The Braille Monitor                                                                      _______    December 1997

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Curtis Chong is seated at his desk talking on the telephone.

Curtis Chong


Microsoft Takes A Big Step Backward

by Curtis Chong

From the Editor: Curtis Chong is the President of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science. Here is some recent correspondence he and others have had with people at Microsoft together with his comments:

Almost everybody who has anything to do with computers knows the name Microsoft. Most of the computers we run today have Microsoft software running on them. For the blind the name Microsoft has been linked with the graphical user interface (GUI), Windows®, icons, the mouse, and just about everything else involving computers that has made our lives a challenge.

When blind people first began dealing with Microsoft, individually and collectively, the company was generally regarded with cynicism and more than a little dislike. Some asked why this juggernaut insisted upon foisting graphics on to the computer screen, thereby making the lives of blind people more difficult than they needed to be. What was wrong with the good old Disk Operating System (DOS)? some people wanted to know.

As Microsoft began to reach out to the blind community, more and more people began to understand exactly what the company was doing. We learned about Active Accessibility®, a Microsoft-developed programming interface designed to permit software such as word processors, spreadsheets, web browsers, and the like to pass important information to screen reading systems for the blind. We learned about Microsoft's Windows Logo® program and how the company was placing increased emphasis on accessible software as one requirement for earning the logo. And over time, starting with an Accessibility Summit held by Microsoft in 1995, we began to recognize that within the company there was a dedicated group of people (Microsoft's Accessibility Team) which really wanted to make Microsoft and other software accessible to the blind. Moreover, as time went on, some hope was expressed that we might have turned the corner in our ability to use Microsoft Windows® and the programs running under this graphical operating system.

Slowly, grudgingly, and with no small amount of skepticism, consumers and vendors alike began to accept Active Accessibility® as a viable means of dealing with our software accessibility problems. Developers of screen reading systems for the blind began to incorporate Active Accessibility® into their software. Our optimism was strengthened even further by three events:

1. Internet Explorer® Version 3, Microsoft's World Wide Web browsing software, was released with Active Accessibility® and keyboard navigation features built in. (Keyboard navigation makes it possible to run the software without a mouse.)

2. Office 97®, Microsoft's newest suite of office products, was released with Active Accessibility® built in.

3. The actual Microsoft Active Accessibility® application programming interface software was released for general distribution. In other words, instead of just talking about Active Accessibility®, Microsoft delivered some real live code.

Relations between Microsoft and blind consumers reached a high point just last summer. When Charles Oppermann, Manager of Microsoft's Windows Accessibility Team, came to speak at the 1997 meeting of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, he was warmly received; and although he did get a few direct questions, everybody felt that finally Microsoft was headed in the right direction in making its systems and software accessible to the blind. In fact, when the merits of various Windows-based Internet Web browsing programs were discussed at the meeting, it was generally agreed that Microsoft's Internet Explorer® Version 3 was the best Web browser for blind people to use with their screen-reading systems.

Then in early October word began spreading through various Internet mailing lists that Microsoft had released Version 4 of its Internet Explorer® Web browsing software. To everyone's dismay, this newer software turned out to be less useful to blind people than its predecessor. Earlier in the year reports circulated that preview versions of Explorer 4.0 did not contain Active Accessibility®. However, people were assured on more than one occasion that the final release of Explorer® 4.0 would contain Active Accessibility®.

When we learned that this was not to be, people hit the roof. Around the world on several Internet mailing lists people expressed frustration and bitter outrage at this shabby treatment. Unfortunately, many people seemed bent upon showering complaints upon the Microsoft Accessibility Team, which in this instance appeared to me more victim than culprit. One of the most literate and compelling of these postings was written by Jonathan Mosen, National President of the New Zealand Association of the Blind and Partially Blind. Here it is:

The following is the draft text of a letter being sent to appropriate authorities and media, including New Zealand's Commerce Commission and Human Rights Commission. Basically the blind consumer movement in New Zealand won't tolerate this behavior any more.

Re - accessibility of Microsoft Internet Explorer® 4.0

I write on behalf of the New Zealand Association of the Blind and Partially Blind, the blind speaking for themselves in New Zealand. Blind people use computers with the aid of a voice synthesizer, Braille display, or large image system. In most cases software known as a screen reader is also used, so the synthesizer or Braille display can receive instructions as to the information the user requires.

