“All the power is in the hands,
Of the people rich enough to buy it,
While we walk the streets,
Too chicken to even try it,” The Clash.
Regular readers of this blog and of BlindConfidential (its predecessor) already know that when it comes to Windows screen readers, I am an enthusiastic supporter of NVDA and NVAccess . Recent events in the news of the blind world have moved NVDA from being an excellent screen reader used by more than 20% of the blind people who run Windows into the single most important piece of technology used by our community.
This article will explore the VFO acquisition of The Paciello Group (TPG) as well as its decision to end the life of its Window-Eyes product. It will also explain why Free, Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) is the only way we as blind people can control our own destinies, ensure our privacy and be certain that we have a screen reader that will not disappear overnight.
If you’re unfamiliar with the word “FLOSS” (spelled in all caps), it stands for Free Libre Open Source Software. When Richard Stallman started this movement he used the term “free software” which some people find confusing as “free” in the English language can mean either “at no cost to the consumer” as in “free beer” or it could mean “at liberty” as in “Lincoln freed the slaves.” Others started calling this type of software “open source” but that ignores the other aspects of the philosophy so another set of people started using the word “libre” instead of “free” or “open source.” I started using FLOSS as it’s a compromise position and generates fewer questions about what I mean. If you’re interested in learning more about the philosophy behind this movement, I recommend taking a look at the “Free Software Foundation web site as that’s where it all began.
One of the best kept secrets in the blindness world and an issue people have pressured me to not report for many years now is that a screen reader is a highly effective piece of spyware. In brief, a screen reader monitors all activities on a computer and reports the information back to the user in speech and/or braille. Any software engineer with access to the source code can tweak it a little and also report everything the user does on their computer back to the company that made the screen reader or to any other data gathering system of their choice. Thus, the VFO people can add a spyware function to JAWS, MAGic or ZoomText and there’s no way a user can know if their information, usage habits or anything else they do with a VFO product is being collected by them and potentially sold or shared with others. In the era of data mining, do you trust Vector Capital, the company who owns the notorious MP3 patent trolls to not also take unethical actions against users of the other products made by companies in their portfolio?
NVDA is free, libre open source software (FLOSS) and anyone with the skills required to read and evaluate the source code can independently verify that the NVDA screen reader is not also spying on them. Admittedly, few people have these skills but any number of blindness agencies or a collection thereof can grab the NVDA source code from GitHub, pay security specialists to review the code and independently verify that it is not doing anything malicious, a freedom we do not have with the VFO products under the proprietary, closed source model under which they sell JAWS, ZoomText and MAGic. The verified version of NVDA can be digitally signed and have a checksum one can test to further ensure that they are running code certified to be safe.
Nobody can stop VFO from spying on its users; our entire community can work with NVAccess to ensure that our private information is being kept private.
Two Guys In A Garage?
Recently, I was told by more than one person who had a private meeting with VFO salespeople at CSUN 2017 that the guys trying to sell JAWS are telling those who buy enterprise site licenses that “NVDA is just two guys working in a garage, if they’re hit by a bus, the whole thing disappears.” This is a bald faced lie, NVDA is more than the amazing Mick Curren and Jamie Teh, it’s an entire community made up of hundreds of people who contribute to its source code, write plug-ins like NVDA Remote Access and DictationBridge, write documentation, help with testing, create tutorials and participate in making it the only Windows screen reader that has witnessed marketshare growth over each of the past six years. If something bizarre and tragic happens to Mick and Jamie, the rest of the community can pick it up where they left off.
Now, contrast the value of a community of hundreds to the half dozen or so people currently writing JAWS code at VFO and we can only conclude that JAWS is in a far more fragile state than is the very healthy community of NVDA developers.
Now, let’s explore the abject hypocrisy in what the VFO salespeople are saying behind closed doors at CSUN. Last week, they announced that their Window-Eyes product had been discontinued (something I predicted in my annual end of year article last December). Window-Eyes users with a valid software maintenance agreement (SMA) can get a gratis upgrade to JAWS; those without such either need to buy JAWS, a Dolphin product or, as most to whom I’ve spoken seem to be doing switch to NVDA.
While the Window-Eyes marketshare was in single digits, many of its users cannot afford to buy the upgrade and have no choice but to use NVDA, something I would recommend but the transition will not be easy for the less technically minded sorts.. More insidious, though, is that Window-Eyes, NVDA and JAWS all have different user interfaces and the people now using Window-Eyes, their employers, educational institutions and so on need to pick up the tab in terms of time and money to learn a new screen reader. Training is expensive both in time and in terms of dollars, Euros, rupees, pounds sterling, yen or the currency of your choice.
If, like NVDA, Window-Eyes was a FLOSS package, the community could have collectively taken over its management and development and its users would have their screen reader of choice into the future.
We have the FLOSS model NVDA where its future is ensured by the hundreds of people contributing to it that will be available even if its originators choose to do something different with their lives. We have the proprietary model Window-Eyes over which the community has no control. VFO made a decision, Window-Eyes users got screwed and there’s nothing we can do to change this.
A FLOSS package can last forever; users of a proprietary solution are subject to the whims of VFO or Dolphin management. NVDA users needn’t fear their favorite screen reader will go away overnight; VFO has demonstrated that they will force users to go through a retraining process, spend more money to use a different screen reader and allow JAWS to deteriorate as they see fit. You are free to make your own choices, I highly recommend taking the FLOSS route and using, contributing in some way and promoting NVDA to the best of your abilities. We simply cannot trust VFO with our future.
As far as I can tell, the annual NVDACon online conference is the only forum in which the community can interact directly with the authors of their favorite screen reader. Try to contact Glen Gordon (the person at the top of JAWS at VFO) and see if you get a response to a technical question.
NVDACon started when community member and DictationBridge contributor Joseph Lee saw the need for such an event and took it upon himself to coordinate an international meeting of NVDA developers, users, documentation specialists and anyone else who had an interest in attending. It is now run by our friend and another DictationBridge contributor, Derek Reamer. This year it had its biggest attendance so far and we expect to see it grow into the future.
