but neglects to mention how to change a keystroke across all SET files.  I finally ended up calling GW support where Aaron provided terrific help to a Window-Eyes newbie on how to run Text to Set, edit the text file and then apply the changes to all other SET files (this was the same process that Steve provided in his comment the other day which, upon reading it, I had difficulty believing that such a complex process could possibly be required to perform such a simple task).  Thus, I firmly believe that the JAWS help system is the “gold standard” for providing contextual information to screen reader users. 


As the market share numbers suggest, most blind computer users access their PC using JAWS.  Thus, if a competitor wants to convince users to switch to their product, they will increase their chances of success by speaking a language that JAWS users will understand. 


On my Vista box, I tend to run either Window-Eyes or System Access by default.  I find that one of these two usually works in most of my personal use cases.  I feel that both Window-Eyes and System Access provide interesting and powerful functionality.  At the same time, I find that Window-Eyes greatest deficiency is its antiquated user interface (for instance, the Text to Set feature doesn’t use the standard file open/save dialogue but, rather, simply provides two edit fields into which a user must type the entire path and file name that they want to us – it made me a bit nostalgic for the good old days of DOS).  And, as I wrote last week, I find the lack of user selectable configuration settings to be the biggest deficiency in System Access.


I do find that the default keyboard layout in System Access, because it mimics JAWS so well, makes the transition to the Serotek product much simpler than the steeper learning curve one experiences when switching to Window-Eyes.  Some statistics demonstrate that blind people are more resistant to change than their sighted counterparts.  One example is that, among call center employees, the mean amount of time they will keep a job to fall roughly at nine months; among blind people, however, the average is closer to 36 months, for times that of their sighted colleagues.  A number of factors certainly play into why blind people are more likely to stay at a job longer (lack of other opportunities for instance) but being familiar with their surroundings is considered to be a large factor in why we hold jobs longer than the population in general.


I think it also follows that the training time one invests in a screen access product likely binds the user to the program they learned first.  Because most users of such AT learn JAWS first, it must be the standard against which other screen readers are measured as it is the screen reader most of us already know.


Furthermore, most people who train blind people on using a screen reader know JAWS exclusively or much better than its competition.  To compel these people who often make the purchasing decisions for their clients will take a tremendous effort.  Retraining the trainers will also be a very expensive process that will require diverting dollars from training end users who need an immediate solution to training the trainers which, in my opinion, will not be an expense that people doing budgets for such agencies will want to allow.


Hence, if any competitor to JAWS is to make its way deeply into the user population, its publishers need to minimize the effort required for trainers and rehab counselors to understand their products.  Likewise, they need to make the transition for an end user as easy as possible so as to level out the learning curve for a user who wants to switch to their product.  FS, with its terrific documentation and help facilities makes moving from its competitors to JAWS relatively simple.  Users need only remember the handful of help keystrokes to find even the most obscure JAWS features.


In the mainstream software marketplace, Excel and Quatro Pro had a Lotus 123 mode to make transition for users as simple as possible.  Many years ago George Tate, of the once software giant Ashton-Tate, announced to an audience at COMDEX that, “The software industry is now mature.  Lotus, Ashton-Tate and Microsoft are the big three and will remain so well into the future.”  Our younger readers probably know the name Lotus because of its Notes product, surely everyone knows of Microsoft but who is George Tate and what was Ashton-Tate?


Paradox took over the lead in the database world and, ultimately, Borland acquired Ashton-Tate.  Then Borland, after reaching the number 3 spot in software sales, fell on hard times and Access and FoxPro emerged as the PC database leaders.


Once upon a time, a DOS program called VisualEyes held the number one position in screen reader sales.  Today, due to a variety of reasons, JAWS dominates this market segment.  When GW Micro had the lead, they had a lot of competitors, most of which have since disappeared.  Many access technology experts have, for the past couple of years, pointed to Window-Eyes and, more recently, to System Access as the competitor that will liberate us blinks from being bound to JAWS.


I sincerely believe that Window-Eyes and System Access are very good products and suggest that people take a long look at them before making a purchasing decision.  At the same time, GW Micro and Serotek need to prove to the community that, indeed, they provide something that warrants moving from JAWS with all of the training costs that will come with such a switch.


The market for products that address blindness and low vision grows annually as the boomers age.  Thus, the opportunity to make inroads with access technology products to this new group of people who have used computers their entire career and have no plans on stopping now, is better than ever.  Freedom Scientific has a formidable sales force and JAWS is deeply entrenched in the “system” that provides access for people with vision impairment.  To replace JAWS as number one will come at a pretty huge cost to trainers, agencies, governmental bureaucracies and many others that I am forgetting right now.  Thus, anything the JAWS competitors can do to minimize the difficulty and cost of switching must be done if such a tectonic shift in the market can occur.


I don’t want to sound like I am predicting nothing but doom and gloom for GW Micro, Serotek and Dolphin.  As noted above, major shifts have occurred in both mainstream and access technology markets in the past so can certainly happen again.  I do, however, not want to underestimate how difficult it will be to knock JAWS off of its thrown.  As I’ve described for the past couple of weeks, I find a lot of really nice things about Window-Eyes and System Access and, in some places they are simpler than JAWS and in some other areas, they outperform JAWS.  Even if one of these other products provided more and better functionality, profoundly greater reliability and a substantially easier user experience than does JAWS, they need to prove their superiority to a population resistant to change. 




I intentionally didn’t bring up competition based upon price in this article.  In my opinion, the actual dollar cost of a screen access tool other than JAWS must be compared against the cost of a JAWS upgrade or SMA.  Also, one needs to factor in the cost of training and downtime caused by learning a new screen reader.  When these intangible dollars are factored in, the difference in cost of the various screen readers is negligible.


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While talking with Mike Calvo on the telephone the other day, I asked a question about how something worked in System Access.  “RTFM,” he replied suggesting that I should read the documentation.  Yesterday, Steve posted a set of instructions telling me how to make a global keystroke change in Window-Eyes but, before he wrote out the very helpful instructions, he stated with some surprise that I had obviously not yet read the manual.