With the advent of the Microsoft Windows® operating systems, access to software which is essential for blind people to obtain or retain employment has been difficult and challenging, although access to Windows 95® has improved substantially over the last year as screen readers have become more sophisticated. Microsoft, however, has now developed its Active Accessibility add-on to Windows 95®, which will come bundled with Windows 98®. In brief, Active Accessibility® is a way of passing information to a screen reader which allows the screen reader to provide information in a helpful, intelligible way to a blind person.

Adaptive technology vendors have made considerable efforts to incorporate hooks for Microsoft's Active Accessibility® into their screen readers. It is important to emphasize that the mere inclusion of Active Accessibility® in a screen reader is not sufficient. The software application itself, such as the word processor, spreadsheet package, database management software, or Web browser, must also expressly support Active Accessibility®.

Last week Microsoft released its long-awaited Internet Explorer® 4.0. Blind people had been advised that it would not be appropriate for them to download the platform preview releases, since Active Accessibility® was not incorporated in these previews. However, on several Internet e-mail lists frequented by blind people interested in access technology, we were advised that Active Accessibility® would be incorporated in the released version of Internet Explorer® 4.0.

Many blind people downloaded Internet Explorer® 4.0 last week, only to find that Active Accessibility® had not in fact been included. We therefore wish for Microsoft to be investigated under New Zealand's Fair Trading Act and either fined or the product removed from shop shelves and Web sites in New Zealand until the breach has been remedied by the inclusion of Active Accessibility®. We were given an assurance by a Microsoft employee which has not been met, and therefore the product has been downloaded or, in some cases, purchased on CD-ROM under false pretenses.

We also wish to lodge a formal complaint against Microsoft under the Human Rights Act 1993, on the grounds that Microsoft has discriminated against people with disabilities. The technology now exists for Microsoft to make its products accessible. Indeed Microsoft has told people in the adaptive technology field that incorporating Active Accessibility in application software is a fairly simple process. As a leader in the computing marketplace, Microsoft must follow the standards it seeks to set for other software manufacturers.

Now that such technology does exist, it is entirely inappropriate for the blind to be treated like second-class citizens by Microsoft. Microsoft would not dream of releasing a product in which the ability to use a mouse was not yet working, yet its blind customers are told that we must wait until they get around to releasing a patch to the software before we can use it.

We trust that this matter will be given urgent consideration. Media statements will be issued advising of our complaint.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Mosen
National President
New Zealand Association of the Blind
and Partially Blind

As president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, I discussed the problem with members of the Microsoft Accessibility Team. Although everyone was apologetic, it was clear to me that the team had been overridden by the Internet Explorer® development team, which appeared to be more interested in adding new features and shipping software early than in ensuring that Explorer® 4.0 remained as useful to the blind as Explorer® 3. Clearly Microsoft as a corporation had made a decision to release Explorer® 4.0 without all of the necessary accessibility components.

Here is an exchange of e-mailed letters between Charles Oppermann (Program Manager, Accessibilities and Disabilities, Microsoft Corporation) and me that encapsulates the discussion:

October 7, 1997

Hello Chuck:

As you know, there have been many messages floating around about the problems involving Microsoft Internet Explorer® Version 4. As I am sure you understand, Microsoft is going to take a lot of heat on this one--mostly from individuals who (with some justification) feel betrayed and more than a little frustrated with the way this entire affair was handled. The reason I am writing to you privately and directly is to let you know where I stand on this issue and where I intend to focus the energy of the NFB in Computer Science.

First let me say that I do not intend to be critical of anyone on the Accessibility Team. As Bruce Maguire so eloquently stated on the GUISPEAK list, there are people at Microsoft who are genuinely and deeply committed to equal access. I count you, Luanne, and Greg among those people; and I am certain there are many others as well. Perhaps the only criticism I might add to the many others you have doubtless received is that you could have been more frank with the community at an earlier point. However, I fully appreciate that you may not have been permitted to be frank with us because of overriding corporate concerns.

What we have here is a case of other corporate priorities outweighing the priority of accessibility. It is as simple as that. The reason why IE4 [Internet Explorer® 4.0] does not work as well for the blind as IE 3.02 is that it was more important for Microsoft as a corporation to release IE 4 than it was to hold up the release to ensure maximum accessibility. So what are we to do about this?

To be honest, I am not sure. I am well aware that the level of cynicism and mistrust toward Microsoft within the blind community has been elevated due to recent events. It has taken many years for people even to begin to listen (not to mention to believe) anything that Microsoft says regarding accessibility. I think that, when you came to the NFB in Computer Science meeting in July, people were feeling quite optimistic about Microsoft and welcomed you with warmth and good will. Do you remember the meeting you attended in 1995, when you took a lot of criticism about the off-screen model? The gains made in two years have, I feel, been virtually wiped out because of the way IE 4 and the issue of accessibility were handled. It is going to take a long time for things to get back to where they were scant months ago. From Microsoft's point of view this may well be a cost that the company is willing to pay. But then again, perhaps not.