The Paciello Group (TPG) is not the largest of the accessibility contract shops (Deque Systems has more people and the company formerly known as SSB-BART just got a $40 million investment). TPG is, however, by far the most prestigious brand name in the field. Mike Paciello, its founder, has been one of the most important and influential people in the world of accessibility standards. Other TPG people like Steve Faulkner, Karl Groves, Billy Gregory, etc. participate in writing and promoting standards like WCAG 2.0, Aria and other generally accepted practices for ensuring the accessibility of technology, web sites, documents and all of the other things we blind and otherwise disabled people need to fully participate in modern society.
It’s Accessible If It Works With JAWS
One of the big lies I told as a Freedom Scientific executive that I still hear whispered around the VFO crowd is that JAWS is a benchmark for accessibility testing. This could not be further from the truth, JAWS is (of the Windows screen readers I know of) the least standards compliant. Our rationale for telling this lie was that JAWS had an overwhelming lead in the marketshare battles and, therefore, testing against JAWS meant ensuring that most screen reader users would find a web site or application to be accessible. When I was telling that lie, NVDA didn’t exist and now it’s the most standards compliant of the Windows screen readers and may be the most compliant screen reader on any platform.
I will also add that testing one’s technology with NVDA is much simpler than with JAWS. One only needs to download the NVDA image from the NVAccess web site, run its installation routine and jump right in. There are no hassles with license servers, copy protection or other barriers to an efficient testing experience. And, like the people from TPG, the NVAccess guys participate in a lot of the discussions surrounding the writing of the standards, something VFO employees are only rarely seen doing.
It’s Not Just About Vision Disabilities
If a company elects to test their technology against JAWS as the benchmark, they will find that entirely standards compliant web sites and applications will not work properly. If they then change their web sites or applications to work nicely with JAWS, they will need to violate the standards. If they do so, their technology will indeed work well with JAWS but it will not with any other AT.
While I am blind and I write about and work on projects related to vision impairments, I also understand that a lot of people with other disabilities need access to web sites and applications. If the technology is actually accessible it is compliant with the standards and should work properly with any AT required for all disabilities. Coding to ensure access to JAWS may mean that Stephen Hawking cannot use your technology, a message I used to start my talk at the LibrePlanet free software conference in March.
Will VFO force the universal design based TPG people away from standards and onto the “if it works with JAWS it’s accessible” bandwagon or will they allow them to continue working using generally accepted practices and not on JAWS inability to implement such correctly? Exploring this a little further, it’s in VFO’s best interest to destroy the standards based model because web sites and applications coded specifically to work with JAWS, will not work properly with NVDA or Dolphin products, a clear market advantage for JAWS. Meanwhile, making things compatible with JAWS will likely break all of the AT used by people with other disabilities. A JAWS first testing strategy should be avoided by everyone as it’s the outlier, not the standard.
TPG As An Educator
Historically, a number of TPG employees have spent a lot of time working on podcasts, writing blogs and sending out useful accessibility tips on social media. Steve Faulkner and Leonie Watson have terrific and very educational Twitter personalities and many of us in the accessibility business find our way to important information via the links they post on social media.
Historically, the VFO leadership has been notorious for silencing its employees from saying anything whatsoever about accessibility that hasn’t been pre-approved by VFO, whether in their spare time using their personal gear or while at work using VFO PCs. VFO now wants the TPG employees to sign the same highly restrictive non-disclosure, non-compete and non-disparagement agreements that prevent its other employees from engaging with the rest of the community.
As much of what the TPG people write on social media, in their blogs and discuss on their podcasts is about standards and we know standards are not in the best interest of JAWS, will our community lose these people as the valued assets they are today? Just as an example, listen to an episode of “The Viking and The Lumberjack” and then listen to one of Jonathan Mosen’s nearly content free FSCast episodes and you will understand that V&L promotes standards; FSCast promotes VFO.
The VFO Patent Portfolio
Another hazard created by the company formerly known as Freedom Scientific (FS) are the many patents they have related to access technologies. When I was still working there, Lee Hamilton (then CEO) readily admitted to we executives that our patent strategy had little to nothing to do with the novelty of something we “invented” but, rather, was to “drop boulders in the roadmap of our competitors.” Shamefully, I participated in this deceit and authored many early drafts of what would become actual patents. Hamilton and the FS lawyers then started filing patent suits against GW Micro, KESI and perhaps other access technology companies. Almost every patent prosecuted by FS was found to be invalid but only after those FS had sued had spent a tremendous amount of time and money defending themselves. This disruption in the competitor’s business model did nothing but stifle competition and help JAWS reach its monopoly level marketshare. It wasn’t until NVDA came along that JAWS had any real challenger.
What If VFO Sues NVAccess Over Patent Infringement?
Because NVDA is a FLOSS package, NVAccess qualifies as a member of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) based at Columbia University in New York. If history serves as a predictor of the future, it is very likely that the patent VFO might use to attack NVDA would be found invalid if challenged. SFLC knows how to fight this kind of suit and, in the event they are needed, they will provide pro bono representation to NVAccess and any other developer of FLOSS access technology attacked by a patent troll like VFO.
All Of The Power?
Looping back to the epigram that I’ve heard Joe Strummer sing a million times both live and in recordings, we need to ask ourselves if, indeed, VFO with a monopoly position in proprietary Windows screen readers and magnifiers actually has all of the power. While I like opening this article with that quote, I actually believe that we, the community of blind technology users and our friends, can seize the day and take back control of our own destinies. The most obvious first step is doing whatever you can to help NVAccess improve and promote NVDA.
What Can You Do To Help?
Every screen reader user can help NVDA in their own way. A number of things you and I can do to advance NVDA and our freedoms include:
- If you have programming skills, you can do something to improve NVDA itself. You could help the core team fix bugs and add features, you can write a new plug-in providing more functionality to NVDA users and participate in various other ways as well.
- If you have good writing skills, you can help create documentation and training materials for NVDA.
- If you are multi-lingual, you can help translate NVDA documentation and training materials into languages other than English.
- If you use NVDA and find a bug, you can report it through their tracking system to ensure the programmers know about the defect so they can then find a remedy.