I hate reading software documentation.  I find that I can figure out by trial and error how to accomplish most tasks and, in the process, learn a handful of other things.  I do very much like context sensitive help and quick reference cards.  In my opinion, changing a global keystroke in a screen reader should not require a lot of effort and, even more so, should have a very intuitive interface.


In JAWS, a user only needs to open the keyboard manager which, as it opens reminds the user that they can hit CTRL+SHIFT+D to switch to the default keymap and, from there, they can find the feature they want to assign a keystroke to or change the one that came pre-installed.  System Access doesn’t offer a keymap editor at all and, simply taking a look at the instructions that Steve posted yesterday, one can get bowled over by the obfuscation of the process in Window-Eyes.


Since starting to use Vista, I have spent far more time with Window-Eyes and System Access than ever before.  For years, people have told me how much simpler Window-Eyes users have it when compared to JAWS.  I will agree that SA provides the simplest user interface of the three but the more I work with Window-Eyes, the more I find that performing some common tasks takes much more effort than with JAWS.


For years, the myth that one must learn a scripting language to use JAWS has been repeated over and over.  This is plainly untrue.  Most JAWS users, the overwhelming majority I would guess, never open the script manager and have no need to modify scripts.


JAWS also provides a really excellent set of help features and does so in a highly contextual manner.  As I mentioned the other day, JAWS hot key help (INSERT+H by default), provides a list of available functions, the keystrokes assigned to them and the user can elect to simply hit ENTER on the feature they wish to execute and it happens from within the help system.


Of course, the importance of remapping keystrokes is of paramount importance to a person who uses a Kinesis or other obscure ergonomic keyboard.  Thus, this particular issue has risen to the top of my stack this week and, therefore, becomes the subject of my blog articles as I tend to write about what I am thinking about.


I may also find the JAWS way of doing things simpler because, after so many years of using it on a daily basis, I may have “JAWS on the Brain,” a peculiar syndrome in which one hears Eric Damery’s voice whispering the correct JAWS keystroke to use directly into one’s head.


So, after following the instructions Steve sent yesterday to assign the keystrokes associated with moving the Window-Eyes Mouse cursor, I will start reading its documentation to better learn how to use the product. 


As regards keymaps, though, both JAWS and, in my opinion, System Access provide solutions that, by using Caps Lock, Scroll Lock and other keys that I find useless as modifiers, they can offer layouts that require fewer uses of function keys and, as I don’t have a keyboard with a numeric key pad, I can use these alternative modifiers to both avoid conflicts with application keystrokes and to keep my hands on home row to avoid any unnecessary motion.  I don’t want anyone to underestimate the importance of this issue as many blind people struggle with repetitive stress injuries (RSI) and anything their screen reader can do to cut down on furthering the damage should be done.


Years ago, around Cambridge and the MIT/GNU/Hacker community we called RSI emacsatosis because virtually all of us used emacs for most of our day and many of the older guys had moderate to severe RSI problems.  Today, I call the malady “screen reader syndrome” because our sighted friends need to use far fewer keystrokes than we do.


Three years ago my RSI problems got so bad that I, on a daily basis, had to make a decision between two actions where both would lead to a poor outcome.  The choice I had to make meant either taking a pain killer and struggling with the cognitive effects of the drug or skipping the pill and feeling the constant pain which also limited my ability to think.  A few months later, my cognitive failures and near constant pain got so bad that I had to leave a job I once loved and collect from the long term disability insurance company that covered us at FS.


Today, I am extremely cautious about how I use keyboards because, even when I come close to my former work schedule, I can feel the pain approaching.


My RSI also motivates me to research new user interface paradigms for us blinks.  Will Pearson is far ahead of me in this pursuit and, hopefully, someone will come up with a useful system that drastically cuts down on keystrokes while also improving the efficiency with which a blind user interacts with a computer.




Today’s article drifts from the titular subject of software documentation to RSI problems suffered by people who use keyboards a real lot, including me.  I don’t mean to imply that Window-Eyes will cause more damage than any other screen reader.  As far as I know, no one has studied the population of screen reader users to determine if one screen reader or another will cause more or less problems for its users.


All of the screen readers I’ve tried lately require a lot of keyboard use and none can be said to have a terribly efficient way of delivering information to its users.  While System Access and JAWS provide additional modifier keys, the overall effect of using an entirely keyboard based interface is likely the same or very similar to the experience Window-Eyes users have.


The JAWS Speech and Sounds Manager was the last major interface improvement seen in screen readers.  It is a bit annoying to set up but it does help provide more semantic information in less time to people who employ this feature.


Hell, I’m really rambling today… 


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Venturing into Vista: JAWS and Speech Recognition

As I wrote in Sunday’s article, the Speech Recognition system was the next bit of Vista that I would explore.  After logging into my new machine, I went to Control Panel and launched the Speech item.  All three screen readers (System Access, JAWS and Window-Eyes) performed well in the main speech recognition window.


One of the links on the Speech Recognition page said something like, “Speech Recognition Tutorial” and, as I hadn’t done anything with the Vista speech functionality yet, I decided that the tutorial might be useful.  I had been running System Access as I am trying to spend a week with it as my primary screen reader in order to get a better feel for the gestalt of the Serotek product.  The tutorial works like a wizard and when the first dialogue came up, SA only spoke the “Next” button.  Switching to the Virtual Mouse Cursor did little to help improve matters.


I launched Window-Eyes next.  Using its PC cursor, very little spoke properly.  As I am not a proficient WE user, I’ll reserve judgment on its performance in the Speech Recognition program for now.  I will, however, point to an issue I reported last week about what I feel is a general deficiency of Window-Eyes; namely, that it seems to have no global keyboard settings.  I cannot, in my wildest imagination, figure out why anyone would want the keystrokes that move the Mouse Cursor to change from program to program.  I wrote the other day that I found it annoying that System Access had no way to change one’s keymap but in WE, I seem to be forced to go to its hot key dialogue for every separate program I use.  Maybe because I have used JAWS for so long, the logic behind such a peculiar user interface escapes me and, if any WE user out there can tell me how to more efficiently create a set of keystrokes that will work everywhere, please call or write to me soon.  Of course, I could read the Window-Eyes manual which may tell me how to accomplish this task but, in my opinion, this shouldn’t be so hard.


