For years, I’ve heard anecdotal reports that JAWS, the world’s most popular screen reader, has more bugs, is less reliable, more unstable and of a generally poorer quality than some of its competitors. In that same period, starting in 1998 and continuing until today, I have never seen a single bit of quantitative evidence demonstrating that this is true. I hear people around the community make these claims based on personal experience, experience that is certainly valid but no one has published a scorecard listing every feature in every application supported by each screen reader, tested each and published the results. I’ve also never seen any detailed reports of reliability, only the same sorts of personal stories.
In this article, I want to explore some of the generally accepted notions about screen reader quality and functionality and ask why, if JAWS is such a bad piece of software, does it maintain a marketshare over 50% and why does it still dominate in most professional settings. Furthermore, I want to explore some of the issues discussed in my article, “Remembering GW Micro” that I published last month.
As a matter of disclosure, I don’t use JAWS. For the most part, my primary system is a Macbook Air running OSX Mavericks with the VoiceOver screen reader. I do use Windows with some frequency but, on that system, I use NVDA because I really like how it works in FireFox. This is a second theme I hope to explore in this piece, does the opportunity provided for career advancement, educational opportunities and other advanced computer usage provided in JAWS more valuable than having fewer bugs if, indeed, JAWS does have more bugs than its competitors.
Before there was a JAWS, Ted henter, its inventor and leader for many years, came to a realization. Specifically, while some talking computer technology had already emerged, none of it was vocationally oriented. In those days, Ted worked for Dean Blazie, a close friend of his until today, where they made the Braille & Speak (BNS), a truly remarkable device in its day. A blind user could do a lot with a BNS but it provided no access to the programs that one might use in a job or university.
To solve this problem, Ted found an investor and started working on the DOS version of a program he called Job Access With Speech. From day one, the defining value behind JAWS was to provide access to professional situations and, to this day, it remains the dominant access technology for blind people in professional settings.
GW Micro Marketing
I joined Henter-Joyce in October of 1998. Among the first things I noticed was that the GW Micro web site claimed that Window-Eyes was “rock solid.” I’ve heard this claim repeated in their marketing materials and in reports from their users. What I’ve never seen is the scorecard I mention in the introduction of this article. I try to base my opinions in evidence, when I did my evaluation of Android, I tested every single feature that came out-of-the-box on my Nexus/7. Before I make a claim of quality or lack thereof, I try to perform as full an evaluation that I can or find a published report that contains such written by a credible source. In the 16 years since I’ve been following screen readers, I’ve never seen a single report card of this sort for Windows screen readers, just lots of personal reports, lots of anecdote without evidence.
Does the lack of quantitative evidence mean that the assertions that JAWS is less stable than its competitors are untrue? Absolutely not, it just means that there is no data that can answer this question so I’ll leave it unanswered. It’s not unreasonable for someone making a purchasing decision to rely on the anecdotal reports written by other users as, in the lack of real data, its all a blind consumer might have.
Regarding Window-Eyes, when Microsoft announced that one could get a copy at no extra cost if they owned Office, I grabbed a copy. I did not perform an extensive evaluation of the product as the reliability problems I found in the first half hour of using the product convinced me that continuing with my evaluation was a waste of time. Specifically, on the Windows login screen, if one mistypes their password, Window-Eyes does not read the error box that comes up saying that something was wrong beyond the “OK” button so a user doesn’t know what he’s saying “OK” to. Then, I discovered that when a user launches Window-Eyes, it may not read applications that were opened before it was started – a problem that does not exist in either JAWS or NVDA. Others whom I trust intimately have reported other major bugs as well. If Window-Eyes is, indeed, “rock solid,” I don’t see it.
Meanwhile, Window-Eyes remains the only screen reader on Windows that still does not support either touch gestures for navigation or Aria on the Internet (yeah, I know, GW Micro says it’s coming but it took them a decade to get Java supported so “is coming” may mean in 2025). Window-Eyes, in my mind, remains highly buggy and as feature poor as anything on the market today.
Let’s Look At Some Numbers
According to the 2014 WebAIM statistics, JAWS holds a marketshare in excess of 50% with NVDA approaching 20% and Window-Eyes falling in with about six points. To make the arithmetic easier, let’s say that JAWS has 8 times the number of users as does Window-Eyes. Hence, it is run on 8 times as wide a variety of hardware, in 8 times as many sets of personal settings, setups, and Windows configurations. Let’s also assume that there are 8 times as many JAWS users discussing their problems online and, therefore, it’s 8 times as likely that a JAWS bug will be seen by the Internet reading public as would a bug in Window-Eyes. Is it possible that JAWS much broader user base and much larger exposure in online media (formal and otherwise) may lead one to believe that it is actually more buggy? In absence of the aforementioned scorecard, we cannot know.
JAWS Broader Feature Set
No one questions that JAWS is more feature rich than any other screen reader. It became so because of Ted’s commitment to providing a tool that blind people could use in professional settings. As far as anyone can tell, JAWS is still dominant in these settings because of its feature set, features which are absolutely necessary for many people to hold a job or further their education.