- If you have a social media account, you can help promote NVDA with tweets, FaceBook posts and such.
- Instead of paying for a JAWS SMA, you can send the money to NVAccess to help the people working on the software.
- If you’re a solid NVDA user, you can help other users with tips and tricks and other helpful information on mailing lists and the like.
- If you have a blog, you can write about why you like NVDA and relatively high profile people like me will help you promote your stories on social media.
- If you’re a TPG person and haven’t signed the restrictive covenants with VFO yet, continue to refuse to do so. You’re all capable of finding another job in a real hurry. so VFO needs you more than you need them.
- I ask that you please promote this article on social media or on your blog or podcast.
An Endowment For FLOSS Access Technology
When I heard that the VFO salespeople were trying to tell the world that NVDA could disappear overnight and then demonstrated their own willingness to kill a product without warning, I started noodling around with an idea. When I was doing an on stage interview at San Francisco Lighthouse Labs meeting earlier this month with Erin Lauridsen, their new and outstanding director of access technology, my friend and one of the sharpest minds this community has ever known, Josh Miele asked a question about how we could ensure the future of FLOSS packages in the disability community. While NVDA has a terrific and thriving community supporting it, other less well known packages do disappear when the people maintaining such move on to something else. So, I decided to work on a long term strategy for ensuring the futures of important FLOSS access technology projects.
I’ve been mulling over a number of ideas to allow this to happen while also permitting the package maintainers the freedom to move onto new projects when they want to. The best idea I’ve had so far is to establish an endowment to finance maintenance of existing and creation of new FLOSS packages related to accessibility for all people with disabilities. I have set a goal for myself to raise $5 million in the coming year to establish this endowment. If you work for a disability related organization with a bunch of money in the bank and you think this is a good idea, please write to me via the contact form on this site and we can discuss how your organization can join this important movement. I’ve already done a number of meetings with big agencies discussing this notion and I’m feeling hopeful that we’ll make our goal.
This community has made tdsr ($5000), NVDA Remote Access ($10,000) and DictationBridge ($20,000) for less money than VFO would spend on the salaries of the people in the meetings just to decide if these were good ideas or not. We can, therefore, take less money from the community for each project and, for the same number of dollars, do much more work than can VFO. With an endowment, we can ensure the future of these packages and many more already available as well as develop new and exciting features for them and start new projects too. The economics are pointing to the FLOSS model and away from VFO.
NVDA is the only screen reader we can trust to protect our privacy, to survive a decision by its founders to move onto other things in their lives and to be compatible with standards. There are a few reasons to continue using JAWS (some job sites who have custom JAWS scripts for in house software for instance) but there is no reason whatsoever to either avoid NVDA for your enterprise, your personal computing, at an educational institution or in virtually any other situation. I urge all of you to stop buying JAWS SMAs and put the money to learning and/or supporting NVDA as it is the only one that will protect your freedoms moving forward.
We can accept the VFO domination of the technology we need or we can throw as many virtual bricks at their roadmap as possible. We can topple the proprietary screen reader model if we’re willing to work together to the common goal of controlling our own destiny, securing our own privacy and collectively taking responsibility for our own future. I’m not saying this will be easy but I believe it is possible and that it is the road we need to pave for ourselves.
JD Townsend says
Excellent assessment of the direction of the buy and kill the competition model of enterprise. NVDA has developed, and will develop into a better solution; however, how businesses will react to allowing a FLOSS product interact with their systems remains to be tested.
Robert Kingett says
Sadly I do not see business taking to FLOS very well or very quickly. They want products with easy tech support and… other things. I personally use FLOS whenever I can, but getting businesses and otherwise to do it will be a challenge. Only thing that is not FLOS on my system is microsoft Windows.
Chris Hofstader says
Hey Robert, good to hear from you!
As for technical support and NVDA, saying it doesn’t exist is both a falsehood and simply a repetition of a myth about NVAccess. Take a look at: https://www.nvaccess.org/help/ and you can see that any person or institution can purchase tech support from them. If an institution does not need to buy JAWS Pro ($1500 plus SMAs in the future), they get NVDA gratis so the cost of the NVAccess tech support is still a big savings over paying VFO for its broken and non-standards compliant stuff.
Tony Ballou says
Hi Chris and folks,
Chris, just finished reading this and what can I say! Fantastic stuff as always. It’s good to be reading your stuff again my friend, keep it coming!
I have a small business that builds and sells custom PC’S. For are clientele who are totally blind like myself, are systems come with NVDA which is installed right after the operating system. We also install as much FLOSS as we can get on them. As for supporting the NVDA project I’m currently working on some documentation for the window eyes user who is trying to make the transition to NVDA.
I was an avid user of Window eyes from 1996 to the middle of last year. I also had to learn Jaws for some of the jobs that I had taken over the years, and I still see a myriad of places where loads of things have stagnated We must keep the movement growing, and continue to make NVDA the main weapon of choice. Afteral, in this situation, nobody is going to save us from the Dennison’s of the closed proprietary software world but us. Viva FLOSS and those standards that when implemented correctly will provide us a totally accessible world!
Robert Kingett says
Oh I know… there is this myth that JAWS has easier to obtain technical support, To be frank, I seriously don’t understand why people are still buying JAWS and using JAWS, Like all of these schools and DHS’s and stuff. I completely agree with you, I just did not make a good point.
Amanda Rush says
I’d like to provide at least a bit of an answer to the question of why schools/government are using Jaws over NVDA. First, they have a lot of time and money invested in custom scripting for Jaws in order to support custom applications and intranets, as well as supporting older browsers such as Internet Explorer. * seems to be the most popular one. Second, there have been efforts in the past, (specifically on the part of the NFB), to discourage the use of free software like NVDA and to encourage the use of Jaws for Windows, especially in schools.
Michael Bayus says
When I got out of College, I tried to get my State agency to obtain for me the Eureka A4 Braille Computer and Personal Organizer.
Some of you may remember the Eureka A4.
When it first came out, it established a new standard for assistive tools for vision-impaired people. Its sleek design, its features and user-friendliness were unique compared to other devices available at that time, or so I thought.