Then, I launched JAWS 8.0.  With its PC cursor, JAWS also only saw the “next” button but, when I switched to the JAWS Cursor, virtually everything read quite nicely.  I do not have a copy of jVist from Brian Hartgen and T&T so I’m using JAWS in its out-of-the-box configuration.  The JAWS “Read in TAB Order (INSERT+B by default)” feature worked tremendously well for going through the Speech Recognition tutorial.


Throughout the tutorial, the user is asked to say something into a microphone.  This changes the text in the dialogue a bit, usually providing the text for what the user should say next or, if one has finished a section, it will instruct the user to say “next” to go to the next dialogue in the tutorial.


I have used Dragon Naturally Speaking for a pretty long time now.  If you have RSI problems as bad as mine, dictation software provides a healthier, albeit slower, means of entering information into a computer.  It also improves your spelling tremendously as dictation programs find words in their dictionary which are all spelled correctly as soon as you say them.  I type very quickly so dictation slows me down a lot as it is difficult to think while talking (I believe Will Pearson wrote a comment to a BC article a while back explaining why one can think and type more easily than think while talking).  The alternative, though, means that I will find my hands, wrists, forearms and shoulders screaming in pain and I will have to lay off for a couple or three days.  Thus, speech recognition is very important to me.


Using JAWS, I completed the tutorial pretty quickly.  I then started exploring the rest of the Vista Voice Recognition functionality and, in every part of the program I tried, JAWS performed pretty well.  Even without special custom scripts, JAWS works in every area I tried better than it does (again without scripts) in the Dragon product.  The best performance I’ve seen with any screen reader using voice recognition is JAWS with Dragon Pro and jSay from T&T.  In the past, using Microsoft Word in “full screen” view, I have found that turning on “echo all” in JAWS provides a kludgerous way to use it with Dragon but it works reasonably well with the $99 version of Dragon Naturally Speaking which drastically cuts down on the overall cost of using voice recognition in Windows XP and earlier.


I must commend the Microsoft people on the quality of their Vista voice recognition facility.  Without having trained the recognition system (something I plan on doing today or tomorrow), the Vista facility works very nicely.  I was able to issue quite a few commands and hear JAWS announce that programs started, that menus activated, etc. 


I didn’t return to either Window-Eyes or System Access yesterday as my work time had finished and, even with dictation, I try to keep my computer usage to a scheduled period of time so I can pretend that I have a life but, mostly, so I can read books, listen to the radio and play with the dogs.


So, even without special scripts, JAWS won the day in a part of the OS that I find particularly useful.  As I suggest above, Window-Eyes might also work reasonably well in the voice recognition features but I grew so frustrated trying to understand its keymap editor that I stopped using WE but will return to it when I feel a bit more patient.


Today, I plan on trying out dictation in Word 2007.  Wish me luck…


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Venturing into Vista: System Access and Windows Media Center

As I wrote yesterday, I have performed a clean installation of System Access on my Vista machine and have started living with it as if it was the only screen reader I had available to me.  So far, I feel cautiously optimistic about SA’s performance in a variety of situations where JAWS performed poorly and Window-Eyes either performed poorly or provided mediocre support.  In portions of Vista where JAWS and Window-Eyes perform well, SA does at least as good a job and, in some areas performs better.


Thus far, though, I haven’t run any programs with System Access under Vista that did not come with my PC.  So, for the most part, day one of my investigation of SA in Vista meant using it in various operating system features.  The two I had hoped to look into yesterday were the WindowsMediaCenter and the Vista Speech Recognition functionality.  I only found the time to look at the MediaCenter.


Before I get into the specifics of using WindowsMediaCenter with System Access, I’d like to discuss using the latest screen access product in general.  As I mentioned in my piece talking about some of the difficulties I had with learning Window-Eyes, I mentioned that SA mostly mimics the JAWS keyboard layout so it feels familiar to a long term JAWS user as they learn to use it.  As I have noted in the past week, I use the JAWS Kinesis layout because I have a Kinesis keyboard which helps cut down on wear and tear on my hands and wrists.  As a result, I am accustomed to certain keystrokes that do nothing when running the Serotek product.  I feel that SA’s lack of a utility that a user can employ to tweak their keyboard layout is a major deficiency of the product.


System Access does a better job than Window-Eyes with keyboard functionality because it has a number of different modifier keys (insert, scroll lock, num lock, caps lock…) which does make using an oddball keyboard like the Kinesis a bit simpler but, because of my peculiar layout, I rarely need to use a function key while running JAWS so, while running SA, I need to take my hands off of home row more frequently than with JAWS or Window-Eyes which forces me to put additional stress on my wrists and forearms.  Thus, I would very much like to see a keymap editor added to System Access.


My second major complaint about SA regards the synthesizers with which it ships.  Over the years, like many other JAWS users, I have grown addicted to Eloquence.  No matter how clear, human sounding or emotive a speech synthesizer might sound, nothing sounds as good as Eloquence at fast speech rates.  Thus, DecTalk and NeoSpeech simply don’t sound good enough at the speed I like to use a screen reader so, due to its lack of Eloquence, I need to move more slowly when using SA.


As I wrote yesterday, I have a very strong interest in making home appliances and consumer electronics products accessible.  Thus, the ability to use the WindowsMediaCenter application and all it claims to offer greatly intrigued me.


I attached the coaxial cable to the jack for digital television on the back of my new PC and turned it on.  After logging in, I started System Access and, on the desktop, hit ENTER on the WindowsMediaCenter icon.  The program presented me with an interface containing a lot of buttons and, for no reason apparent to me, SA “fell out of” the program and returned focus to the desktop.  Using ALT+TAB, I returned to the MediaCenter interface.


The people at Microsoft who designed the MediaCenter program neglected to add a usable set of tab stops for moving among the buttons.  Cursor keys, however, worked properly to move from button to button so I could reach all of its features.  I checked this screen with both JAWS and Window-Eyes and they behaved similarly to SA.


