by Curtis Chong
From the Editor: if you were playing a game of word association as a blind person, it is very likely that the word “Microsoft” would trigger the response "accessibility," as the next word spoken. This is so because in Microsoft's history it has posed some of the most immediate accessibility challenges faced by blind people, has made high-level commitments to addressing the problems its software has created, has at times made remarkable progress in working with assistive technology companies, but has more often than not said accessibility would have to wait.
When Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 first came out, we were told that Microsoft had to establish a market for the graphical user interface, and only after that was done could they concentrate on the blind. When Windows 98 and Windows XP came out, Microsoft and the screen-reader manufacturers bragged that they had working products that were only months away from release at the time the new operating systems became available to the public. With Windows Vista and Windows 7, they argued that their commitment to accessibility was so great that the blind had access to these new operating systems on the day they became available to the public.
As you will see in the article that follows by Curtis Chong, president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, Microsoft is trying to catch up in a market in which it has fallen dreadfully behind its competitors. For all of its success in desktop computing, it now holds less than 5 percent of the pocket computer market. Clearly computing is moving from the desktop and the laptop to the shirt pocket, and the cellular phone is the most popular pocket computer available. If Microsoft cannot turn its performance around in this market, it will be shut out of the really important advances in computer technology for the foreseeable future.
It is a sign of progress that through our organizations blind people have been invited to participate in a roundtable conference to discuss Microsoft's future plans, but, as Curtis makes amply clear in his article, we still have a very long way to go before we will find out-of-the-box support for most mainstream products. Here is what Curtis has to say about the conference:
On October 26, 2010, the Microsoft Corporation convened a day-long Mobile Accessibility Roundtable at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington. A number of blindness organizations were represented, among them the National Federation of the Blind, the American Council of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the Royal National Institute of Blind People (from the United Kingdom), Vision Australia, and ONCE (the organization of the blind in Spain). As president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, I was pleased to attend this roundtable with Anne Taylor and Gary Wunder as representatives of our organization.
The central issue was nonvisual access to Microsoft's newest entry into the mobile phone market, Windows Phone 7. Before the roundtable, press releases and email messages had been circulated to the effect that Windows Mobile 7 would not be accessible to the blind. It was said that the predecessor to Windows Phone 7, Windows Mobile 6.5, had been made accessible to the blind with the help of the Mobile Speak and Talks screen-reading programs, and word was out that these programs would not work with Windows Phone 7. Accessibility advocates wanted to know what Microsoft was going to do about the situation.
While the news about nonvisual access to Windows Phone 7 was not what many of us would have liked (it is not really accessible to the blind today), my natural skepticism was somewhat mitigated by Microsoft's level of executive commitment to the roundtable. Andy Lees, president of Microsoft's Mobile Business, spent a lot of time at the roundtable and said several times that he was personally committed to ensuring long-term nonvisual access to the Microsoft mobile platform. This commitment was reaffirmed by Rob Sinclair, Microsoft's chief accessibility officer; Chuck Bilow, Microsoft's senior program manager responsible for Windows Phone accessibility; and Richard Suplee, a senior product planner in Microsoft's Mobile Communications Business.
Windows Phone 7, we were told, is a "fundamental top-to-bottom rewrite from previous Microsoft mobile operating systems. It is a completely new operating system and user interface." No applications from earlier Microsoft Mobile operating systems will run on Windows Phone 7. No cell phone that can run Windows Mobile 6.5 can run Windows Phone 7. Microsoft told us that it was not technically feasible to build the infrastructure needed to support screen-reading software--no multi-tasking capability, no inter-process communication, and no user-interface focus.
Some will want to know why it was necessary for Microsoft to engage in a total rewrite at all. The answer, simply put, is that Microsoft has concluded that its mobile business was not doing as well as it would like and that an entirely new strategy was required. Hence Windows Phone 7. It is regrettable that nonvisual access was one of the first casualties of this effort, and it is also unfortunate that we are not likely to notice any improvement for at least a year. However, during the roundtable Microsoft did commit to working more closely with the blind community as it continues to work toward the development of a nonvisual access solution. Perhaps more significant was the apparent recognition by Microsoft that, in order to address issues of accessibility in any meaningful way, the company has to do more to build accessibility into its products directly instead of relying on outside parties to furnish the solution, and, in so doing, it must not shut out companies like Nuance and Code Factory. These and other companies can play a vital role. They can develop add-on products that will improve the efficiency with which we can operate Microsoft Mobile products.
Can Microsoft build a mobile product that is truly accessible to the blind? If past history is any guide, the answer to that question is still in doubt. There is little disagreement that over the years Microsoft has done a lot to improve nonvisual access to the Windows operating system and to some of its more widely-used applications--Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer in particular. However, it is equally true that the blind can point to more Microsoft products that are still not truly accessible to us than those that are; some of these products run on Windows-based desktop and laptop computers, and others run on other platforms. Moreover, the text-to-speech engine that Microsoft provides at no cost with its Windows operating system is not regarded in the blind community as the best available. Some of us remember that, in the mid-nineties when Microsoft first unveiled its text-to-speech engine, we were less than enthusiastic about the poor quality of the speech and even less impressed by the extreme sluggishness of the speech itself.
If Microsoft follows through on its commitment to work more closely with organizations of and for the blind to build an accessible mobile product, it is possible for a useful and truly nonvisually accessible product to emerge. However, if our history with the company has taught us anything, it is that consumers must continue the pressure for nonvisual access to Microsoft products and regard with cautious optimism the company's assurances that it will do the right thing on our behalf. We must not forget that, in our past dealings with Microsoft and other large commercial information technology companies, nonvisual access has traditionally been the first item to cut when tough business decisions need to be made. Somehow we must help Microsoft to come up with viable business reasons to build nonvisual access into its mobile product line and to keep it there.
Andy Lees, president of Microsoft's Mobile Business, has said publicly that "Microsoft's goal is to deliver platforms, products, and services that are accessible. We recognize that there is more we can do in this respect, and our goal is to develop Windows Phone into a compelling option for people who are blind or visually impaired." Our challenge as consumers is to ensure that Microsoft achieves this goal.