The device still remains in wide use now, more than thirty years after it was conceived, probably setting a record for the World’s longest-serving personal computer. The Eureka A4 was launched in the times of the first IBM PCs. It was the first personal computer equipped with a then revolutionary low power floppy disk drive, which was made by Citizen Watch company.
The device had a Braille keyboard, voice output, in-built modem, a rich portfolio of wordprocessing, educational and personal organizer functions, ROM-based operating system, and even a sophisticated music composer.
The Eureka A4 attracted a number of international awards, such as the Rolls-Royce Qantas Award for Engineering Excellence, Winston Gordon Award for Technological Achievement in the Field of Blindness, and many others.
The large family of Eureka users included school children, professionals as well as pensioners, and also many famous people (such as Stevie Wonder).
For its users, this new class of product meant a totally new experience of independence. Many young people relied on the Eureka to assist them from their early school days all the way to the university. Many obstacles were overcome, many doors were opened, thanks to the Eureka.
For its creators, the Eureka also became a symbol of success, an example of the strength of an idea, and the creative force which exists in all of us, and which can flourish and bear fruits, given the right opportunity and environment. It is also an example of the most noble application of technology: assistance to a fellow human being.
And, above all, the Eureka remains an enduring symbol of persistence and passion.
I wanted one in the worst way, but my state agency told me that it was not a proven technology and I would be better off with Jaws.
I was never a Jaws user, and now I have NVDA and I have Ella, the NVDA addon voice from Acapela.
So there must be more to it than that.
Chris Hofstader says
Some enterprises, state systems and universities are already moving to NVDA for a variety of reasons. There is no reason whatsoever for any institution to avoid FLOSS code because they are already using a lot of it. many enterprise web servers run using Apache or other FLOSS packages, a ton of them use either WordPress or Drupal as their CMS, approximately 100% of all routers on the market are running at least some GPL code. Until very recently, if they had blind employees they often used FireFox and now they may also use Chrome. The number of other FLOSS packages running on servers and the like is a list far too long to write down here.
So, as they’re already using a ton of FLOSS stuff, why put NVDA alone into the exclusion pile?
What do you think the long-term impact of microsoft and Apple’s integrated screen-readers will be on NVDA? I appreciate the points you make. It is definitely food for thought.
Chris Hofstader says
I use VoiceOver on Macintosh quite a lot but haven’t any first hand experience with the Narrator I’m told by many that is rapidly improving. I’m uncomfortable with them on the privacy issues but having a gratis screen reader built into the OS is pretty compelling as it means that nobody need find a third party solution, FLOSS or otherwise.
The problem with the built-in solutions we’ve seen so far (VoiceOver on OS X and iOS, TalkBack on Android, VoiceView on Amazon, VoiceAssist on Samsung, Narrator on Windows and maybe others I can’t recall at the moment) is that none (so far) include a powerful customization system like JAWS and NVDA had and that Window-Eyes had that was as good as NVDA’s and way better than the one in JAWS. Without such, these screen readers cannot be forced to work with applications that aren’t compliant with the OS level accessibility API. In a lot of cases, this is what blind people in job sites with in-house software need to do their jobs. I’m happy hearing Apple, MS and the others are pushing application developers into using the API and following standards but there are a lot of things out there already that are non-compliant, don’t seem to have a plan to come into compliance and are wanted or needed by blind users.
I am entirely confident that Narrator will get much better in the coming year or two but I doubt it will ever have the powerful scripting facilities of a JAWS, NVDA, Orca or the former Window-Eyes.
Sky Mundell says
Hello Chris. This is fantastic artical! I have moved onto NVDA as my primary screen reader and boy it is an amazing product to use! One thing you should do Chris is that you should put a share to faceboo, share to twitter link, so that way the community can post these posts on facebook, and twitter.
Chris Hofstader says
Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll ask the person who maintains my WordPress installation to add these, they’re pretty common, there’s probably an accessible plug-in to handle it :-).
Barry Scheur says
Chris: You fail to mention a number of points in an otherwise excellent article:
1. Microsoft, which had a partnership with GW Micro which VFO has chosen to extinguish, could have acquired Window-Eyes, but chose not to do so.
2. Narrator, with its significant steps forward in Windows 10, is now a viable alternative to Jaws.3. If you are correct about the non-standardization of Jaws, then perhaps the litigation route in the interests of accessibility is the best way to deal with that problem
4. You might be interested to know that when I proposed doing a presentation on the issues of blindness tech companies vs. the rest of the world regarding corporate responsibility and customer service for CSUN 2017, I was turned down.
Chris Hofstader says
All of your points are mostly valid.
While Narrator has improved dramatically recently, it’s still far from having all of the power of a JAWS or NVDA. I am 100% confident that we’ll see it continue to improve but it’s not there yet. While I use VoiceOver on Macintosh a lot, it’s also not all of the way to where NVDA and JAWS are on Windows.
I’ve chosen to stop attending CSUN. A lot of interesting topics are refused presentations, there’s no live stream or way to download presentations after the event ends, there was a lot of weirdness about the schedule last year, they keep putting Laney Feingold into a tiny room and if you’re not their early enough you never get the chance to hear her, they see rooms to VFO, Oracle and lots of other businesses with deep pockets to promote their crap without criticism and it’s just boring on a purely intellectual basis. In general, I find I am more effective talking accessibility at mainstream events than I am at CSUN and CSUN is always very expensive.
And, as for MS buying Window-Eyes, that may not have been on the table. they had a deal with GW Micro, it was acquired by AI Squared which in turn was acquired by VFO. They likely did not anticipate that anyone would want to acquire a product with a tiny marketshare, didn’t want the tech support nightmares that come with such and might not have known VFO was going to kill it. VFO wanted it dead but MS probably did not. Let’s not attribute to malice what can otherwise be attributed to lack of foresight.
David Julian says
Fantastic article. I have been a JAWS user since 2001 and am considering switching to NVDA due to the length of time taken to resolve bug issues and poor communication.
Ruth Salas says
Please I don’t see how to post this to facebook?