I found a button that said, “Setup TV” and hit ENTER on it.  This launched a wizard like set of dialogues that I had to follow to get the system to recognize my television tuner and cable attachment.  With System Access, I had to employ the “Virtual Mouse” (equates to the JAWS cursor and the WE Mouse Cursor) quite a few times to read the static text in these dialogues.  For comparison sake, I quit out of SA a few times to launch JAWS and Window-Eyes to see how they acted in this interface that SA struggled with.  Using the PC cursor in JAWS, I could only read the name of the default control, using the JAWS cursor, I heard nothing but “blank, blank, blank…”  Window-Eyes fared slightly better than JAWS but I could not use it to complete the tasks at hand.


Limping along using the SA Virtual Mouse Cursor, I completed the television setup task.  As the task was impossible with the other two screen readers, System Access won the day easily.


Next, I launched the “Guide” by hitting ENTER on a button with that label.  This brought me into the program guide set up wizard.  Much like the television set up interface, I had to switch to the SA Virtual Mouse Cursor to read static text.  Trying the same dialogues with JAWS resulted in the JAWS cursor saying nothing more than “blank” and my results with Window-Eyes were almost equally useless.  In some of the set up guide dialogues, I could navigate from control to control with SA but the labels didn’t read automatically; fortunately, on each of the controls I could reach by hitting TAB, doing a SayLine read the information about the control and I could use it pretty much as one would expect.


At some point, the guide set up wizard presented me with an edit control in which I was supposed to type in my zip code.  I do not know why but SA neither echoed the keys as I typed them nor could it read with its version of the PC cursor or with its Virtual Mouse Cursor.  I learned after I hit ENTER on the “Next” button that, in fact, I had typed my zip code correctly.


Once I completed setting up the Guide, WindowsMediaCenter downloaded the television listings for my cable company and returned me to its main interface.  There, using System Access, I hit the “Guide” button again and the program presented me with a list, in channel order, of all of the programs currently playing on TV.  I could scroll through the list of shows and, by hitting ENTER on one, the television window would launch and I could hear the program and, with the Virtual Mouse Cursor, hear information about it.  I grew elated as this was the first time since I lost my vision that I actually had a “modern” interface to watching television and choosing shows I might want to record.


Historically, I have always argued that professional applications, those that people use in a workplace, should have priority over home and entertainment programs.  To a large extent, I still hold this belief but I must say that having the ability to control a home entertainment center made me happy and, even with an imperfect screen reader experience from System Access in WindowsMediaCenter, I felt having the ability to use these features of the new OS very rewarding.


Today, I will play around with SA in Windows Media Center some more and, hopefully, if the latest Potter book doesn’t keep me too enthralled, I’ll get to the Speech Recognition features today.




While SA was the only screen access tool that could handle the MediaCenter set up procedure, further investigation did show that JAWS and Window-Eyes both functioned reasonably well in the tv guide dialogue.  When using other features, though, the JAWS cursor never provided anything more useful than “blank” and Window-Eyes Mouse Cursor fared only slightly better.  So, including further investigation, System Access remains the top dog in WindowsMediaCenter.



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Venturing Further Into Vista: Preparing to Live With SA for a Time

Today, I start my next steps into using Vista with a screen reader.  Before jumping straight into the titular subject of this story, though, I’d like to correct a couple of minor mistakes in yesterday’s piece.  First, I didn’t want to use the word “Explorers” in the title, that was supposed to be “Explores” without the second “r.”  Second, I dictated the piece pretty quickly and made a minor misstatement when I said that the JAWS Dictionary Manager modified jkm files.  I had meant to write Keyboard Manager and missed the error when I reread the article before posting it.  Changes made in the JAWS Dictionary Manager also take effect immediately but its information is stored in .jdf files, not jkm.


Starting today, I will switch and use System Access as my primary screen reader on my Vista computer.  I will use SA almost all of the time and will only start Window-Eyes or JAWS if and when something bad happens.  I may also launch Narrator to get out of an unexpected jam.


After reading Ranger’s post (in Ranger Station blog, link above) I now feel pretty confident that SA may be the only screen reader I need but I expect that WE and JAWS will have their place in my computing life.


I’m very interested in WindowsMediaCenter which works very poorly with Window-Eyes 6.1 and I haven’t tried it yet with JAWS.  The Media Center has Tivo like features which, unless one does some things to a set top box that probably invalidates the warrantee, would mean that people with vision impairment can enjoy things like TV listings specific to their cable provider and set up recording times and perform other tasks that sighted people have been taking for granted for a very long time.


I am very interested in home automation as a step forward in the ability of people with vision impairment to live independently.  As an increasing number of home appliances come with flat touch screen displays with a hierarchical set of menus that, for all intents and purposes, cannot be used effectively by a blind person.  If the consumer electronics industry can choose a standard protocol for interoperability between the devices and user agents designed for needs of a specific group, all of this will become accessible very soon.


So, I’m off to install SA cleanly (with no other screen readers running) and I’m looking forward to learning how much of my computing tasks can be handled by the newest player in the game.





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A JAWS User Explorers Window-Eyes

Since I started exploring Vista and, to a lesser extent, Office 2007, Blind Confidential posts have given JAWS 8.0 quite a spanking.  With nearly a full week using Vista behind me, using Window-Eyes most of the time, I feel I must comment on short comings of the GW product and point out situations in which either System Access or JAWS provide a more usable solution.


As it has been more than nine years since I last used Window-Eyes on a full time basis some of my impressions of it in Vista are likely also true in XP and earlier operating environments.  Also, some of the issues about Window-Eyes that have caused me to struggle a bit result from my using JAWS so much over the last eight and a half years and that I know the commands I use with any frequency so well that I don’t need to think in order to act.  Finally, various aspects of the Window-Eyes interface seem very unfamiliar to a JAWS user which also requires a different way of thinking in order to function properly.


I don’t know if such a beast exists but I think a set of tutorials on the subject, “Window-Eyes for the JAWS User: A Primmer on Using a Second Screen reader,” would serve users who want to use WE as well as or instead of JAWS quite well.  Of course, if such a document existed, I would probably ignore it as I tend to only consult documentation when I’ve already tried everything I could think of on my own.


JAWS users, including me, think in terms of a modality based upon which cursor (PC, JAWS, Virtual or Invisible) is active.  Window-Eyes has two or three cursors (equivalent to the PC cursor, a JAWS cursor that moves the mouse pointer, an invisible cursor that GW calls the WE cursor and, although not identified as a cursor per se, a virtual cursor when in browse mode).  Years ago, I remember users complaining that the different modes that JAWS employs caused some confusion.  I found the simultaneous cursors in Window-Eyes quite confusing over the past few days as, because I know JAWS so well, I think in terms of a mode defined by the active cursor.


