Braille Monitor                                                                January 2007

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America Online: An Internet Service That the Blind Can Use

by Curtis Chong

From the Editor: Curtis Chong is president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science. Here is his latest report on the programs and activities of America Online (AOL):

Introduction

Curtis Chong

In an article entitled "America Online: Is It Accessible Now?" which appeared in the May 2003 edition of the Braille Monitor, I mentioned that America Online (AOL) had been releasing versions of its client software that were steadily improving in accessibility to blind people using screen-reading technology; with the releases of AOL 6.0, 7.0, and 8.0, accessibility had steadily improved. I pointed out that such accessibility to the AOL software as the blind enjoyed depended on a joint effort between AOL and the various screen-access technology companies meeting each other halfway. I concluded by saying that AOL as a company had decided to make accessibility "an important and highly visible corporate priority."

It has been about three-and-a-half years since that article was published. Since then, has the accessibility of the AOL client software continued to improve? What is the current state of the relationship between AOL and the screen-access technology vendors? Perhaps of greater importance, can the blind use AOL as an Internet Service Provider as effectively as we use other, competing Internet services?

Access to the AOL Client

When AOL 9.0 was released, it could be used effectively with JAWS for Windows from Freedom Scientific. While AOL 9.0 worked with Window-Eyes from GW Micro, the Window-Eyes experience was not equivalent to the usability of the AOL software with JAWS. Nevertheless, the AOL 9.0 release continued the well-established trend of improving accessibility that had been started with the release of AOL 6.0. Subsequent to this release, AOL worked with the screen-access-technology vendors to support accessibility for two new products: AOL Communicator and Copland. While this work yielded some very positive and encouraging results, AOL Communicator and Copland were dropped in favor of a different software platform, Open Ride, which was released in October 2006. AOL made a conscious decision to postpone any work on accessibility to Open Ride and chose instead to allow time for the market to react to this new platform and for product developers to make any major changes resulting from consumer reaction before engaging screen-reader vendors to work on issues of accessibility.

This decision could be regarded as a significant step backward by AOL in ensuring accessibility to its client software. After all, one might reason, AOL was releasing newer versions of its client software (AOL 6.0, 7.0, 8.0, and 9.0), and with each release accessibility had always been incorporated into the code--that is, until Open Ride. However, several factors should be taken into consideration before one leaps to this negative conclusion:

1. AOL 6.0, 7.0, 8.0, and 9.0 were built on the same software platform, so accessibility support could gradually evolve over time.

2. The accessible AOL 9.0 software is still available to the AOL customer. There is no compelling need to switch to Open Ride in the short term.

3. Boxely, the technical architecture underlying the Open Ride client, will make it easier in the long run for AOL to ensure future accessibility once some initial work to ensure accessibility of unique aspects of the Open Ride interface has been completed. Boxely uses Microsoft's Active Accessibility programming interface, which has been a strategic lynchpin in Microsoft's efforts to promote accessibility in general. It is worth noting that developers at AOL have been focused on implementing accessibility support into Boxely, which is now the new technical platform driving Open Ride and other high-profile software such as AIM 6.0, AOL's free instant message product.

4. Many of the AOL services in which the blind might be interested are available through the aol.com Web site and thus do not require the use of the AOL client at all.

5. The AOL client is not a requirement to send and receive AOL email. Traditional email programs such as Eudora, Outlook, and Outlook Express can now be used.

AOL's Relationship with Screen-Access Technology Vendors

In an ideal world AOL should be able to make its software work flawlessly with programs like JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes with little or no help from Freedom Scientific or GW Micro. The AOL application should behave in a way that allows the blind computer user effectively and efficiently to use all of its services and functions, and when a new release of the AOL client comes out, it should continue to work with whatever release of JAWS or Window-Eyes happens to be running.

While AOL's new client architecture, through its use of Microsoft's accessibility infrastructure, will significantly improve AOL's ability to deliver accessible products and minimize involvement from screen-reader vendors, we do not live in an ideal world, and for reasons far too technical to explain here, the next-generation AOL client cannot initially be made accessible to the blind without the screen-access technology vendorsí working cooperatively with AOL. We can complain about this reality, but it is what it is, and at this point we can do little to change it.