Chris Hofstader says
I’m sorry, I don’t have a link to let readers post from this site to FB. Someone else also pointed this out and I’ll be adding one soon. For now, you can go to the address bar in your browser, copy the URL and then paste it into an FB post you make. Or, if you follow me on FB (Chris Hofstader), you can share the post I put up there yesterday.
Thanks for your help.
Best article in the last weeks or months; congratulations for it all.
Josh Kennedy says
What would really improve NVDA is a much better default voice. And in order to reach the goal of a much better much more improved ESpeak-ng, I signed up to http://www.rent-acoder.com and posted a project on greatly improving the espeak voices and pronunciations and accents across all of its many supported languages. Now I just have to sit back and wait for bidders on my project. Or perhaps we should do another crowd-sourceing campaign but this time perhaps we could raise $10000 or so to improve ESpeak? What do you all think? I would donate some money to greatly improve ESpeak voices including better windows sapi5 and android support for espeak-ng, much much much better klat-voices for people with hearing loss, ability to greatly customise klatt voices with easy dialog boxes in windows and android. I am not a developer so would have to pay outside programmers such as ones from rent-acoder website.
I agree that we need a better FLOSS synthesiser in terms of tone quality; it may be ESpeak or another. It seems the technique used to make Festival is also open source, see for example http://hts.sp.nitech.ac.jp/
I hope someone do it soon.
Chris Hofstader says
Hey Josh and the others who followed up with comments about FLOSS speech synths,
On this matter, I must plead complete ignorance. I agree that espeak is not a very nice synthesizer but, at the same time, I also need to admit that I’ve absolutely no idea whatsoever would go into making either espeak or Festival better. I do not understand the computer science well enough to even be comfortable managing such a project. I also have no idea how much doing this work would cost and some hackers will underestimate the project budget and we’ll run out of money before it’s finished while others will massively overestimate the effort and we’ll find ourselves in a position in which we need to try to raise a lot more money than we actually need.
If we raise the dollars for the FLOSS AT endowment, we can start looking at some of these more difficult problems but, today, even though I know hackers of all stripes, I don’t know a single hacker who’s ever worked on a speech synth in the past so I wouldn’t even know where to start looking to build a team.
If any of you have an idea on how to move this forward, please do speak up and I’d be happy to discuss the matter but, as of now, I have nobody I trust well enough to help raise money to work on improving espeak or Festival, I don’t know how much work it would entail and I haven’t looked at C code in a long time so can’t even try to figure it out on my own.
Speech synthesizers are heard. ETI, the company that originally made Eloquence, had a whole bunch of PhD types in their employ talking about computational linguistics and other really hard computer science stuff. My friends are either hackers or software engineers and none know even the most remote thing about how one might do this. We’ve discussed it in the past but our little band of blind hackers would be over our heads on such a project.
If you know anyone who has these skills who might be interested in doing an espeak hacking session, please introduce them to me and I’d be happy to talk to them but cannot commit to doing anything for the project at this time.
Did someone from VFO really say “two guys in a garage”? What are they going to say when Microsoft improves Narrator to the point that it has most, if not all the features JAWS offers? Heck, narrator is gaining support for automatic image descriptions. They also said they’re using OCR, so who knows what that could lead to in the future? They’re doing things on Windows that Apple apparently won’t do on the Mac OS. Then again, I’m getting the feeling that the Mac isn’t all that important to Apple anymore. After all, iOS makes up something like 80% of their business nowadays. It’s a shame. macOS is a great operating system and VoiceOver has a lot of potential, but Apple doesn’t seem as interested in that platform and its users than they did 6 or 7 years ago.
Hey Chris, great read! I’m curious if you have any specific examples of how JAWS is not standards-compliant compared with NVDA, and what the reasoning behind this non-compliance might be? I would assume this started way before NVDA existed, so can’t imagine what the motivation to not follow standards might be.
Amanda Rush says
Grab something to sip on, because this is long.
Regarding Jaws and compliance with standards, to put it shortly, Jaws scrapes the screen via the display chain instead of relying on what is handed off to it from the web and applications through the operating system level accessibility API. In contrast, NVDA relies on the API, except when it cannot, and at that point, (for things like math, for example), it uses workarounds. It must do so for math because none of the browsers support MathML, which is a mathematical markup language. Individual sites can patch in support through Mathjax, which is a library you use to add client-side rendering to the browser so math can be displayed, but typically math on the web, (at least in the not accessible space), is displayed using scalable vector graphics, (SVG), which present accessibility challenges of their own, although to say that you can’t make them accessible is inaccurate.
The fact that Jaws scrapes the screen instead of relying on the accessibility API means that they reinvent the wheel when it comes to rendering things like websites. This results in inevitable catch-up when bugs are introduced, as they always are when writing code, and for the web, this has created some interesting problems. For example, up until at least Jaws 17, (I’m giving them credit for one version back), headings were broken, in that Jaws would report one heading level below what the markup gave. Heading level three would be reported/spoken as heading level four. At least for those of us who work on WordPress projects, this resulted in a lot of support tickets on things like stock third-party themes, and WordPress itself, insisting that our heading structures were wrong, which we’d then have to respond to with an explanation of what the markup was actually doing and what Jaws was reporting. The problem appears to be fixed now, (as of Jaws 18), but in my view, if I can’t trust your product to report something as simple as headings correctly, how can I expect you to handle more complex things correctly? As a web developer who relies on a screen reader, I can’t trust Jaws for Windows to report either errors or correct code accurately.
The next example I’ll give, (as of Jaws 16, and I haven’t tracked down whether or not this is fixed), is frames. At least using U.S. English Jaws, they are not reported. As you can imagine, this breaks a lot of stuff: Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, (ETC.) embeds, and for Facebook, this includes posts, sometimes interaction buttons, and login for commenting in some cases. For WordPress, it includes all of the above, along with embeds for WordPress posts, and just a ton of content across the web in general. Frames are a great way to sandbox content, scripting, ETC. so that if something goes wrong with that third-party platform from a security standpoint, the sites that are then embedding that content don’t get effected as well. So yeah, nobody’s abandoning frames any time soon.