I want you to know that I have no intention of deflecting any of the fire that others will want to throw at Microsoft. Frankly, upper management deserves it. However, I do want you to know that I intend to ensure that energy is properly focused and directed toward appropriate parts of the company. The Accessibility Team tried its best on this issue but was prevented, due to circumstance and overriding corporate priority, from completing the job. If nothing else comes out of all of this, I hope that it causes management to realize that trust is an extremely delicate and hard-won asset. Microsoft will have to work extremely hard and deliver concrete results to win back what has been so precipitately lost.

Yours sincerely,

Curtis Chong
President
National Federation of the Blind
in Computer Science


Chuck Opperman
Chuck Oppermann

October 8, 1997

Curtis,

Thanks for the intelligent message. I have forwarded this to the appropriate people in the Internet Explorer® team. A big failure on our part, for which I personally am to blame, is the lack of advanced notice to the blindness community at large before the release of Internet Explorer®..

We will try not to repeat that mistake again. I agree that a lot of our progress has been wiped out by this situation. I spoke at the NFB of Washington convention over the weekend and answered a lot of questions about this and our Java® efforts.

We'll keep working hard and trying. Your feedback is essential, and I appreciate it very much,

Charles Oppermann
Windows NT User Interface Group
Microsoft Corporation
"A computer on every desk and in every home, usable by everyone!"

That was my exchange with Chuck Oppermann. The following is a letter I wrote to Bill Gates, the chief executive officer of Microsoft. Its message is as clear as I could make it. Here it is.

October 15, 1997

Dear Mr. Gates:

My name is Curtis Chong. I am the president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science (NFBCS). This organization is a division of the National Federation of the Blind, a nationwide organization of blind men and women with more than 50,000 members throughout the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Since its inception NFBCS has worked hard to improve the ability of persons who are blind to program and use computers without sighted assistance. Over the years we have worked with a variety of companies in the computer industry, Microsoft being the most recent.

I am writing to you because I think it is important for you, as the chief executive officer of Microsoft, to understand exactly what it is that the company has lost due to the most recent debacle with Internet Explorer® Version 4.0, otherwise known as IE4. Time and time again, at conferences and on a variety of Internet mailing lists, blind people were advised that, when IE4 was released in its final form, it would contain Microsoft's Active Accessibility®.

As you may know, Active Accessibility®, which Microsoft took years to design and develop, represents a way for application programs running under Windows to pass important information to third-party accessibility aids--among them screen-reading programs for the blind. If an application is coded to use Active Accessibility® and if a screen reading program is written to take advantage of this interface, the blind computer user can be provided with critical information about what the application is doing and is therefore in a better position to use the application independently. Well, as it turns out, although we were promised Active Accessibility® with IE4, the final version ultimately released did not fully implement this feature. There are those who say that Active Accessibility® was totally eliminated in IE4.

Internet Explorer® Version 3.02, which contains keyboard navigation capabilities and Active Accessibility®, is quite useful to the blind; it works very well with the screen readers we use. IE4, on the other hand, is far less accessible--in short, virtually useless to someone who is blind. A blind computer user who migrates from Version 3.02 to Version 4.0 is, in effect, taking a step backward. Given this information, it is easy to understand why blind people around the world feel more than a little betrayed by the release of IE4.

Why is this significant? Ever since Windows® and Microsoft's efforts to promote this graphical operating system began to be recognized as a problem within the community of blind computer users, Microsoft was always viewed with mistrust, cynicism, and, in some quarters, active dislike. In 1995, at its Accessibility Summit, Microsoft unveiled its corporate Accessibility Policy. To be frank, no one from outside the company was enthusiastic about it, regarding it as a marketing ploy and an attempt by the company to save face.

Nevertheless, as Microsoft employees--particularly people in its Accessibility Team--kept on promoting the policy and demonstrating that Active Accessibility® was really more than just vaporware, people began to feel that perhaps Microsoft was truly interested in accessibility after all. This feeling was strengthened when, in May of this year, the actual application programming interface code for Active Accessibility® was released. People felt that at long last there was some code for programmers to get their teeth into. When the manager of Microsoft's Windows Accessibility Group spoke at the 1997 NFBCS meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, he was warmly received. The discussions which took place were upbeat and optimistic.

