The Braille Monitor October 2002
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The Challenge of Change: Freedom Scientific Responds to Customer Input, Unveils New, Leading-Edge Products
From the Editor: President Maurer agreed to publish this report on Freedom Scientific's progress on meeting its timetable for rectifying problems with its Spanish-language products. The following article also reports on new Freedom Scientific products. This is what they say:
In the August/September issue of the Braille Monitor Freedom Scientific welcomed the opportunity to outline our three-point action plan to improve our Spanish-language products. The need for us to take immediate corrective action was clear following the passage of Resolution 2002-15, sponsored by Mr. Alpidio Rolon of the Puerto Rican delegation during the 2002 NFB national convention.
We are pleased to tell you that we are on track to complete all three points of our action plan successfully: Freedom Scientific will deliver a Spanish-language solution for our Braille Lite M20 and M40 notetakers by October 15; we will resolve critical Spanish-language issues in the Braille Lite and Braille 'n Speak notetakers by November 30; and we will develop a Spanish-language version of OpenBook 6.0 by December 15.
Mr. Rolon has been invaluable in defining and clarifying for us those applications that required immediate attention. His input has contributed to our success, and we thank him as well as all those who offered valuable suggestions during our transformation.
Organizational change brings many opportunities--and also challenges. We discovered that first-hand at Freedom Scientific when we began the process of integrating three different companies with diverse cultures into a single enterprise two years ago. The impact was felt most keenly by our customers, who let us know that we had some serious work to do. And since March, working under new leadership with a commitment to restoring the company's solid reputation, we've been making progress. We wish to report the successful results of our ongoing improvement efforts and also introduce you to some exciting new products from Freedom Scientific:
Improved Product Service
We have reduced product-repair turnaround time to an average of less than five days--down from weeks a few months ago. We continually measure our responsiveness on technical support telephone calls and have reduced the average on-hold time to just over three minutes, a dramatic improvement from a few months ago.
Freedom Scientific has instituted more extensive product testing across our entire product line to ensure that products perform as you expect them to. We also recently hired a Director of Quality to ensure that we maintain our focus on complete customer satisfaction.
Ongoing Product Enhancements
During the past year we have released four updates of our JAWS® for Windows® screen reader, three updates of our screen magnification product, MAGic, two updates of Connect Outloud Web access, and two updates of our OpenBook scanning and reading software. We also released software updates for all of our notetakers, which provided new features and improved performance. These enhancements allow our customers to keep pace with changing applications, operating systems, and their individual use requirements.
New Product Developments
PAC Mate BNS and TNS:
Freedom Scientific’s PAC Mate BNS
These soon-to-be-released products go beyond what we traditionally call a notetaker. They are Personal All-Purpose Computers running Windows® CE and based on Microsoft's Pocket PC platform. With JAWS inside and Pocket versions of the usual desktop applications--Word, Outlook, Excel, and Internet Explorer--these products will offer the functionality of a laptop combined with small size, instant-on, and long battery life. The PAC Mate uses ActiveSync to synchronize with Windows applications on the desktop PC and lets you manage your Inbox, Tasks, Calendar, Contacts, and key documents on the go. Carry your work with you, reply and make edits throughout the day, and just plug in and sync up when you return to your desk.
One of the first things users notice when using a PAC Mate is that its design incorporates a broad range of modern input/output ports--USB, PCMCIA Type II (PC Card), Compact Flash, and Infrared, as well as Serial. Compatible plug-in PC card modems will be available from Freedom Scientific, or users can select off-the-shelf modems--including 56K dial-up, fast Ethernet, cellular, and wireless LAN. With today's Compact Flash cards, PAC Mate's storage is unlimited. Infrared technology provides a quick wireless connection to the desktop or printer and the capability to beam information to and from other users' PDAs and PAC Mates. The USB port provides fast connectivity as well as power to peripherals, including an optional Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver that comes with an application especially written for accessibility through the PAC Mate.
Imagine this scenario: Our PAC Mate user, Mark, sits in his project meeting Friday afternoon, taking notes as he hears updates from each of the team members. The meeting moves on temporarily to topics that don't concern Mark. He uses the opportunity to open his schedule spreadsheet on his PAC Mate and update the milestones based on the notes he's been taking.
Opening his Inbox, he finds an e-mail from his boss asking for the latest status. He selects Reply, adds several other colleagues' addresses from his Contacts, and attaches the updated spreadsheet. The meeting finally ends, late for a Friday. Returning to his office, Mark points his PAC Mate at his desktop IR port, and it synchronizes while he packs to leave. By the time he closes his briefcase, the updated schedule is on its way to his boss, and his PAC Mate has all his new e-mail messages.
In the cab on the way home, he checks his new messages and finds that one is urgent and needs an immediate answer. Mark has little desire to return to the office now. Inserting his cellular modem card, he accesses his ISP and sends the reply wirelessly.
Just then his PAC Mate chimes with an appointment reminder--Mark promised his friends weeks ago that he'd meet them for a celebration at Club Vaca Loca tonight. The cab driver has never heard of the place, so, still using his cellular modem, Mark selects Pocket Internet Explorer and looks up the address on the Internet. He also gets directions for the driver and reviews the menu, making a note of his selection. With that accomplished, Mark turns on his GPS and sits back while JAWS whispers the cross streets and landmarks as they pass. Nearing Club Vaca Loca, Mark tells the cabbie, "It's just ahead on the left." The celebration is in full swing, and Mark soon meets some new friends.
