Over the weekend while in my hotel room in Minneapolis, I downloaded and installed the JAWS 9.0 public beta. Yesterday, back home in Florida, I downloaded and installed the first bug fix patch to the beta software. After I install it on Windows Vista and do some tests on the newer OS, I will report on my experience with JAWS 9 and the fixes its release notes discuss. Also, when I run it on Vista, I will try it out with Office 2007. Anything I mention about Office 2007, though, must be read with great skepticism as I don’t know it anywhere nearly as well as I do Office 2003 and I will assume that there will be a high probability of user error.
Yesterday, I did some tests in Windows XP on my one and a half year old, highly generic Toshiba laptop using IE 7 and Office 2003. This post describes my findings thus far. As all such reports contain highly subjective information, I will begin by discussing my highest priorities as what one person feels is valuable may be of no use to another. Also, the release notes mention a number of new features for users with refreshable Braille displays – because my Braille skills are poor and I have no display attached to my computer, you should look elsewhere for information on such as I have no opinion on those matters.
My biggest complaint about JAWS 7 and 8 was the poor performance and bugginess in MS Word. With great frequency, I need to work on fairly long documents with 25,000 words or more. While using the two previous JAWS upgrades, I would switch to Window-Eyes when in Word as reading and editing Word documents became unusably slow with JAWS when one approached 5,000 words and it got much worse in longer documents.
My second priority is support for VisualStudio as I spend a lot of time using it and believe that FS should support it out-of-the-box. I often use Skype and would like to see it supported by default in JAWS. Recently, I have been using gmail a lot and would like to see it supported without needing to switch to the basic html mode.
As I’ve been discussing for the 21 months since I started BC, I would like to see the AT vendors, including FS, start paying more attention to interface models that users can employ to improve their productivity. I would like to see greater use of sound, stereo and 3D audio effects, haptics and other concepts that I am not smart enough to think up on my own.
With that said, I will state that, for my single highest priority, using Word to write and edit long documents, JAWS 9.0 passes with flying colors. My first test of JAWS 9 with Word 2003 included a Word document version of the BC item I wrote about 3D Web Interfaces a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know the Word count in that document but JAWS 9 did an excellent job of reading it by line, by word and in a SayAll. I then loaded a 25,000 word proposal I had worked on for a research project; again, JAWS 9 did an excellent job in every reading mode I tried.
One “feature” or “bug” (I’m not sure if it happened intentionally or not) in Word is that JAWS 9 reads the text augmentations by default during a SayAll. These items like “non-breaking space” or “hyperlink field” break one’s attention on the content of the document and, in my opinion, should be turned off by default during a SayAll. If this feature was requested by a lot of users out there who have a different opinion on the matter from my own, I’m sure I can turn it off in a configuration dialogue somewhere which will solve my dislike of the extra spoken text.
One long standing bug with JAWS in Word that I find very annoying remains. Specifically, when Word puts up some dialogue like objects (the one that comes up when the auto-saved document is newer than the one you had opened for editing) JAWS can only see it using the JAWS cursor but, using the PC cursor the text in one’s document is partially obscured. To close such dialogues, a user needs to poke around with the JAWS cursor to find a close button or get sighted help to click on the standard close box as the JAWS cursor can’t seem to identify it. I’ve lived with this bug for a long time and thought something at the heart of a screen reader made it impossible to handle but such dialogues work very nicely with System Access so I know the problem can be fixed.
Overall, though, JAWS 9 kicks ass in Word 2003 and I’m happy to report that I no longer need to change screen readers to write long documents.
My second set of priorities are the applications JAWS supports by default. On this matter, JAWS 9 using the application scripts and configurations shipped with the product fails. To use VisualStudio .Net, one still needs to use the scripts written by Jamal Mazrui and the gang on the blind programming mailing list. Skype is only supported with scripts one needs to get from Doug Lee but, although Skype is probably the most popular communication package out there today, the powers that govern JAWS features include AIM and MSN Messenger instead.
The JAWS 9 release notes claim that it supports gmail in the standard (not basic html) mode. My findings while using this yesterday is that JAWS 9 works better than JAWS 8 in the standard gmail interface. I would not, however, describe its performance as “usable” at this point in the beta cycle. I reported a pile of gmail issues to the folks at FS yesterday and hope to see them addressed before the final release of JAWS 9.0. This is another area in which System Access outperforms the newest JAWS release. I can’t speak to Window-Eyes with gmail as I haven’t tried it yet.
When Jonathon Mosen stated in the latest FSCast that one can use the word “innovative” to describe JAWS 9.0, I think that he and I must use very different dictionaries as our definitions of “innovative” seem radically different. Jonathon may have been referring to some of the new Braille features that I cannot discuss with any credibility as I haven’t tried them and, even if I did try them, my Braille skills are so poor that I couldn’t give anything approaching a useful opinion.
If, however, Jonathon meant that the features that speech users get in JAWS 9.0, I must disagree entirely. The copy and paste html documents with formatting preserved is kind of neat but does anyone really think of this as an actual innovation on the scale of something like Quick Keys or Speech and Sounds Manager?
Supporting the latest beta of AIM is more of the same old same old and I’m fairly certain it will show up in the other screen readers fairly soon as well. Other items listed in the “What’s New” are very nice and some even rise to the level of nifty but none come all the way up to “cool” and definitely do not fall into my understanding of innovative.
As for Jonathon’s use of the adjectives, “stable” and “improved performance,” I agree entirely. JAWS 9.0 is downright peppy and in the programs I use a lot it seems to work better than ever. For users who spend a lot of time in Word, I think this is the best release since the JAWS 5.xx series coupled with Office XP.
Like my friend Darrell Shandrow wrote in his Blind Access Journal blog last week, I think that 9.0 is a very good release of the leading screen reader. I also agree with Darrell, though, that this release probably did not warrant an upgrade that cost the users an SMA but, rather, should have come out as an update with a version number like 8.5 as, in my opinion, the most impressive aspects of JAWS 9.0 actually remedy problems in 7.0 and 8.0 which we users also paid for with our SMA dollars. My personal opinion is that bug fixes and performance enhancements belong in free updates and new features which seem pretty scarce in 9.0 should go into paid for upgrades.
Of course, if I was still inside FS I would be screaming praise for this release as I would have experienced what I am confident was a ton of very hard work by the programmers, scripters, testers and, of course, Eric Damery to get this release out the door. When viewing FS from the outside in, one tends to be blind to just how hard some of the challenges that face the team really are and how much effort the team puts in to get releases (updates and upgrades alike) out the door. This is also true for the guys at GW Micro, Serotek and Dolphin but as I know the people who work on JAWS personally, I tend to think of them first when I think about working whacky hours to get some software ready for prime time.
There is one problem that exists in every screen reader I have ever tried. Specifically, when one writes in English and puts something in quotations that ends with a comma, the comma goes inside of the quotation marks. When one reads such a sentence aloud, though, the pause comes after the closing quotation mark. Thus, one might read, “quote The pause should come after the quotation mark end quote pause” but, using every screen reader I’ve tried to date, with a punctuation level set to speak quotation marks puts the pause before the close quote. I don’t know how hard this would be to fix but it would be a welcome change for all of us who do a lot of writing.