Braille Monitor                                              June 2014

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What Will It Take for Google to Find Its Voice

by Jim Barbour

Jim BarbourFrom the Editor: Jim Barbour is a principal systems architect for Qualcomm, a developer of advanced computer chips used in mobile technology like cell phones and tablets. Jim serves on the National Federation of the Blind’s Research and Development Committee and is a member of the East Bay Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of California. Here are his thoughts about the problems blind people have with Google and what Google can and should do to address them:

If we think back about ten years, technology choices were fairly limited for blind people. Most of us were using cell phones without knowing what was on the screen, memorizing the keystrokes needed to dial and answer calls. We were reading email using email clients like Eudora and Microsoft Outlook. We were reading text-based webpages in browsers like Internet Explorer 6. Ten years ago was also the start of the organized blind's relationship with Google. This relationship was consistently filled with both exceptional promise and crushing disappointment.

Google started out with a very handy search page: one text input box, a "search" button and an "I'm feeling lucky" button. We used this search page a lot, enjoying the simple text box and an easy-to-read results page.

Then, ten years ago on April 1st, 2004, Google launched its Gmail product. Gmail was a mail reading web app with a very innovative way of displaying webpages and controls to users. This new way of displaying information to users was roundly approved by most folks. However, the blind were completely unable to use Gmail. Existing screen readers had no idea how to handle the new way of showing data to the blind.

As Gmail began to increase in popularity, the blind began to grow unhappy about the fact that Gmail was not accessible. We got a little hot under the collar when we couldn't even figure out who to talk to at Google. We couldn't find anyone at Google who would listen to our complaints. I was a Google employee and often advised the Accessibility Team, and even we weren't sure how to solve this problem.

There was a need to bring the web browser developers, screen reader developers, and web app developers together to work out a solution to this problem. However, none of these groups felt compelled to talk with the others.

Google has had an accessibility group since before I joined Google in 2004, which has grown considerably over time, and has talented people working within it. When I was employed there, this team struggled against Google culture to present accessibility as a design principle that Google should apply to their product development lifecycle.

My observation is that Google has applied the same quiet, indifferent, "the user is not our customer" customer service strategy to the blind that they have traditionally applied to the rest of their user community. Their customers are those who buy ads or products; their users represent a different community. It is also fair to say that Google believes that, if they innovate, customers will come to see the wisdom of such innovation, and will appreciate the changes. Google’s inattentiveness toward us built up significant annoyance and anger within the blind community.

In 2005 things started to improve. Google sent me to CSUN to meet with some blind Google users and to talk with them about their frustrations. Google released a mobile Gmail version in December 2005 that the blind were able to use. In 2006 Google launched Google Apps and started thinking about selling Gmail and Google apps to universities, which would come with an accessibility requirement. In 2007 Google introduced IMAP and POP support so that Gmail accounts could be accessed with screen-reader friendly mail clients like Outlook and Eudora. It was also around this time that groups started coming together to find the solution to Gmail and screen readers getting along that became known as the ARIA roles.

Google has moved far beyond search, email, and web apps to pioneer new technologies that hold much promise for the blind, including the autonomous vehicle, Google Glass, Android mobile products, and the Google Book Scanning Project.

As reported in NFB publications and discussions, Google and the NFB began meeting in 2005 to discuss Google’s book scanning project. Google came, listened, and made it clear that they understood our concerns.

The NFB has continued to meet with Google to discuss how poor access to products such as Google Docs and Android-powered devices are keeping students from learning and many blind people from working. We have been told that in all of these meetings Google has listened, acknowledged our concerns, and promised to make things better. However, we have not seen the fruit of these discussions with Google.

While congratulating Google on being willing to listen, we invite Google to take the next step. We invite Google to continue joining us at our conferences, to continue standing with us at the negotiating table, and to continue soliciting our advice and comments. We also encourage Google to take the next step and begin to speak—speak with strong, bold actions that show they respect what we have to say and that they want to provide us with the eyes-free experience we've been asking for, speak by providing products and software that are easy and fun for the blind to use.

We invite Google to make it a company goal to apply the same resources, commitment, and pride to bringing a polished, eyes-free user interface to their many applications as they would to adding a polished user interface in a new language spoken by 180 million people. We invite Google to take up the challenge of providing an eyes-free mobile phone experience that rivals their competition! We invite Google to speak by using their influence with the autonomous car community to help the world become comfortable with the idea that interfaces to autonomous vehicles can be both easy for the blind to use and completely safe for everyone.

We have reason to believe that there are ongoing negotiations between our organization and Google and that, in the past year, the company has made a significant commitment to inborn technology. If this is so, it represents a tremendous change that will have positive and long-term consequences for the blind. Like Apple’s innovative work to make the flatscreen accessible to the blind, Google can significantly raise the bar for the industry by demonstrating that inborn accessibility is possible, that it is economically feasible, and that it is the thing to do if other developers and manufacturers want to be competitive in today’s marketplace.

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