They pull out their PDAs and beam their business cards into Mark's PAC Mate, and he beams his back. This place is great. Mark notes it in his PAC Mate's Personal Points of Interest, saving its GPS coordinates so he can return to it easily from anywhere from now on. It's been a long day, so on the ride home Mark slips a Compact Flash card into his PAC Mate, puts on his headphones, selects Windows Media Player, and listens to a magazine he downloaded from the Internet yesterday. He'll work on those less urgent e-mails tomorrow or Sunday and send them when he synchronizes in the office Monday morning.
We believe the PAC Mate will quickly become the ultimate laptop replacement for blind users.
SAL, the Speech-Assisted Learning System:
The Braille literacy rate among blind people is below 15 percent in the United States. Two major reasons for this are the complexity of teaching and learning Braille and the geographic dispersion of the blind population. Freedom Scientific has addressed both of these root causes with its recent release of the Speech-Assisted Learning (SAL) System. Educators, rehabilitation professionals, and Braille users will appreciate the unique advantages of this multimedia Braille learning station. Youth and adults can at their own pace accelerate and augment their learning of new Braille codes or study new academic areas with programmed assistance.
The Speech Assisted Learning System
A slight press on the paper makes SAL voice the name of what is under the fingers. Press a word to hear it spoken; press the same word again and hear the word spelled. Press once more, and hear the SAL system describe the Braille symbols. The record-keeping feature allows students to study independently while the teacher periodically monitors their mastery of each skill. Information on each lesson completed, including the student's score and time to complete, is stored on a computer disk for the teacher to review and assess next steps.
The SAL courseware consists of diskettes and bar-coded Braille lesson sheets. The Braille worksheets introduce students to correct formats, spelling, mathematical sequencing, and special Braille symbols. The student simply places the Braille worksheet on SAL's touch screen, and SAL speaks a tutorial and asks questions. The student indicates an answer by pressing on the proper symbol on the Braille page or by typing on the eight-dot keyboard. SAL provides a spoken response on the accuracy of each answer and guides the student to the next exercise.
SAL is an inexpensive solution to expand the range and efficacy of special education and rehabilitation professionals who seek to get the most from their limited budgets for Braille instruction. We believe it will quickly become a standard for rehabilitation and training facilities.
A third example of our recent product breakthroughs is Focus, the world's most advanced series of Braille displays, available in 44-, 70-, and 84-cell models. For nearly two decades blind computer users have relied on Braille displays along with their screen readers as a means to transform data into refreshable Braille.
Freedom Scientific’s Focus 44
Our goal for Focus was to include designs and features that would meet the increasing demands of the workplace and allow users to keep pace with advancing technology. That is why Freedom Scientific ergonomically engineered Focus to be located close to the computer keyboard and to allow individuals to adjust the display at an angle comfortable to them. An 8-dot Braille keyboard is flush mounted on the surface of the Focus display so that navigation commands can be easily sent right from the display. The result is that users no longer need to reach constantly across their Braille displays for the computer's keyboard. Ports and connections are logically placed at either end of the display to fit most workstation requirements. With our VariBraille technology, even the firmness of the Braille cells can be adjusted to your personal preference.
In addition to its focus on ergonomics, Freedom Scientific also added first-of-a-kind features including navigation using unidirectional advance bars and proprietary Whiz Wheels that allow rapid scrolling by line, sentence, or paragraph. In addition, users can set their own hot keys for individual applications.
What Makes Our Products Different?
Freedom Scientific's product-enhancement and development activities benefit greatly from our customers, who help us define and evaluate new products, and from the wisdom and insight of our Product Advisory Board, which is composed of leaders in the blindness industry. We also have a large number of blind employees who both use and develop our products. Our development teams also work in tandem with companies such as Microsoft, Adobe, IBM, Corel, AOL, and others to ensure that Freedom's products work with the applications our customers use.
In a world where keeping pace with technology is both more difficult, because the pace of change continues to increase, and yet also more important, because of the pivotal role the technology plays in everyone's life, Freedom Scientific has the resources to keep pace with technology and the commitment to introduce new software and hardware products to empower individuals who are blind.
In March of this year, Freedom Scientific named Dr. Lee Hamilton to the position of president and CEO. Lee has a strong business and technical background and track record of running technology-based businesses. One of his first actions was to ask Deane Blazie and Ted Henter--founders of our company and leaders in the assistive-technology industry--to rejoin Freedom Scientific. In July Ted was named to our board of directors, and Deane is now a consultant to our executive staff.
Both Ted and Deane have spent the majority of their adult lives delivering technology-based products that open the doors of employment and education for blind and vision-impaired people. We have also hired a new vice president of hardware engineering, Carlos Rodriguez. Carlos comes to us from Motorola, where he worked on handheld computers.
The Freedom Scientific team is dedicated to establishing a standard of quality that will become the benchmark in this industry and at the same time continuing to develop new products that help persons who are blind to change their world. If at any time you are not satisfied with Freedom Scientific's products or performance, please contact Lee Hamilton directly. His e-mail address is <LHamilton@FreedomScientific.com>.
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