When AOL first began working to incorporate accessibility into its software, it provided its customers with the configuration files necessary for the software to work most effectively with products like JAWS and Window-Eyes. As its relationships with the screen-access vendors developed, AOL adopted the goal of having accessibility support incorporated directly into the screen-access software, and as long as the screen-access vendorsí product releases were coordinated with AOL's release schedule, accessibility support was achieved. From AOLís perspective this meant that, if the screen-access software vendor chose to work on something else, AOL would be compelled to release a product that was not completely compatible with a given screen-access program.

As I said earlier, AOL did work with the screen-access technology vendors to support accessibility for AOL Communicator and Copland, and the company then chose to implement a different platform: Open Ride. Arguably, AOL could have stayed the course with AOL Communicator and Copland because of their accessibility. But AOL has taken a different tack with Open Ride, and it is worth pondering when or whether it will secure the cooperation it needs from the screen-access vendors to ensure that in the long run Open Ride can be made accessible to the blind.

To be fair, AOL and screen-access technology vendors are faced with sometimes conflicting priorities. Screen-access vendors, relatively small companies themselves, are trying to ensure that their programs provide as much access to Windows and Windows applications as is humanly possible. AOL is only a small part of the total package they have committed themselves to support. By contrast, AOL, being a fairly large company, has as a priority the release of software that will attract new customers and satisfy existing ones. While accessibility is a higher priority with AOL than it was in years gone by, it is not and cannot be the overriding priority that dominates every aspect of the company's operation. It is also important to note that, for various reasons, AOL may have a stronger relationship with one screen-access software vendor than it does with another. As a result there are often noticeable differences in the level of usability of AOL products from one screen reader to another. For example, users of JAWS 8.0 will enjoy a much higher level of access to AIM 6.0 (AOL's latest free instant message software, available at <www.aim.com>), than Window-Eyes users.

This is the reality with which we are faced, and it is possible that we as consumers may have to help AOL to develop other creative approaches to lessen its dependence on screen-access software vendors. At the very least we can help by helping screen-access software vendors to understand that, for the blind, access to AOL products is as important as it is for the sighted.

AOL as an Internet Service for the Blind

In the past one of the things that caused great concern among blind users of the AOL Internet service was the absolute requirement to run the AOL client software. Without this software none of AOL's services were available to the customer. Customers were required to use AOL's dialing program, AOL's email system, and the AOL client to access services such as news and entertainment, and if the software was not accessible, the AOL service was not accessible.

When I work with blind people to select an Internet Service Provider, particularly one that can be accessed with a standard telephone line, I suggest that the ideal Internet Service Provider is one that requires the installation of no additional software. A user should be able to dial into the service using the standard Windows dial-up networking program, and email should be possible using programs like Outlook Express, Outlook, or Eudora. I am pleased to report that today AOL meets these requirements.

Unfortunately, the configuration settings that need to be made to connect to AOL using the Windows standard dialer and an accessible email client can be difficult to find in a nice, neat package. You can find an AOL local dial access number in the United States by visiting the Web site <http://access.web.aol.com>. You can find out how to configure your email client to send and receive AOL email by visiting the Web site <http://postmaster.aol.com/imap/index.html>. I have not been able to find a public Web site that tells a person how to configure the Windows dialer to access AOL, but I feel confident that the AOL technical support team can be of help here. In this regard, you can email questions to <aolaccessibility@aol.com>. I also have in my possession a technical document that I would be happy to send to anyone. Simply write to me at <curtischong@earthlink.net> or call me during evening hours (Central Time) at (515) 277-1288.

I have recently learned that unlimited dial-up access to AOL can now be obtained for as little as $9.95 a month, and it is now possible (see <www.free.aol.com>) to obtain an email mailbox at no charge--a mailbox that can be accessed through any high-speed (or low-speed) Internet service that you happen to be using.

Conclusion

Now that America Online has free email, a Web site rich with accessible content, and access via standard Windows dialing and email clients, it is certainly as accessible as other services that the blind have favored historically. We are no longer required to use the AOL client, although we can use the accessible AOL 9.0 program if we choose to do so. While it is regrettably true that the latest AOL client, Open Ride, is currently not supported by screen-access technology for the blind, its underlying architecture should help AOL to simplify the task of making future versions of its software accessible to the blind. What I find to be of the greatest significance is that the blind through our own organization, the National Federation of the Blind, continue to engage AOL in open and frank discussions, and through these discussions accessibility has a fighting chance. I wish that we could have such a positive working relationship with all of the other Internet Service Providers.

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