Over the years, Skype has become a popular means of communication for people around the world. This is especially true for those who are blind, deaf, and deaf-blind. However, as time has gone on, the accessibility of the actual Skype program has started to drop. And while many portions of the Skype program are usable with scripts that can be installed for various screen readers, each version of the Skype released brought about changes that needed to be made to make the program more usable for those individuals using screen readers and/or braille displays to access the service as each new version of Skype itself has been released.
In late December 2011, GWMicro, makers of Window-Eyes, released a free program called GWSkype. This application was developed for use of the Skype service, and was designed with the screen reader and braille user in mind. Like Skype itself, the program is free for everyone to use. Anyone can use it with any screen reader on the Windows platform.
GWSkype was tested by the author, and found to work well with NVDA, Jaws for Windows, System Access, and, of course, Window-Eyes. The braille devices this program were tested with were a Focus 80 from Freedom Scientific, a Brailliant 32 (first generation) from Humanware, and a Braille Sense Onhand manufactured by HIMS. Speech and braille were equally a pleasure to use for all different combinations of braille and speech, with the exception of the Focus 80 and System Access combination, since these 2 are not compatible. Unlike the Skype program itself, this application has a very clean interface, and moving around in the chat history is very simple. While scripts allow for access to the actual Skype program, one must hit shortcut keys to access the various chat messages which only flash up in braille for a limited amount of time if at all. Also, while the Skype program itself requires specific configurations to work best with screen readers and often times scripts to enhance the user's experience, installing GWSkype with its default settings was all that was required to achieve the best results possible.
When making Skype to Skype calls along with making Skype-out calls, the audio was very clear. Skype-out is a service that allows a user to place phone calls to landlines at a very cheap rate. In addition to being inexpensive ($3 a month for unlimited calls to the US and Canada), those who are hard of hearing will be happy to know that the call quality is much clearer than any conventional phone. Since the user has the ability to turn their computer's volume up and down, this gives the user more control of the audio output.
Another advantage of GWSkype over the Skype program itself is that GWSkype uses significantly less memory. When running Skype version 5 on a Windows 7 computer, the program consumed about 45 MB of RAM at any given time. GWSkype used less than 1 MB. So for slower modern computers such as netbooks, or for older machines with less RAM, GWSkype will most likely run much more smoothly than the mainstream version of the program.
There is also the advantage of having keyboard shortcuts for most actions. Pressing enter on a contact will bring up a chat window allowing you to send that person a message. If you wish to call the person instead, you simply press control L to do so. GWSkype has integrated the keyboard shortcuts from Skype itself, so, for example, Alt + Page Down will hang up a call. Also, unlike the regular program, GWSkype allows you to enter touch tones as soon as your call goes through without having to move the screen reader to a different portion of the screen. With more recent versions of the regular Skype program, there is a limited amount of time before you can no longer enter touch tones in to your call. This does not seem to be the case with GWSkype.
Yet another advantage to using GWSkype is that the transferring of files over Skype is also done through a clear interface. If a user already knows how to send file attachments through email, using GWSkype to do so will not take much effort to learn.
With respect to calling someone, there is one draw-back to this program. Every once in a while, and also when you first start GWSkype, you will be presented with an advertisement from GWMicro encouraging you to download and install Window-Eyes. This can be quite disruptive when on a call if you use speech at all, as the advertisement can pop up when you are trying to hear what someone else is saying. It also pops up in braille, but moving the display through it quickly makes the ad go away. The only way to get the ad to not play is to run Window-Eyes.
The other draw-back to this program is that users can not yet access the video portion of the Skype service. This was not an oversight on the part of GW Micro, rather, something that Skype needs to develop to work with the platform that the GWSkype program was built on (an API interface). Skype indicates that they hope to have the video service available in the summer, and GW Micro indicated on the home page of this program that they plan to integrate this in to the GWSkype program shortly after this service becomes available.
In conclusion, for those who have stopped using Skype due to a lack of accessibility or who are looking for a much more convenient way of accessing Skype's services, this program is worth a look. It's free, accessible, and works independently from the Skype program itself. This means that one does not have to install the actual Skype program to utilize GWSkype. It's less resource intensive, and much more clean interface than Skype itself, and is quite a decent program for free. While the advertisement is an inconvenience, in my opinion, it by no means overshadows the conveniences that this program provides. I have little doubt that GW Micro will continue the development of this product once the video portion of the program is available. They have shown their responsiveness to user feedback by releasing an update to the GWSkype program just 24 hours after its initial release.
For more information about this program, or to download and install your own copy, visit its website at: http://www.gwmicro.com/apps/GWSkype