I can see advantages and disadvantages to each system.  JAWS, in all of its different modes maintains a single set of keystrokes to perform similar and identical tasks.  Thus, a JAWS user only needs to learn one set of hot keys to perform the most common tasks like reading a line, word or character.  In Window-Eyes, there are at least two cursors (the one that equates to the JAWS PC cursor and either the WE or mouse cursor) active all of the time and, as a result, a user must memorize two commands to read a line, word or character.  Of course, having the mouse cursor turned on all of the time obviates the requirement that one switch between modes to perform tasks best suited to a specific cursor.


Whether the modal approach or the double simultaneous cursors is more user friendly is a topic that my friend Will Pearson can speak to far better than me.  To me, when I find myself in a place that Window-Eyes does not read immediately, I think I should do something like routing my JAWS cursor to the focus (PC cursor) which is a mental artifact of having used JAWS almost every day for more than 8 years.  At the same time, I can see why a person more fluent in Window-Eyes would find the different modes JAWS uses quite confusing.


The cursor and modality issue is the same on all platforms and not, therefore, specific to Vista.  It did, however, slow me down quite a bit as I had to stop and think about or even look up a keystroke now and then.


This brings me to the JAWS keyboard layout that ships standard with Window-Eyes (also not a Vista specific issue).  The people at GW provide just enough of the JAWS desktop keyboard layout to, in my opinion, really confuse a JAWS user.  Because of the lack of cursor based modality, Window-Eyes cannot provide the consistent set of keystrokes that exist in JAWS.  Thus, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time trying to create a keyboard layout as similar to the JAWS Kinesis as I can.  Once again, I cannot say which system is superior, only that I am much more familiar with JAWS so remembering that different keystrokes govern the mouse cursor than the focal one slows me down and makes transitioning from JAWS to Window-Eyes less smooth than I had hoped.


Recently, I’ve written about how I need multiple screen readers to accomplish everything I use a computer for.  In the areas in which System Access does a good job, I definitely prefer it to Window-Eyes as its default keymap mimics that of JAWS so I immediately feel at home when using it.  This specific issue probably keeps most users locked into either JAWS or Window-Eyes as the time to learn the different user interface metaphors can easily become an expensive training issue.


My next complaint about Window-Eyes has to do with how it talks to audio hardware (I don’t know if this is true only in Vista or if has been around for a while).  I almost always wear headphones while working at a computer.  The headphones I most often use is a Logitech USB headset which has its own sound card that resides on its USB cable.  When running JAWS, I can listen to it speak using Eloquence through speakers and then plug my headset into a USB port and JAWS will recognize that my default sound card changed and will switch over to speaking through the headset sound device.  This is not the case with Window-Eyes (at least in Vista) so, yesterday, while I had to juggle sound devices Window-Eyes had to be restarted each time I either plugged in or detached my headset.


Perhaps because I spent a lot of years working on it, I find the JAWS UI considerably more intuitive than that of Window-Eyes.  In JAWS, one need only go to a single place in the UI to globally change basic behaviors like speech rate, running from the system tray, hot key announcements and other simple settings that I tend to adjust right after installing a new version of JAWS.  Window-Eyes provides some keystrokes for making global adjustments but, in its own window, one must separately set things like speech rate and pitch by using items under three different menus.  Compared to JAWS, I find this process to be pretty clunky and, in general, I find the WE UI to feel a bit antiquated.  If I remember correctly, System Access only has global speech and other settings so is, in my mind, the simplest to grasp.


Window-Eyes also seems to use different keystrokes to perform common tasks depending upon which application is running.  I’ve heard some people claim that this is a more intuitive approach as each Set file is tweaked to meet the specific use case.  Frankly, I find any system that requires me to memorize more keystrokes than I absolutely must to be less intuitive than using the same keymap in all situations.  While the JAWS cursor based modality might confuse people accustomed to Window-Eyes, JAWS users can get completely confused by needing to remember differences in the keymap as one switches between applications.


Likely due to my novice status as a Window-Eyes user, I can’t figure out why changes made to the hot keys do not immediately take effect.  In JAWS, if one goes to the Dictionary Manager, any changes take effect as soon as one saves the jkm file.  Also, with JAWS, advanced users can open the keymap file for a given application or the default in Notepad or some other text editor, change a keymap, save the file and it will instantly take effect.  This, in my opinion at least, is far more intuitive than figuring out whatever it is that one must do to make Window-Eyes learn a new keystroke or two.


Other settings and configurations are also much simpler in JAWS than WE.  Specifically, if I want to change the synthesizer I want JAWS to use, I go to a menu that only includes synths that I have installed;  Window-Eyes, on the other hand, presents me with a list of every synthesizer that they support, whether I have one or not.  I accidentally fat fingered a keystroke while in this part of the WE UI and found myself entirely without speech, “Sue!” I yelled and my lovely wife came to the rescue but if I had been home alone, I’d have been SOL until I could find a sightie to help out.


JAWS provides a feature called “hot key help” which, by default, launches when a user hits INSERT+H.  As Window-Eyes does not have virtual viewer functionality, it may not be able to offer a similar feature.  In JAWS, especially in applications where the scripters and developers add a large number of keystrokes it is easy to forget those one doesn’t use frequently.  JAWS hot key help brings up a window that lists most if not all of the keystrokes available in a particular situation (it is context sensitive at the application level) and the user can arrow through the list, search with the virtual find feature or navigate however he chooses and when the user finds the feature he wants, he is told which hot key is bound to the feature but, at the same time, can hit ENTER on the feature name and JAWS will execute the command.  This is a really nice feature in programs like Excel and GoldWave which have literally dozens of hot keys to perform lots of really interesting functions.


On the other side of the argument, I find that, in Vista at least, Window-Eyes runs faster than does JAWS.  Window-Eyes rarely, if ever, repeats a bit of text over and over, a really annoying aspect of JAWS that really should be fixed.  Overall, in my first week with Vista, I still feel that Window-Eyes does a better job than JAWS in most cases.  At the same time, I find that JAWS “feels” better than WE and that JAWS many help and tutorial features make it more comfortable to operate.


