“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.