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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 March 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 2

Access Issues

The Open Source Course: An Overview of Linux

One by one, day by day Linux—a free software operating system—is becoming the choice of more and more computer users who are visually impaired. And while there may be only several thousand now, the numbers are growing steadily. Linux, or more properly, GNU/Linux (pronounced "ga new Linux"and meaning "GNU's Not Unix") and the "free and open source software" (FOSS) movement that GNU/Linux typifies, are attracting both computer professionals and ordinary users.

Some who try to delve into Linux become confused and frustrated by the myriad terms and unfamiliar procedures that seem to attend even the simplest tasks; others revel in the opportunity to fit their computing resources precisely to their needs and tastes. Linux is like that. The wealth of choices for accomplishing any particular task can be both daunting and liberating. It is daunting because it is so different for most users, coming, as they do today, from using Microsoft Windows. Yet, it is also liberating in that, because Linux is nonproprietary software and can be modified at will, you can set up your computer to do almost anything and have it work just as you want, day after day, without crashes or reboots. Two key factors make Linux highly crash resistant: (1) When many knowledgable programmers, from around the world, collaborate on finding, reporting, and helping to fix bugs, the programs really do become more nearly bug free; and (2) Linux and FOSS programs operate independently of one another, to a great degree. So, when one does crash, it doesn't usually affect other programs that are running.

You Say Potato …

The first barrier that most potential users trip over is language. The words for things are simply different. Your floppy disk drive, for example, is not A:, it is /dev/fd0. Your serial port is not com1, it is /dev/ttyS0. The problems continue into computing concepts. No, you really do not need to run Scandisk or to "defrag" your hard drive. Then, as if that is not enough, Linux people talk about "freedoms," as if there's something political about computing. As you will see, to the Linux enthusiast, computing IS a political act.

It is important to acknowledge the passion that many of us who use Linux feel for the philosophical principles that undergird it. Because GNU/Linux is really a kind of Unix, it is not anything new. The various flavors of Unix operating systems have been in use since well before the days of DOS and Windows. It was the introduction of a FOSS philosophy that transformed Unix into a force to be reckoned with. To the FOSS adherent, computing is not just about technical excellence in software. It is really about the terms under which computing resources are used. It is about the ownership of intellectual property and about who gets to decide how that software is used and developed. To the FOSS enthusiast, it is yet another aspect of life in which concepts like freedom are relevant and indispensable. Linux, in particular, and FOSS, in general, tend to inspire fierce loyalty among those who become comfortable using them. The basis for this loyalty has far more to do with the philosophy underlying FOSS than with the fact that the software is free of cost. As with most anything in the Linux world, there are numerous variations and shadings to this philosophy. The GNU "general public license" is probably the most famous and most widely used (see <www.gnu.org/philosophy>). GNU enthusiasts speak of "four freedoms":

  1. the right to use the software,
  2. the right to study the software,
  3. the right to modify the software, and
  4. the right to give the software to others.

Although it is not my purpose here to delve deeply into this philosophy, it should be obvious that it differs radically from what most people have been accustomed to. Can you imagine Microsoft saying, "You don't need to pay us for Windows XP, and we'd be happy for you to learn all about how it works and make any changes you'd like. If you do make changes, you're welcome to let us know, so we can consider including your changes in our software—but you don't have to. Feel free to give all your friends as many copies of our software as you like. But don't you dare charge them, because we will take legal action against you if you charge people money for this software." Little wonder, then, that this approach has caused consternation in the commercial and proprietary software industry. To get a taste of some of this controversy, look at the so-called Halloween documents at <www.opensource.org/halloween>.

Who Uses Linux?

Industrial use of Linux and FOSS software continues to grow. The Apache web server (<www.apache.org>), for example, commands some two-thirds of the web server market today. International Data Corporation expects that Linux will dominate on network servers by the end of the decade.

In fact, Linux and FOSS are already widespread. They are in use on mainframe computers and in watches and to run small and large business networks. They are the basis of the Tivo hard-disk television recorder and the Sony Game Station. They are coming soon to cell phones, digital television sets, and even microwave ovens. Strange as it may seem, companies like IBM, NEC, Sony, Sun, and Red Hat have jumped on the FOSS bandwagon. IBM has put a billion dollars into developing FOSS, and Linux now accounts for over $2 billion of HP computer sales annually. Instead of charging for the free software, these companies are making money by selling hardware, support, training, and various services.

Linux is certainly a viable option for the braille or synthetic speech user today. Most of what you want a computer for can be done accessibly today, including e-mail, web browsing, reading and making spreadsheets and databases, listening to Internet radio, or reading DAISY titles downloaded from Bookshare.org. Additional options for doing these tasks, and more, are on the horizon. I describe some of these options later.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Linux for the blind user, however, is its increasing adoption as the operating environment of ordinary electronic devices like televisions and cell phones. With their on-screen menus, these devices have excluded blind users who cannot read on-screen text and follow the on-screen cursor. But in a FOSS environment, no lobbying of uninterested corporations is required to make these menus talk. Only engineering is needed, and much of that has already been accomplished. Early examples of how this engineering may play out can already be found on the Internet by searching for user-community hacks to Tivo. That is, programmers, using the Internet to communicate and exchange software, have opened their Tivos and written software to do things that the manufacturer didn't. While I am not aware of anyone who has actually reconfigured a Tivo unit to make it accessible, all the elements to do so appear to be available, including menus that talk and a browser-based television program guide. As more ordinary devices adopt Linux, the opportunities to make them accessible will also increase.