I promised Mike Calvo that I would spend a week using System Access as my primary screen reader in Vista so as to get a feel for it in a more real world environment than I have gotten by simply starting it up and checking if one or two things that either JAWS or Window-Eyes does poorly.  I will report on that experience when it is completed.


A month or so ago, I wrote that if I had to live with only one screen reader, I would choose JAWS.  Today, now that I use Vista daily, I am confident that I need at least two and maybe three screen access tools to do everything I use a computer to do.


Today, I plan on trying the speech recognition features of Vista with Window-Eyes.  I want to get a copy of jVist but I don’t know where to purchase it in the US.  I supposed if I wasn’t so lazy, I could find it on the T&T web site.


— End









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Farewell to Project Paddle Odyssey and Errata

Today, I have two subjects on which I will write.  The first describes the closure of Project Paddle Odyssey and the second corrects a couple of errors or misleading statements I made in yesterday’s post.


A number of years ago, I founded a non-profit organization called Project Paddle Odyssey (PPO).  The goal of the project was to develop electronically guided kayaks that blind people could use to go fishing, paddle for exercise and/or join their sighted friends without needing to use a tandem kayak.  The PPO software was based on GPS and Windows Mobile PDA and Smartphone devices running Code Factory’s Mobile Speak Pocket or Mobile Speak Smartphone.


The incomplete software, which I will soon release as an open source project for anyone interested in playing around with it, has two modes – leader and follower.  For the first version, we accepted the limitation that a sighted person would need to take the leader role and that the blind paddlers would follow.  The system worked by creating an ad hoc Wi Fi network among the participants over which positional information would be transmitted.  The follower units would announce which direction the user should point their boat to remain in line with the leader.  The software had some pretty interesting heuristics to smooth out the path of the followers by finding an average line between the precise points sent out from the leader kayak.


Project Paddle Odyssey had a really awesome board of directors, a terrific advisory board that included people like Eric Weinmeier and other high profile individuals from the world of outdoor sports.  We had a pretty good group of volunteers, some of whom got credit at the university level for working on some aspects of the system and others who worked on the software just for the love of hacking and the desire to see this very cool technology deployed.


PPO also had a terrific group of sponsors, ranging from AT companies like AI ^2 and Dolphin to companies that manufacture fishing tackle like DOA Lures and Quasi-Jig.  Unfortunately, PPO started falling apart when Freedom Scientific forced two of the organization’s founders to resign from its board of directors with the claim that, in some really weird alternative universe, someone might think that a non-profit that makes software to guide kayaks might in fact be considered competition to the AT giant.  One of these people had, at that time, also been the single largest financial donor to the project so his absence took a chunk out of the organization’s ability to conduct business.


Throughout 2006, PPO made a little progress here and there with work from volunteers but my time started growing more scarce as I found myself working on a lot of different research projects, writing articles and working on various projects which I had hoped would result in a profitable outcome for Susan and me.  Thus, PPO took a back seat to other personal goals and as the organization developed into one in which almost all roads pointed to me, many tasks went undone and the project came to a halt due to my inattention and lack of leadership.


Last month, the Project Paddle Odyssey board of directors voted to dissolve the organization and donate its remaining assets (about $1000) to Southeastern Guide Dogs, the organization where both Mike Calvo, a PPO board member, and I received the amazing animals with whom we now share our lives.  Those of you interested in this terrific guide dog school should take a look at their web site and read the comment Mike posted to Dena’s article yesterday.


When my partners and I get our new web site up and going, I will post the source code to what currently exists of the PPO program and perhaps we can assemble a unofficial group of people who want to do some hacking on a free form GPS program that encourages people to play follow the leader while in paddle craft.  The code base might also be useful as a basis for a Windows Mobile GPS program with goals outside of anything involving water so, as the code carries a free software license, I will encourage people to use it as they see fit for whatever application they might have for the code.


I’m pretty sad about how PPO devolved and then had to disappear and I really hope the little bit of software we did build finds a second life.




In yesterday’s post about the AT&T/CF deal, I incorrectly identified the EasyLink 20 as, in combination with a smart phone and MSS, providing a very cost effective way for a user to assemble a portable system with Braille.  Roselle from Code Factory called me over Skype and told me that I should have written EasyLink 12 instead of 20.  So, in my haste to dictate the article yesterday, I wrote the wrong number and readers should note the correction.


Also, in the “Afterward” to yesterday’s post, I mentioned that Brian Hartgen’s excellent review of popular screen readers in Office 2007 said, “some of the JAWS bugs Brian demonstrated are truly unacceptable in a released product.”


As Brian wrote in a comment he posted to the article, he also demonstrates, “a large

number of deficits I find to be troublesome to work with in relation to the other two screen-reading products [Window-Eyes and System Access],” which I neglected to mention in my post yesterday.  Brian is absolutely correct in this assertion and anyone who listens to his entire piece will hear lots of difficulties with the other screen readers discussed in the review.


The reason I singled out JAWS as having severe problems was because Brian’s review demonstrates how, on some occasions, JAWS will say “blank” when there is actually text in a Word document.  I felt that almost all of the other defects that Brian described in all three of the screen access programs he surveyed were definitely troublesome but, in my opinion, a screen reader that will sometimes miss entire chunks of text in the most popular word processor is unforgivable.  The most minimal actions a word processor user ever performs is writing, editing and saving textual information which, if this cannot be done reliably and consistently, all of the other features no longer matter.


Brian’s article is much more fair and balanced than almost anything ever written in Blind Confidential.  His effort included a meticulous, word by word, keystroke by keystroke comparison of the three AT products he discusses in his review.  I have not read such a detailed comparison of screen access programs in a very long time and anyone considering Office 2007 should listen to Brian’s piece as it will definitely help you figure out which features of Word and Outlook work best with your favorite screen reader.


— End



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Memories and Tribute

Today is a bitter sweet day for me. It is the birthday of my first guide dog. She is no longer with me, but I always remember her and the gifts she gave me on this day. Below is a piece I wrote for her a few years ago. I hope you will enjoy it.

