HIMS vs. GW Micro: A Divorce with Two Happy Endings?
In the beginning, GW Micro was a company that sold just one product. In 1990, that product was Vocal-Eyes, a robust program that gave blind and visually impaired computers users full access to their DOS-based computers. Then, as Windows rapidly became de rigueur for computer users, the company's next generation, Window-Eyes, was born and has continued to evolve and flourish since that time. Six years ago, the company surprised many in the assistive technology industry when it branched out to introduce a braille notetaker. The Braille Sense, as it turned out, would be only one in a line of products manufactured by HIMS, Inc., a Korean company that established an exclusive distributorship agreement with GW Micro.
The portable products from HIMS have included braille and speech notetakers (Braille Sense and Voice Sense), a portable electronic magnifier (Sense View), and arguably the most popular of the line, a handheld DAISY book player (Book Sense), capable of playing books from a wide variety of sources, as well as music, podcasts, and document files with its built-in text-to-speech. Perhaps one of the most surprising news flashes in the assistive technology field this fall was the announcement that HIMS and GW Micro were getting a "divorce." HIMS, Inc., had decided, news releases announced, to set up shop in Austin, Tex., and GW Micro would no longer be the U.S. dealer. Such an abrupt rearranging of the furniture sparks the curiosity flame in most of us, and AccessWorld staff decided to investigate. Sometimes, when you understand what is going on in a relationship, it makes interacting with each half of the "couple" more comfortable for everyone. The story behind the story may not be astonishing, but should help all of us who are customers or potential customers of these two companies better understand how to navigate the waters.
I spoke with Dan Weirach, vice president of sales and marketing for GW Micro (and the "W" preceded by Doug Geoffray's "G" in the company's moniker), in preparing this article. HIMS's decision, he said, was as much a surprise to the Indiana-based GW Micro as to everyone else. The company thought long and hard before agreeing to sell the HIMS line of products, he said, and subsequently turned down other companies due to the exclusive nature of the agreement between the two entities. In Korea, HIMS is noted for its closed-circuit television (CCTV) products for low-vision users, and the company indicated a desire to ramp up marketing efforts for CCTVs in the United States. That was the only indication, Weirach said, that all was not well in Camelot. In August, GW Micro was surprised, as its customers would eventually be, that HIMS had decided to sever the relationship and open the Austin office.
"We're not pleased," Weirach said, "but we're optimistic, too, that this will be a positive move for everyone. We're certainly not turning out the lights!"
In the six years that GW Micro has promoted the HIMS products in the United States, the Indiana company has done far more than simply sell readymade wares to its U.S. customers. Each product has had considerable testing connected with it, and that testing has led to numerous improvements and the addition of new features. All manuals have been rewritten and enhanced for English-language users, and e-mail-based conversations have been ongoing components. As exclusive U.S. distributors, in other words, GW Micro took some basically good products and committed significant energy and talent into making them better.
Still, companies are run by humans, and humans evolve and change their minds. I spoke with James McCarthy, president of the newly established HIMS, Inc., in Austin, and a veteran consumer and distributor of assistive technology products. The decision, he said, was by no means sudden or impulsive. Essentially, after considerable exploration, the Korean-based company felt that it would be a positive move for HIMS and its U.S. customers if a stronger U.S. presence were established. "The desire is to get closer to the consumers, better understand the needs of the consumers, and develop the best products based on what we learn," McCarthy said.
In addition to McCarthy, the Austin-based office, which opened its doors in early November, comprises eight people, with several decades of combined business and technological experience with blindness and low-vision products. Randy Ahn, director of operations, will serve as the "bridge" between the Korean parent company and HIMS in Austin.
GW Micro will continue as an exclusive dealer in the state of Indiana. Whether those who have been dealers around the country will continue to sell and support these products remains to be seen, but logic dictates that they will. The products are reliable and popular, and most dealers in this industry recognize the value of loyalty.
The question now is what these companies plan to do next. First and foremost, McCarthy said that customers who already own any of the HIMS products can rest assured that warranties will be honored and technical support will be provided. Customers who have purchased extended warranties from GW Micro will get service from GW Micro, which will in turn get additional assistance from HIMS if parts are required. Next, although the website is still under construction, it is expected to be fully functional by mid- to late-January, and all of the product e-mail listservs, currently on hold, will once again be online. Most significant is the product line. In addition to continued sales of all existing products, HIMS is introducing new models and planning promotions for products not yet familiar to U.S. customers. Three new versions of familiar products being introduced are the feature-rich Braille Sense OnHand, the QWERTY Voice Sense, and the Book Sense DS. McCarthy stressed that earlier versions of each of the products will continue to be available.
HIMS is the leading distributor of video magnification products in Korea, so it comes as no surprise that the company plans to promote those products more extensively here. In addition to the Sense View Portable, Sense View Lite, and Sense View Duo, the company also has a line of desktop CCTVs that will be marketed more aggressively.
As for GW Micro, emphasis at present is on the next release of its flagship product, Window-Eyes, as well as on the company's already thriving training efforts. "In our entire industry," Weirach commented, "if there's something that needs to be done, it's training. … The employment problem is getting worse, and training is a key factor in preparing for employment."
The company has expanded its training efforts around the country, particularly its popular scripting classes, and plans to increase the already successful telephone trainings. In late September, GW Micro was invited to provide training for Microsoft staff in Washington state.
"It was quite an honor," Weirach said. "This wasn't the accessibility team, but the entire Microsoft staff--people who aren't familiar with screenreading concepts--so it was a great opportunity."
Will GW Micro handle any other products in future? As with any breakup, Weirach said the company is exercising caution with regard to the "rebound" factor. That said, GW Micro has been approached by some as-yet unnamed manufacturers and may distribute an additional product or two in the future.
For the ATIA conference in Orlando, GW Micro expects to release a new Window-Eyes version with some impressive features. Also at ATIA, HIMS will roll out its new U.S. website and various new products.
Wondering which partner to talk to after the divorce? Both companies are developing high-quality products of interest to blind and visually impaired customers. In this instance, both parties are optimistic and moving forward with good news for the blindness and low-vision marketplace.
For more information about GW Micro training and Window-Eyes releases, visit the GW Micro website or call 260-489-3671. For more information about HIMS, Inc., visit the HIMS website or call 888-520-4467.
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