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.


— End

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

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