Memories of Rae

When I was 19 years old, I decided it was time to get my first guide dog. My best friend, Kathryn, had been paired with a beautiful, black and red German Shepherd 4 months earlier, and she seemed so much more independent and confident. My parents, not wanting to admit that their first born child was growing up, were less than enthusiastic about the idea of me flying across the continent to attend the 4 week training program. I think they were also nervous about the idea that a short, furry creature would be responsible for my safety. Never the less, after filling out the
application forms, completing the in-home visits, and asking myself if I was really ready to care for another living thing, I finally received word that I had been accepted to a guide dog school in California, and that my training was to begin on March 28, 1993.

When I got off the plane in San Francisco, I had no idea what to expect. I was greeted by one of my guide dog instructors, who packed me and my luggage into a bus full of other students for the 30 minute ride to the school’s San Rafael campus. The campus was beautiful, with manicured lawns, walking paths, and tall trees surrounding a student dormitory, administration building, and huge dog kennel.

As I looked around my room, the impending arrival of my new dog became very real. There was a tile area below my bathroom sink that contained a faucet and an empty water dish. A fleece mat rested on the floor beside my bed, and a brand new leather leash waited on my desk. I didn’t know how I was going to contain my excitement until my meeting with my mystery companion.

After 3 days of pre-dog preparation that taught us how to issue commands to invisible animals, dole out praise, administer fair punishments, and work with leather dog harnesses, the magical day arrived. I remember how I felt as I sat in the lecture room with my classmates, and waited to hear the name, breed, and gender of my new companion. When my turn came, I was told that I would be receiving a female German Shepherd, named Rae. After we had learned the basics about our new dogs, we were sent back to our rooms to wait for our names to be called. I watched anxiously as my fellow students walked down the long, tiled hall, disappeared into the instructors’ office, and emerged minutes later with their new partners at their sides. After what seemed like hours, my turn finally came. I was lead into the same office, and settled in an over-sized arm chair.

“Are you ready to meet Rae?” My instructor asked.

I nodded, as the door to the outside run flew open, and 65 pounds of fur and pointy ears flew across the room and landed at my feet. As my hands moved over her slim, athletic body, her sculpted face, her bushy tail, and her enormous ears, my instructor described her elaborate markings to me.

I left in a haze of joy—Rae plodding expectantly beside me. Like all first-time dog handlers, I was thinking that my dog was the most perfect dog that ever existed, and that we would be the best of friends from this moment on. To my dismay, it didn’t happen quite so easily.

When we returned to my room, I sat down on the floor with Rae—thinking we could get in some cuddle time before I had to feed her and take her out to relieve. Rae, however, only had eyes for her trainer. Every time he walked by our door, she would whale and strain at her leash in an attempt to reach him. I quickly revised my “best of friends” scenario, and decided I’d be happy with her liking me–even just a little. When it came time to feed her, she wouldn’t eat. When I took her outside, she just looked at me, flattened her ears, and sat unmoving at my feet.

Again, like all first-time dog handlers whose dogs don’t perform according to their expectations, I became convinced that my dog hated me. I said as much to my instructor, who reassured me, and told me to “give it time.”

The next morning, after a night plagued with self-doubts and little sleep, Rae and I took our first walk together. I will never forget that moment, because until then, I had no idea that it was possible to move that quickly or gracefully through space. We virtually flew 2 blocks, before Rae even looked up at me.

My instructor laughed at the expression of surprise that came over her intelligent, little face—as though she was thinking “Oh! I didn’t realize you were attached to me. Where’s the person I usually walk with?”

It has been nearly 12 years since that California spring day. I have had the privilege of working other dogs since then, and though each has touched my heart, none will ever replace Rae. With Rae, I changed from a girl to a woman. With Rae, I got my bachelor of arts degree, and became a Dot-Com,er. With Rae, I road in a stretch limacine through Manhattan, and in a canoe over a set of white water rapids in Northern Canada. With Rae, I fell in love, fell out of it, and fell in love again.

The relationship that a person has with their guide is so difficult to explain. It’s a combination of parent/child, partner, and friend. The gifts she gave me were immeasurable. She taught me about unconditional love, and what it feels like to literally owe your life to another living soul. She licked my tears away when I cried, and stood regally beside me when I succeeded. She was my light, my heart, my wings, and the key to my independence.

With my boundless gratitude, this is for her.

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AT&T to Sell Code Factory Products, More on Office 2007

I had not planned on writing a BC article today as I spent most of yesterday running around from appointment to appointment and didn’t even turn my new Vista computer on.  I had planned to jump into the Vista voice recognition system with Window-Eyes, JAWS and System Access but, alas, I ran out of time before getting to it.


Then, I found a press release announcing that AT&T (formerly Cingular) would start selling the Code Factory line of products to its enormous customer base.  I’ve pasted the release in below.  The one slightly confusing part of the press release is that it refers to Mobile Speak but not to Mobile Speak Pocket or Smartphone.  As the press release talks about Windows Mobile based phones, I’ll assume that AT&T will be selling the entire line of CF products but is calling all three of the screen readers Mobile Speak without the descriptive third word for the WM based devices.


BC readers know that I am a huge fan of access technology that adapts mainstream products rather than building blind guy ghettos.  Mobile Speak Pocket and Smartphone users have had access to Windows Mobile 6 for months now and, unlike any of the small market/high price blindness oriented products, had Windows Mobile 5 for a long time while the AT hardware companies chose to skip it entirely.


I really love the economics of the Mobile Speak line of products.  For the price AT companies charge for an upgrade, one can get a very nice smart phone, blue tooth keyboard and a copy of Mobile Speak Smartphone.  For considerably less than the AT hardware companies charge for their devices with a Braille line included, a user can get the items I mentioned plus an Easy Link 20 from Optilec which provides a Braille keyboard and 20 cell display.


As the primary “computer” in the scenario I describe above is, in fact, a smart phone, consumers of this solution can upgrade to a unit with a faster processor or more features or whatever Windows Mobile devices include in the future for a relatively small sum if they extend their mobile phone contracts.  I’m fairly certain that AT&T probably has a smart phone available for about $100 with a new or extension of a service contract. 