Mr. Gates, all of this optimism and good will, all of the trust that has been gained so laboriously over the past two years: all of this has been wiped out because the Internet Explorer® development team made a decision to release IE4 without full support for Active Accessibility®. By releasing IE4 the way it did, Microsoft has convinced every naysayer in the world that, as far as Microsoft is concerned, accessibility is nothing more than a sham. At best accessibility cannot compete effectively with other corporate priorities.

In the public announcement about IE4 released by Microsoft on the World Wide Web, we are told that "Microsoft Internet Explorer® 4.0 introduces a number of advances that make the World Wide Web more accessible to computer users with disabilities." The term "accessible" is particularly ironic in this context when one reads the injunction contained in the same announcement, "Users who are blind may want to remain with version 3.0 for the time being." How long, we ask? And does IE4 really make the World Wide Web more accessible to the blind? In truth, it doesn't.

The bottom line here is that Microsoft has lost a good deal of trust and good will in the blind community. To say that the level of cynicism has been heightened is an understatement. It may well be that Microsoft is quite willing to pay this cost. After all, the blind do not represent a significant share of the market. If this is the case, we may have no choice but to seek redress through other channels. On the other hand, it may well be that you and Microsoft as a company really are interested in making software accessible to us. If so, then you should know that you have taken a significant step backward.

Yours sincerely,

Curtis Chong, President
National Federation of the Blind
in Computer Science

That was my letter to Bill Gates, and it wasn't long before Carl Augusto, President of the American Foundation for the Blind, and Paul Schroeder, Director, AFB National Technology Program, decided that they, too, had better weigh in with something on the subject. On October 28 they wrote a three-page letter to Bill Gates and circulated it pretty widely on the Internet. On October 31, Gregg Lowney, Senior Program Manager, Accessibility and Disabilities Group at Microsoft, called me to ask what I thought about the AFB letter. Here is the e-mail message I sent Greg on Monday, November 3:

Hello Greg:

On Friday, October 31, you and I spoke regarding the letter sent by the American Foundation for the Blind to Bill Gates about the IE4.0 debacle. I finally had a chance to read that letter and herewith submit my thoughts concerning the nine recommendations it makes. I will reproduce each recommendation and insert my comments after each.

1. Commit to the full implementation of MSAA [Microsoft Active Accessibility®] in Internet Explorer® 4.0 to ensure full accessibility by December, 1997.

My belief is that Microsoft already made this commitment in the announcement (on its Web site) about IE 4.0. Here is an excellent opportunity to (1) deliver on a public commitment and (2) clarify that full accessibility to IE 4.0 may not be achieved without some cooperation from the screen-access software vendors.

Gregg Lowney
Gregg Lowney

2. Ensure that MSAA is part of the standard or typical installation of all future Microsoft operating systems, including Windows NT®, CE®, and the successor to Windows 95®.

I believe that Microsoft may already have made this commitment with regard to Windows 95® and NT®. I am not sure about Windows CE®. It is my fervent hope that something will be done about this latter operating system as it relates to the issue of access to consumer electronics, which many of us are concerned about.

3. Commit to comprehensive use of standard Windows® controls [using standard Windows® functions to display buttons, menus, and the like on the screen] (preferred), or full implementation of MSAA in all future releases and upgrades of key products, beginning with business, reference, education, and home productivity products.

I think this recommendation is fairly clear. But whether Microsoft will really commit to it is another matter. I hope that it can. In fact, if its credibility is to be restored in a meaningful way, it really must do so. Of course, commitment is one thing, concrete results another.

4. Maximize accessibility of Microsoft products by continuing to develop full keyboard access to all features, customizable display appearance, and audio input/output.

One might argue that this is already well under way. However, the point is valid nevertheless. I personally believe that a stronger commitment from the company, along with concrete deliverables [actual programs that reflect this commitment], is in order here.

5. Substantially increase the number of staff with responsibility for accessibility efforts across Microsoft product lines, especially in key product areas such as Windows®, Office, IE, and education.

This strikes at the very heart of the problem we have with Microsoft--that is, the perceived lack of corporation-wide commitment to accessibility. Everybody wants Microsoft to devote more staff to accessibility. Although some people might argue that this is an unrealistic recommendation, I would say that a significant increase in the number of staff devoted to accessibility concerns would go a long way toward restoring Microsoft's credibility.

6. Provide full support for MSAA in all developer tools and include accessible design as an important element in your presentations to software developers.

I agree with this wholeheartedly and would also point out that Microsoft has not demonstrated nearly as much skill in marketing accessibility issues as it has in marketing Windows® and its suite of Windows® applications.