I’ve personally reported these bugs to VFO support on behalf of the WordPress accessibility team, and the response has been “you’re doing it wrong,” followed by back and forth with lines of code and generated markup, which then results in “That’s interesting,” which is VFO tech support speak for “we don’t know and aren’t interested in finding a solution.” So I’ve started recommending that we not accommodate Jaws bugs, and of course I recommend to all the developers I work with that they test with NVDA on Windows and follow WCAG instead of trying to make stuff work with Jaws. This applies whether I’m working on WordPress itself or third-party sites, themes, and plugins. And we cover a lot of internets.
In contrast, Andrea Fercia, who is also a member of the WordPress accessibility team and writes a lot of the code as well as committing it, has reported bugs to NVDA via Github. They are always responsive, never lead with “you’re doing it wrong,” and in cases where they can’t immediately fix a bug or find a solution, are always up front with Andrea and anyone on the team who is part of the comunication. VFO support could just not like me. I don’t care. Or they could just be stupid. I don’t care about that either. I will continue recommending that Jaws bugs/quirks not be accommodated, and I’m the de facto screen reader expert on the team. I will also continue recommending NVDA over Jaws, with explanations regarding screen scraping and why that’s a bad idea. VFO can either get it together regarding Jaws, or they won’t. I don’t care which one they do. I just paid $750 to upgrade to the latest Jaws for Windows in order to complete a project with a government agency, and I’m not happy about that. I’m also not happy about Window Eyes users having to switch, and in some cases being charged a penalty to do so because they’re not current, or having to pay full price because they took advantage of a program that offered Window Eyes for free to Office users, which VFO knew about when they acquired AI Squared. So yeah, I’m willing to use whatever influence I have, as well as cash, to throw some shoulder behind NVDA.
What a great post! For me I’ve been using NVDA on my laptop since I started university; I have to switch because NVDA (recent versions) can read math, which is critically important as math classes involve a lot of equations and symbols. However on my desktop I still have Jaws, although I’m thinking of switching over entirely for some time now. I tried once when I tried out Windows 10 November Update but back then NVDA’s support for Windows 10 was not good but now, as of the 2017.1 release and the Creator’s Update of Windows 10, NVDA’s support for Windows 10 has improved a lot.
Bhavya Shah says
Excellent article! It is gladdening to see the dissolution of that other prevalent myth of JAWS’s functionalitywise superiority over the ‘free’ NVDA. NVDA hosts a very coordinated and proactive community, with the NVDA conference, the international users forum, active Github reporting, and the list goes on. As a former Hindi translator of NVDA, an infrequent snapshot tester, an NVDACon organizer, and an ardent NVDA advocate in India, as well as one who has given a shot to JAWS and has the ability to acquire a copy of latest versions of JAWS if required, I thoroughly concur with about everything mentioned in this article. Anyways, on the topic of personal NVDA experience blog posts, check out my interpretation of NVDA as something more than a screen reader as I narrated its dynamic story in my own Hiking Across Horizons blog post: https://bhavyashah125.wordpress.com/2016/10/10/the-non-visual-desktop-access-movement-assistive-technology-life-transforming-nvda-you-me/
Josh Kennedy says
I wrote this to Eric Damery at VFO.
Not sure if Eric Damery sent the emails to you but I figured I’d bring you up to speed. Consider the following…
A car dealer sells limozines. Another sells very small cheap electric cars for $500 each. the small electric cars can do stuff and go places the big limozines cannot but the limozines can hold more people and have tvs and fancy stuff inside them. But the limozines are very expensive. Someone goes to the dealer wanting to buy a car because they see the limozines have tvs in them. the electric cars do not. the person can’t buy a fancy car its too expensive. the dealer takes them aside privately saying I’ll sell it to you and only you for $600 rather than $600000. But I only want it because it has a tv in it and bigger speakers for the radio. Can’t I buy the speakers putting them in a smaller car? for a long time the dealer says no insisting you buy the fancy cars for $600000 whether you’ll use all their features or not. Eventually they give into customer demand, making a smaller much more affordable vvehicle, lots of average and poor people buy their smaller vehicles with less features and they have more business.
Also consider this. Back in the early 1990s there was a dos screen reader called tiny-talk. You could use it for free but had to put up with some ads every now and then. You could pay maybe $300 or $100 to get rid of the ads. And therein lies the problem I have and others have with VFO. If you have lots of money you can use our product. We are the only company that keeps charging smas for updates and has a 20 year old business model that we refuse to change for some reason only we know. Buying jaws is like someone trying to sell me a big industrial stove along with big hotel cooking pans. I do not need that big of stuff for my house. Yes I need a stove and pans but not big huge ones. Now, why do i like jaws?
it can read some stuff better than NVDA.
It can OCR pdf files directly and put the contents in a virtual buffer.
It has good grade2 input with the $449 orbit reader20 braille display in rb18 emulation mode.
works with programs such as band in a box better than NVDA.
better touch support
good office support does some stuff better than nvda, excel charts in virtual buffer and so on.
works with some websites better than NVDA such as the walmart site.
research-it is handy.
question. can all this be accomplished without nuance products? answer? sure.
free tesseract or free cloud OCR.
ESpeak and speech Hub and microsoft speech platform plus native good sapi4 and sapi5 support for speech.
ability to use NVDA speech synth addons natively in jaws to support some more voices.
jaws scripting and reclass dialogs plus graphics labeling is quite handy for home use.
The home user does not need the following business features.
and they can get tech support from the reading the help docs internet or from friends using free jaws remote tandom.