After I wrote the article describing my memories of GW Micro, a reader posted a comment reasserting, without any evidence, that GW won’t release a feature until “it’s rock solid” parroting Window-Eyes marketing literature. The person who posted the comment continued by stating that GW didn’t add Java support to Window-Eyes until version 8.0 and suggested that the near decade it took them to catch up to JAWS in this area was because of their commitment to quality. This implies that GW Micro had been working on their Java support for all of that time but chose not to release it until it was “rock solid” which, of course, is false. GW Micro didn’t add Java support until they were absolutely forced to do so by market demands.
What if the JAWS team had also decided to wait many years before they added Java support? A year after JAWS first supported the Java Access Bridge, University of Florida (a in the top twenty public engineering colleges in the US) decided to change its computer science and computer engineering curriculum from being based in the Scheme programming language (a Lisp like language developed at MIT in the sixties) to Java. A blind student in that program could have, if he so chose, used Window-Eyes, it was among the approved AT provided by the university, but, if he had made that choice, he would have had to drop out of the program as, using Window-Eyes, he could not possibly have done his class work. I suppose that the person who wrote the post considered this when he posted his statement and I suppose also that he thinks that waiting a decade for your AT to catch up to the reality of the technological world is also a good idea. our hypothetical blind student had no choice, he either chose JAWS or he failed out of college.
Personally, I think that saving that student’s college career is the most important thing a screen reader team can do with its time but, as always, I’d like to hear your comments.
A Data Point I’d Like To See
WebAIM statistics are nice especially because they run year to year and allow us to observe trends. It’s also a self selecting survey which, like all self selecting surveys, is wrought with problems. Is one screen reader under represented in the report while another is over represented? This is data that the WebAIM report cannot answer. It would be impractical to expand the WebAIM survey to include some other more personal information about screen reader users. Unfortunately, there is very little other data published that can tell us much about the make up of the screen reading using public.
The data points I’d like to hear, in a real, well constructed study, would help us learn much more about the efficacy of a particular screen reader. Specifically, I’d like to learn what is the median income of an employed JAWS users versus the median income of users of other screen readers. I’d also like to learn the average level of education accomplished by users of JAWS versus the other screen readers. Based purely in anecdote and in complete absence of real statistical data, I’m willing to bet anyone $100 that JAWS users are A: more likely to be employed, B: make more money and C: more well educated than users of any other screen reader except, perhaps, NVDA. Of course, it would cost much more than a hundred bucks to do the study properly so the bet is probably not worth taking.
As I wrote in “Remembering,” I believe this is why Window-Eyes failed in the market and is why GW Micro is no longer a going concern. JAWS did everything possible to build a base in employment sectors, NVDA came along and grabbed a whole lot of the more technical blinks and SystemAccess grabbed the novice users while Window-Eyes offered nothing special at all.
Earlier this year, when I published the three Android reviews, I expected and received a spanking from its loyal enthusiasts. Years ago, when I wrote BlindConfidential articles with titles like “Apple Just Sucks,” I got spanked by Apple’s fanboys. When I write critically about Window-Eyes, I hear from its loyal users as well. I understand that people love the things they use, the technology in which they’ve invested a lot of time and energy learning and they respond to criticism of their favorite things. I admit, I cringe when I hear some of my favorite things criticized as well.
What I didn’t expect from the Android series, though, was the celebration tossed by the iOS fans. In my mind, celebrating accessibility failures is never a good idea. I really like my Macbook Air and my iPhone 5S but I want all devices to be equally or more accessible. I take no joy in writing a review of accessibility that, based upon testing I’ve done or published reports from credible sources, is substandard. Because you chose a device that my blog suggests is “better” is a bad reason to celebrate that other devices may not be as good. This isn’t a game, Apple ain’t the Red Sox and Google ain’t the Yankees and there’s no reason to root for one massively profit generating corporation over another.
When I write a critical piece, I do so to inform my readers of results I have learned about some bit of technology. I do not do so to “gloat” that I had made a particular purchasing decision over another. I have no skin in this game, if a new device comes out tomorrow that I think will like, I’ll go get it no matter the vendor. I view technology as tools and nothing more and I don’t root for Craftsman versus Snap-on either.
In general, I think that the access technology business needs much more real data driving the opinion pieces that are so rampant in this community. We all have our favorite things and it’s good that some people write about such, create tutorials and do all of the other things that make using computing devices much simpler for our community but it’s also essential that we try to stick to facts, find the data to support our assertions and view all marketing literature with a very skeptical approach.
While editing this piece, I went through my usual process of adding links to as many of the proper nouns in this article as possible. I usually add a link to the first occurrence of any proper noun I use in an article. I always prefer including a link to a Wikipedia entry instead of a company or personal web site as Wikipedia’s crowdsourced manner of creating content is far more likely to be objective than are web sites written by businesses as marketing tools or by individuals about themselves. In this piece, I found an Wikipedia article I could link to about Ted Henter but not one about Dean Blazie. Some popular screen readers have Wikipedia entries, some do not.
Perhaps it’s a result of poor accessibility in the Wikipedia interface one uses to add or edit an article but, no matter the reason, the history of access technology, the products, the people who created them and the steady improvement of such is hardly reflected on Wikipedia. This is the one forum where we, as consumers, advocates, developers and users can write our own history and it’s something that we should do as soon as possible.