7. Draw upon the resources of organizations representing the interests of people with disabilities, especially those who are blind or visually impaired, to provide training in the access needs of persons with disabilities to Microsoft staff across all product lines, including research staff.

I would say that this recommendation should be considered seriously. The problem, as I see it, is that very often Microsoft personnel speak one language while people in the blindness field speak another. Microsoft talks about device drivers, Windows® applications, hooks, protocols, etc. We talk about accessibility, compatibility with screen-access technology, and simply getting a piece of work done on the computer. It is vital for the two areas to communicate in a meaningful way if any progress is truly to be made.

I think there is a generally held belief that Microsoft, even today, simply doesn't get it. I know that some of you, after years of contact with the blind community, have come to understand and appreciate the problems we have in access to computers. However, as this recommendation suggests, there are too many staff people at Microsoft who do not possess fundamental knowledge about blind people and our needs with respect to technology.

Another point must be made with regard to this recommendation--namely the distinction between organizations of the blind and agencies serving the blind. While the American Foundation for the Blind may be well intentioned and as interested in access issues as blind consumers themselves, it can in no way be characterized as a representative organization of the blind. Rather it is an agency doing work in the field of blindness. On the other hand, the National Federation of the Blind is an organization of the blind; its members elect people to represent them. It is vital that Microsoft understand this distinction.

8. Strengthen the accessibility provisions as requirements of the Windows® logo program [the Microsoft certification process for application programs saying that they are Windows-compliant] and make compliance and support of MSAA a mandatory requirement for any application seeking authentication as a Windows-compliant application.

I believe this effort is well under way, if what I heard at CSUN last spring is any indication. It would help if Microsoft would provide concrete statements about what it plans to do to accelerate this effort. And in my view this effort should be accelerated, in light of recent events of which both of us are well aware.

9. Improve Microsoft's technical and other support provided to screen-reader developers.

Frankly I don't know where the Foundation is going with this recommendation. I have not heard any complaints of substance regarding a vendor's inability to get appropriate technical support from Microsoft.

Before closing, I would like to suggest a few priorities of my own:

First and foremost, Microsoft should deliver the promised patch to IE 4.0 without delay. Failure to keep the commitment to deliver the patch before the end of the year will be devastating to the company's credibility among blind people.

Second, Microsoft should concentrate on ensuring that application programs which blind people really need to use on the job are fully compatible with screen-access technology. Attention should be devoted to making Microsoft Word® as useful to the blind as WordPerfect® 5.1 for DOS, a program which is still fondly regarded by many MS/DOS adherents. Microsoft should ensure that its software used to access the Internet is fully compatible with screen-access technology for the blind. This includes Web browsing software as well as e-mail, FTP, TELNET, TN3270, and other clients. Similar attention should be given to other text-based Microsoft applications such as Excel® and Microsoft Access®. I am sure you would be pleased to hear one day that for blind people Microsoft applications are the programs of choice when it comes to ease of use with screen-access technology.

Finally, I think that you and I need to find ways to communicate with each other in a more meaningful way. There are lots of things that we can do if we exchange information in a more timely fashion. I do not promise to support Microsoft 100 percent of the time. Nor do I promise to apologize for Microsoft when it makes a clear tactical blunder--as it did with IE 4.0. However, I promise that I will do my best to understand and articulate the company's point of view--particularly if I am assured that you and others from Microsoft will respond in kind.

Speaking more broadly, Microsoft needs to do a better job communicating with the National Federation of the Blind. I suspect that very few people at Microsoft know who the President of the Federation is. (Incidentally, the Federation's President is Marc Maurer.) Even fewer have taken the time to talk with President Maurer directly. The Federation is a major force in the affairs of the blind today. This is not an exaggeration. Just ask people in the field of work with the blind what organization saved the rehabilitation system when it was about to be shut down by Congress. They will tell you that it was the National Federation of the Blind.

Greg, everyone agrees that Microsoft is a key player in the computer industry today. Consequently it touches the lives of many people, some of whom are blind. Through its actions the company can either be a force for good or one which destroys the lives of individual blind people. I trust that as a corporation Microsoft will choose to be a positive influence on the lives of those of us who happen to be blind.

Yours sincerely,

Curtis Chong
Director of Technology
National Federation of the Blind

Frankly, I don't know what effect any of this correspondence will have. I do know that Microsoft really has taken a big step backward in its credibility with the blind. Trust is extremely difficult to earn. It is far easier to lose. In this case Microsoft may not yet know exactly what it has lost. But we do.