I also very much like the ergonomics of the Mobile Speak solutions.  Instead of slinging a heavy BrailleNote, PAC Mate or BrailleSense over one’s shoulder, users can carry a three or four ounce item in any pocket.  Users can also elect to take their Braille display and/or keyboard and/or other peripheral (of which there are many) along or leave them at home based upon how they plan on using their smart phone on any given outing – flexibility hardly provided in any of the blind guy ghetto products.


Lastly, in addition to leveraging economies of scale available to consumers of mainstream devices, blind people who choose a Mobile Speak based solution will also benefit from the rapid rate of innovation available in consumer products.  My T-Mobile Dash came with WM 5 but I was able to upgrade it to WM 6 by running a program I downloaded from the T-Mobile web site.  The Dash came complete with Blue Tooth and Wi Fi built in (items that I think only come standard on an MPower) and a simple visit to any of the mobile device shareware sites shows how many free or low cost third party programs will run on it, a feature that, if I remember correctly, is only available on the PAC Mate. 


So, in my not at all humble opinion, I strongly recommend that people with vision impairments try out any of the three versions of Mobile Speak on a phone or PDA before plunking down a pile of cash on one of the blindness specific devices out there today.


Also, in today’s Afterward, I wrote a bit about the really excellent review Brian Hartgen did of three screen readers in Microsoft Office 2007 which is at the bottom of this story.


Press Release:


AT&T Expands Wireless Offerings for Customers with Disabilities


    AT&T Launching New Services to Support Customers With Special Needs


    SAN ANTONIO, July 17 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ — AT&T Inc. (NYSE: ATT) has

announced plans to launch new wireless software products this year to increase usability for customers who are blind or visually impaired. AT&T will partner with Code Factory to offer two new products: Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier, both for Windows Mobile and Symbian Series 60 operating system devices.


    AT&T consults with leaders from the disability community to develop product and service offerings designed to meet the needs of customers with vision loss. “By working closely with organizations that are committed to serving seniors or people with disabilities, AT&T is able to better understand the unique needs of its customers,” said Carlton Hill, vice president of Product Management for AT&T’s wireless unit. “These new software options will help make it easier for all individuals to enjoy a

digital lifestyle wherever they go.”


    “Code Factory’s mission is to make it possible for visually impaired consumers to use the most advanced mobile technology,” said Eduard Sanches, CEO of Code Factory.  “AT&T has a long track record of enabling communications for all of its customers, and we are very pleased to partner with them to make even more mobile devices accessible to the visually impaired.”


    Mobile Speak is a powerful, full-fledged screen reader with an easy-to-learn command structure, intuitive speech feedback in several languages and Braille support that can be used with or without speech.


Unlike other screen readers for mobile phones, Mobile Speak automatically

detects information that the blind user should know, just as a sighted user would easily find highlighted items or key areas of the screen at a glance.  Supported applications and functions include:


    — Speed dial, call lists and contacts

    — Text messaging

    — Calendar, tasks, notes and calculator

    — Internet browser

    — Word, Excel and PowerPoint

    — Voice Recorder, Media Player, voice speed dial and voice command

    — Phone/device settings, profiles, alarms and ringtones


    Mobile Magnifier is a flexible, full-screen magnification application

that supports low- and high-resolution screens and can be used with or without speech feedback. Magnification software is compatible with a wide range of mobile devices.


 Unique features include:

    — Magnification levels from 1.25x to 16x

    — Font-smoothing for easier readability

    — Three different layouts: a full-screen, split and distributed view

    — Different color schemes, including inverted color

    — Automatic panning and cursor-tracking

    — Automatic zoom function that detects areas of interest on the screen


    “We have found that individuals who have vision loss want to be able to

choose from a range of wireless handsets,” said Paul Schroeder, vice president of Programs and Policy, American Foundation for the Blind. “Just like people who can see, customers with disabilities want options. We applaud AT&T for its leadership in investing the effort to understand and address the needs of individuals with vision loss.”


    Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier for Windows Mobile and Symbian Series 60 operating system devices will be available from AT&T in the fall of 2007. For more information about wireless product or service offerings for those with disabilities, visit: http://www.wireless.att.com/about/disability-resources.jsp.





I spent some time listening to Brian Hartgen’s review of the performance of three leading screen readers (JAWS, Window-Eyes and System Access) and how they behave in Office 2007.  You can find the article in the T&T audio magazine Infotech to which a subscription costs 30 British Pounds (approximately $60) per year.  Brian starts the review by reminding us that six years ago there was a panel discussion broadcast live on Main Menu where users represented three different screen readers (JAWS, Window-Eyes and HAL) and talked about how well they performed in the Office Applications.  In those six years, the entire screen readers have been upgraded multiple times as has the Office suite so it is definitely a good time for a new and objective comparison.


Six years ago, Brian Hartgen represented Window-Eyes on the panel and now, T&T Consultancy, sells excellent JAWS extensions jSay, for using JAWS with Dragon Naturally Speaking, jDay which provides support for the Outlook 2007 calendar (something I feel that FS should have done internally) and jVist for the speech recognition features of Vista with JAWS.  Thus, some of Brian’s income is derived from selling enhancements to JAWS and, therefore, I suspected he might have a bias toward the most popular screen reader.


Much to Brian’s credit, he performed a very fair and highly objective review of the three screen readers, Window-Eyes, JAWS and System Access.  Six years ago, although Brian represented Window-Eyes on the panel, he said something like, “I like Window-Eyes but I couldn’t do my job without JAWS.”  I remember how happy that single statement made us feel around the FS building.  We knew JAWS was the best solution for Office and even the Window-Eyes representative on the panel said so!


This time, though, the comparison led to very different conclusions.  The review of the three screen readers in Office 2007 concluded with the statement that, to get the most out of Office, a blind person should probably “own two or more screen readers.”  Apparently JAWS has slipped from its dominating position in Office and some of the JAWS bugs Brian demonstrated are truly unacceptable in a released product.


Thus, I will take some notes as I start using Office 2007 on Vista that I’ll put into a BC post in the future but, because Brian did such an incredibly thorough survey of the screen readers with Office 2007, I will not try to reinvent his wheel and instead of writing my own review, I’ll suggest that you read his instead.


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