There’s people out there using pirated jaws keys and pirated jaws because yu at vfo won’t give them a basic home version with all nuance stuff removed, replacing it with good equivalent free stuff as mentioned above. its like I need a stove for cooking. a big stove has 10 burners for business use a small one has 4. the small stove only goes up to 200 degrees. the big one goes up to maybe say 500 and has other features. most times I only need the features of the small stove, maybe once or twice i need features of the larger one. they are made by two different companies. only the one that makes the big stove can for some reason have a higher temperature range. I ask the company that makes the big one hey you guys make lots of money off your large product the other company doesn’t make much so they have less features. please make a smaller product but with a big temperature range. the big company does, people with less buy the small product that fits in smaller spaces and big business buys the bigger product. Connect outloud failed because it was too small. and it still had nuance products. now we got free products you can use to make a free ad-supported jaws and maybe pay $100 to get rid of ads in jaws. we have espeak and speech hub and speech platform and nv speech player and tesseract ocr, stuff that was not around 20 years ago. why not use this stuff to give us all of us not just some who you think deserve special pricing because they complain… but all of us… free ad-supported jaws that maybe puts up ads every 240 to 300 minutes in a virtual buffer enough to be slightly annoying but not enough to really hinder jaws use. and then pay $100 for premium home jaws to get rid of the ads. Your only other option would be to make NVDA addons that give NVDA powerful jaws features like touch server, skim reading and rules, text analyzer, grade2 input and more. android updates are free, hims note taker updates are free. orbit reader20 firmware updates are free. once you pay for gold wave audio editor its updates are free. microsoft office mobile updates are free on android and office365 is like paying for netflix. google docs sheets and slides google office is free for home use. talkback screen reader updates are free. this jaws key i got a good many months ago from some foreign folks no longer works… pasted below… oh and if you do not activate windows10 it still works but with only one background and one or two things disabled that may or may not be an annoyance. but it works and you can use it. people in third world countries like jaws but they cannot pay. they cannot buy the limozine and don’t need all those features. they can’t buy the industrial stove or huge hotel cooking pans. you want to stop piracy? want to still offer a good product to those people in the third world? want to compete with all the free stuff? then for pete sake offer a free jaws with ads and some stuff removed the home user does not need replaced with good equivalent free stuff, I’d like to use nvda synth addons with jaws. maybe use a very old software decTalk tts with jaws. again the nuance stuff is not needed. I can do without it. Then go to NVDA? no. why? Because jaws can do stuff NVDA cannot as stated above. solution? a smaller jaws with free stuff replacing the paid stuff, ad-supported, and no authorization and no smas at all. businesses can still pay the big price for their jaws with the network support and all the nuance stuff and the tech support etcetera. I like both NVDA and jaws because when you rip out all the nuance stuff and you just focus on the screen reading aspect they each have their strengths and weaknesses. but the average the home user the unemployed blind person on SSI or in a third world country should not have to pay business prices. that would be like my comcast company to whom I pay the cable bill insisting I pay the business price and not giving people less expensive options that may better suit their needs as the average home users. And so I really really hope yu guys at VFO when the next version or two of jaws is out, that we see a smaller jaws with all the nuance company stuff removed and no more smas and no messy authorization schemes for the home user either. that authorization number and key are no good. might as well throw out that key and number–no good at all… you guys at VFO blocked it. Don’t bother taking me aside giving me special prices that are secretly only for me… instead just make that ad-supported free jaws and to get rid of the ads a one time payment of perhaps $50 or $160. the ads would be a little annoying but jaws could still be used. ads every 240 to 300 minutes are tolerable. and remember for the home user and those folks in very poor countries, no messy authorizations, and no smas please. thanks. and by the way the article chris hofstader former freedom scientific employee wrote on his blog about NVDA now more than ever is excellent!
Jaws Authorization Number:
Jaws License Code:
1. When you start Jaws screen reader in 40 minute mode, please choose
“Update authorization”, or run “Update authorization” from the Jaws help
2. Choose telephone, fax, or e-mail authorization method.
3. Choose:Enter authorization number manualy, and then enter your
authorization number below.
4. When you prompted, please enter your license code below.
Joseph Lee says
Dear Josh and others,
I think it is one thing to provide constructive criticisms, but it’s another to post authorization numbers in public. May I request that we try our best to not go down that route please? Thanks.
Joseph Lee says
After reading the article and responses shown here and elsewhere, I believe it might be helpful to remind folks to use reasoned and ethical advocacy tactics:
Criticisms and word usage: constructive criticisms are fine, but it would not be wise to retweet tweets filled with just emotions. This isn’t new: any situation that involves intense rivalries can spark emotional responses and retweets. I believe we’ve been here before: last year, I wrote a blog entry asking NVDA community to think about word usage. I’m hoping that it won’t degenerate into this again.
Think: in a recent tweet, as I was linking to this article, I asked JAWS users to think about this situation as they read this post. There are interesting topics discussed here, one or two statements I can verify (mostly when it comes to the NVDA community and NVDACon). Although there are one or two things that worries me, I believe that, when people think about this article, the overall context and implications, it may make sense to some. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, some don’t think about the implications presented here before sharing it on social media, and I’d like to ask that folks (especially JAWS users and the members of the NVDA community) think carefully (and critically) about this article before posting on Twitter, Facebook and what not, as it helps in reasoned advocacy efforts and lets you ask really tough questions. And my apologies for sounding harsh in this direct criticism.
In regards to specific comments:
Features wish list: NVDA can perform some of these if one explores the add-ons world. There are features NVDA had (built-in or via add-ons) that JAWS has implemented in recent builds, while NVDA was inspired by some JAWS features to make things better for its users. For instance, NVDA had a visual tracker feature for a long time via an add-on, and JAWS contributed several commands and concepts that NVDA took on such as basics of scheme reading.
Screen reader extensions: on a high level, NVDA add-ons and JAWS scripts are screen reader extensions. NVDA does have a central add-ons website, while extensibility with scripts was in place in JAWS for a long time. That doesn’t mean code from either scripting engines are interchangeable – some are, while others are not due to syntax differences, feature exposures and what not.
NVDACon: yes, I am the one who started this gathering in 2014. The overall purpose of this conference is to serve as a bridge between users and developers and a place to showcase the community involvement.
Can VFO buy NV Access or NVDA: this was brought up at NVDACon 2017. According to NV Access, this cannot happen due to different organizational portfolio (a for-profit business versus a charity) and copyright reasons.