What Is Available Today?

Emacspeak, available at <http://emacspeak.sourceforge.net>, was the first application to make a FOSS computing environment directly accessible. Now at version 17.0, its creator, T. V. Raman, continues to add features and enhancements. Emacspeak is not properly a screen reader but, rather, a speech-enabled interface to the Emacs environment. Emacspeak is a powerful tool for those who are willing to learn it, but a frustrating experience for beginners who are unfamiliar with Emacs. One can do almost anything from within Emacspeak, including playing music and listening to Internet radio; reading DAISY books from Bookshare.org, databases, and spreadsheets; web browsing; and doing all kinds of writing and publishing. The audio interface Emacspeak provides is sophisticated and a delight to use, but a challenge to learn. It should not, therefore, be your only choice in Linux tools if you are new to Linux, unless you are willing to spend a lot of time developing competence in it.

Speakup, available at <www.linux-speakup.org>, is the preeminent Linux screen reader. It, too, can help the speech user do most of the same tasks that Emacspeak facilitates. Although the spoken interface when using Speakup is not as precise, this screen reader is easy to learn, resembling the old DOS screen reader ASAP from MicroTalk Software to a great degree. Speakup requires a hardware speech synthesizer at this time. Many serial synthesizers are supported, as is the internal Doubletalk (ISA) synthesizer. The old internal DEC-Talk is not supported because it requires software to be loaded to it before it can be used. Speakup, a patch to the Linux kernel—the essential part of the operating system—loads and starts talking from the beginning of the operating system boot process. Because it is a kernel patch, it can be used to install, configure, and debug installations of Linux. Speakup provides speech for all console applications on Linux. (Console applications are character-based applications, either executed directly from the command line or with character-based menus. Examples that many users may recall using would include the Pine e-mail program and the Lynx web browser.) Console applications are not graphical, but they are multitasking. You can, for example, listen to a radio station from far away while you read e-mail and use your clipboard to add notes to a document you are writing in your favorite editor.

Brltty, the Braille Terminal application, available at <http://dave.mielke.cc/brltty>, supports many of today's refreshable braille displays. It also can be used to install Linux, and it supports all console applications.

Software speech is available on Linux and can be used effectively with Emacspeak and console applications using a screen reader called yasr (Yet Another Screen Reader). To find out about it, go to <http://yasr.sourceforge.net>.

Getting and Installing Linux

There is only one Linux because the term Linux properly refers only to the kernel of this operating environment. There are, however, many packaged distributions of Linux, all of which come with all the other things you need in addition to a kernel, like editors, e-mail clients, and web browsers. Typically, they come with far more software than most users will ever need or use, including full-fledged web servers, your choice of database engines, and compilers to help you build executables from sources. These distributions have names like Slackware, Debian, Red Hat, Mandrake, and Suse. There are many more.

Arguably, all else being equal, the easiest way to get and install Linux with speech is to buy a current shrink-wrapped copy of Red Hat Linux 8.0. Each boxed set of Red Hat comes with Speakup and Emacspeak. Brltty will be added when Red Hat releases version 8.1. So, everything you need to get started is available at your favorite computer software retailer. Of course, you will need to know how to activate speech (or braille) output. And you will need to get familiar with the process of installing and using Linux, whatever distribution you choose to try.

I have written a how-to manual on installing Red Hat Linux that is modified with Speakup, which is available at <www.linux-speakup.org/ftp/disks/redhat/HOWTO_INSTALL.html>. This how-to manual includes numerous hyperlinks to additional online resources about installing and using Linux. Similar help for the refreshable braille user is available at the Brltty web site.

Access to GUI Is Coming

Blind users' options with Linux software are about to increase dramatically. Work is progressing on access to GNOME, one of the leading graphical user interface (GUI) environments available on FOSS platforms. The Gnopernicus application for GNOME will be a screen reader, a screen magnifier, and a refreshable braille interface to GNOME 2.0 applications on Linux, Sun Solaris, and other platforms. It will include access for the Mozilla web browser and for the Open Office suite of applications. Needless to say, it has been eagerly awaited by many. You can keep up to date with Gnopernicus by monitoring <www.baum.ro/gnopernicus.html>.

Linux Redux

In closing, it seems important to say something about the zero cost of all the programs described here. It is what most people think of when the topic of free software comes up, but it is not what most enthusiasts of FOSS mean, as noted earlier. Still, it is an important fact. Too many people who are blind struggle to make ends meet. Especially when we consider blind people worldwide, it becomes clear that cost matters. The cost of a Windows screen reader is beyond the realm of possibility for most people who are blind in the world. Even in the United States, many cannot afford today's proprietary computing environments.

Whether or not any one of us takes to Linux, the challenge that Linux and FOSS software pose to the world of proprietary computing will be good for all of us. At the least, it should help push costs down and help make our choices broader and more usable.

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AccessWorld, Copyright (c) 2003 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.

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