As Apple gives all of its OSX releases a cute wild cat name, everyone
who writes professionally, as a hobby, on mailing lists, in blogs, on
Face Book and virtually anywhere that one can publish text, they use
some sort of silly kitty related cliche in their title. I, therefore,
in this, the first Blind Confidential story since I pulled it out of
mothballs, have elected to use the most boring but descriptive title I
could think of on a single cup of coffee.
As the title asserts, Apple has released the latest version of its OSX
operating system and, as a consequence of the two being intertwingled,
a new version of its VoiceOver screen reader. As a general computer
user, SL -proves to increase the speed of the Intel based Macintosh
computers and does so in a highly perceptible manner. SL also
contains a lot of cool goodies and if you are interested, I recommend
reading any of the bazillion reviews in mainstream press. I
especially liked the New York Times review as it actually mentions
VoiceOver and the features for people with disabilities.
Since its release on Friday, I’ve been using SL and the new VO but
other pressing activities have kept me from doing anything like a
thorough investigation of the software. Thus, I give you my immediate
impressions and suggest, if you are looking for a whole lot of user
feedback, that you search for other VoiceOver related blogs and
mailing lists of which there seems to be new ones popping up daily.
VoiceOver, however, adds far more than performance improvements to
the world of people with vision impairment who use computers. For a
comprehensive list of such features, go to the Apple web site and go
to the Snow Leopard accessibility pages for a long and highly
To begin with, the Apple accessibility team fixed a whole bunch of
bugs. While I’m sure I will find a few over time, all of my favorites
are gone and I won’t miss them.
Apple has added a VO preference setting to allow one to turn off its
pathological insertion point related speech and turn on the insertion
point speaks the item to its right (a Peter Korn invention from back
in his days making outSPOKEN) it can now, for people who have used
virtually any other screen reader, speak items at the caret as they
would expect. A few hardcore Macintosh worshippers say that the way
VO spoke the contents at the cursor is how “sighted people perceive
its location,” a notion that is pure bunk as, when the insertion point
visually sits between two characters or words, its location is
ambiguous – it is both to the left of one character and to the right
of another. Peter and his team back in the cave man days of screen
reading saw this ambiguity and selected to speak the item to the right
as, to a screen reader user, the notion of “between” is a very
difficult or even impossible one to convey with any efficiency.
One of my favorite new behaviors in VoiceOver is its extensive use of
sounds and TTS attribute changes to denote a lot of different actions
a screen reader user may take. Other screen readers may have
different or altered speech when changing cursors but Apple provides
special sounds when one is moving backward or forward (among lots of
other things) that are really nice and they have definitely moved from
the 1 dimensional sequence of syllables and pauses into a 2D sequence
of syllables, pauses and audio effects providing an interface far more
rich than I’ve used before.
When one first starts the new SL, its verbosity is set to “high” and
the user will hear a whole lot of new information. For a user new to
VO or one who is an infrequent user, these augmentations are terrific
as they help guide a user through a sometimes complex world
translating a very visual environment to one that can be reasonably
navigated by a blink with relative efficiency. Some of these
enhancements are pretty verbose and can be turned off if a user finds
them to waste time.
The new VO adds a number of features, like nice table navigation, that
it probably should have had in the past. It also adds some very cool
new features to enhance web browsing and, in my not at all humble
opinion, makes many web sites work as well or better than JAWS, the
Snow Leopard and VO add the ability to use a multi-touch pad to
navigate data on the screen. I do not have one of these track pads
yet but I have been using the iPhone with its version of VO and its
multi-touch gesture based interface and, once one grows familiar with
it, they will find all sorts of advantages to being unbound by the
keyboard and cursor keys. I’ve heard other blinks report on this new
feature in SL and look forward to getting the appropriate hardware to
I don’t want to repeat a lot of stuff you can find in the
documentation or in lots of other blog poses out their in the
blinkosphere. I do however want to discuss the economics of this
upgrade as it compares to other systems accessible to those of us with
NVDA and orca, because they are GPL, free as in freedom with a lower
case “f,” software never have an upgrade price. System Access
announced at one of the conferences earlier this year (ATIA or CSUN)
the “death of the SMA” and have stopped charging for upgrades. The
screen readers with the largest number of users, JAWS (with an
overwhelming worldwide market share) and Window-Eyes (a distant
second) both charge a hefty sum when they ship upgrades to the
software. If one has an SMA to JAWS Professional, the FS yearly
upgrade costs them one half of the SMA price or something over a
hundred dollars. I don’t recall the GW Micro upgrade policy but it is
similar to FS in terms and costs.
One thing I can say for sure is that the Windows screen readers with
upgrade and SMA charges will take one of these expensive upgrades from
their users in order to run Windows 7.0 when it is released. Thus,
users will need to pay MS for the OS upgrade and FS or GW for their AT
upgrade, putting them somewhere in the $300 range.
Snow Leopard, though, came with a $29 price tag for both the OS and
the VoiceOver upgrade all on a single DVD. No, I didn’t leave out a
digit, SL, VO together cost $30 or roughly 10% of the market leaders.
I also cannot recall a screen reader upgrade with as much new stuff as
VO coming out in years (if pushed, I’d probably say JAWS 3.5 but
others will have their favorites as well).
The SL version of VoiceOver introduces the ability to write scripts to
tweak the performance of the screen reader and to allow for
communication directly to other applications. This powerful tool is
exposed as AppleScript, a widely used and long included scripting
language on the Macintosh with a bazillion people who understand it
and tons of examples out in the real world one can use for reference.
There are also a lot of AppleScript tutorials of varying value that
one can find with a google search. This, in a way, echoes the GW
Micro approach to scripting by using a feature built into the OS
rather than sticking to an ancient proprietary system that will have
problems every time a new version of the screen reader is released.
If one decides today to go out and buy a new Macintosh and want to use
a screen reader, they can go to their favorite Apple store, Best Buy, newegg.com
and other vendors and, for around $800 – approximately the price of
a Windows screen reader – they can walk away with the only platform
that a blink can configure entirely from its first start up forward.
The Macintosh will start VoiceOver if it perceives that a new owner
has taken too long to interact with the initial dialogue – very
slick. Macintosh has no long locking code so one needn’t find a
sighted person or call MS for the Windows upgrade nor, if they do not
read Braille, need to find said sightie or call FS to get their copy
protection working and their system talking. So, a blink buys a Mac,
brings it home, plugs it in, hits the on button (all things I was able
to do sort of by instinct when I got my MacBook a year or so ago),
wait a minute or so and start hearing the screen reader talk, asking
you if you want a brief VO tutorial or to continue with the new
computer set up. This is super slick and avoids all of the
aforementioned hassles inherent in platforms that insist on copy
protection and relying on third parties to make screen readers rather
than building them into the OS.
Needless to say, I’m impressed with Snow Leopard and especially with
the new revision of VoiceOver. Give it a spin at an Apple store and
see if you may like it too.
I am out of practice writing extemporaneous blog posts so please
forgive the clunky prose above.