Two guys in a garage argument used as a sales pitch: I warned VFO to be careful about this claim and strategy, as numerous evidence point out just the opposite. NVDA 2017.1 had numerous external contributions – substantial, in fact from those outside NV Access, more so in 2017.2. As a code contributor in NVDA 2017.2 and the architect behind one of the features under active testing in latest alpha builds, I can provide numerous examples where the global community made its statements known through contributions that are changing lives, including translations, line indentation announcement via tones, supporting Windows Calculator in Windows 10 Enterprise LTSB and Server 2016, numerous braille enhancements to name a few. But this is tiny in comparison to what the community is doing through add-ons, promotions, tutorial productions and what not.
As for my involvement: just because my name is mentioned does not mean I’m a huge celebrity in the NVDA world. Rather, my work is tiny compared to contributions of others. For instance, my work on DictationBridge documentation is very tiny in scope (in terms of the overall project) compared to work done by Lucy Greco, Pranav Lal, Chris Hofstader, Derek Riemer and many others. Although I do know that organizing NVDACon was a big thing and that this gathering had profound impact on many lives, I’m more satisfied that I’m a part of this community and there remains work to be done.
Paying software maintenance agreements or donating to NV Access: it depends on your taste and your needs at the moment. I’m of the opinion that people should be encouraged to donate, not forced to do it.
Joseph Lee says
Correction: it should be “skim reading” where NVDA can jump forwards or backwards to different elements and resume say all. Thanks.
brandon armstrong says
I love nvda dn a college on a friends recommendation here in texas is giving blind students in their DSO offices NVDA on flashdrives instead of jaws. I can’t stand jaws, and now that i have read this article it absolutely outrages me that a company can be allowed to dominate for years with out challengers, and be allowed to ignore the users and put in blot ware.
Michael Bayus says
Wow! What a great Article.
I have been an NVDA user from very early on. I have just recently, well as of last August, got the NVDA Addon from acapela. I am mildely frustrated, because some of the functionality of the addon does not work, and there is no way that I can find on the NVDA web Site where I can report such issues. For example When the Addon encounters a full stop in the middle of a sentence, like the abbreviation for Mister, or Mr. the voice pauses as though it is at the end of a sentence. Infovox, has a setting to tell the voice how long to pause. acapela says that they can do nothing about this, because they think it is an issue with the developers of NVDA. So who can I tell.
Also, as regards the NVDA Addon, I only use one Voice, and that is Ella.
I have oninstalled all of my SAPI5 Voices, and I had 9 of them, and it’s now Ella all the way.
Rah! Rah! Ella!
Lastly, I made Ella sound “older”.
Let me know what you all think.
Deborah Armstrong says
My only problem with this is that Windows, the operating system under which NVDA runs is definitely not open and free. Under Xp and earlier my JAWS cursor and WindowEyes cursor could freely roam the “screen” reporting what they found. Since Windows 7, Microsoft has restricted all screen readers, including NVDA from being able to review everything that’s there, making it much more difficult to work with software that doesn’t have keystrokes to teleport the focus to the needed location. Though object nav is great stuff, if Microsoft doesn’t expose an object through UI automation or active accessibility (and there are probably appis I don’t know about!) then NVDA can’t get at the data onscreen either. I really wish Orca would have become as reliable and rapid as NVDA, because then everything we use would have been open and free. But Orca is such a pain to use, that I’m back to Windows, after valiantly trying to make a permanent switch to Linux for years. And I still use JAWS, because after all, it sometimes can read things onscreen that NVDA doesn’t find, simply because they have ignored the standards!
Love the idea of moving to a FLOS model but Until we have screen magnification and screen reading in 1 package; there will continue to be a need for zoomtext/jaws/supernova/magic.
Hi. I am currently stuck with NVDA Windows-10 and an Acer tablet. The combination of these three have left me handicapt for days together. Can you kindly get me started? Because I have forever used JAWS, I can’t seem to figure-out NVDA. Windows-10 has complecated matters beyond comprehension.
Michael Bayus says
Just what is it that you think you can not do with NVDA? The interface is much like Jaws, and I have used both. I like NVDA because it does what I need it to do better than Jaws does. I don’t understand what you are trying to do, so I need a little more explanation. As the same key strokes do the same things, H for heading, L for link, etc. where are you having trouble? I think that English may be a second language for you, maybe if you change NVDA to default to your Language, you might have better luck. That’s all I can think of. To change language, Go to the first itum in the NVDA Menu, and chuse language setting. Otherwise,, I don’t know how to help you.
I’m trying to create an add-on for NVDA. It would be great help if I can contact with an NVDA developing expert since I met a blocker. Really sorry if I’m disturbing.
Your article is really interesting. NVDA is a great screen reader. I donate 50$/month to help it’s development.
I think you missed the point, with FLOSS, most people are free rider, they don’t pay at all for the software, they just use it for free without carrying about it. See https://steemit.com/opensource/@crell/open-source-is-awful
Do you try to work with FLOSS in your life? Do you use LibreOffice with NVDA or Orca, it just far away from Microsoft Office on accessibility. Are you using Linux as your primary OS and try to open a PDF on it? After few minutes, you’ll see how great proprietary software are. If people stop donating to NVDA, it’s its end. NVDA should have more developpers if people weren’t free riders, I know lot of people with a lot of money donating 0 bucks to NVDA. It’s why it’s a broken model.
I think you’re idea about privacy is false, why using Microsoft Windows in this case or any closed-sourced program? With your rational, every closed-source can spy on you. Do you really believe FS people will spy users and risk to lost their reputation for eternity? I think you lie to non-technical people, it’s quite unlikely, please stop using fear to promote NVDA. I’d prefer real argument about features and users needs.
NVDA is a program, not the way to go. Do you plan to develop a phone from your own to not depend on Apple? I think you would not.. In practice, people can pay for NVDA developer but can also pay for JAWS scripter, so the freedom is the same.
You just consider blind people, the minority, whereas most people are low-vision people. NVDA doesn’t work well with screen magnifier whereas JAWS works well with ZoomText. If NVDA cares more on people, they would have cared about low-vision too.
Most people choosing NVDA talks about price, freedom and privacy. We should discuss about features. Do you use DuckDuckGo search engine instead of Google? Probably not because Google offers better results. We should discuss only about feature and blame free riders using FOSS software just to avoid paying for people developing software.
I hope my comment could get your attention.