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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 February 2013 Issue  Volume 14  Number 2

Technology Issues

2012: A Technology Year in Review

While 2012 is now behind us, many of its stories and trends will be discussed for a long time. Before we get too far into 2013, let's take a moment to remember some of the most influential and talked about stories from the year gone by. A group of panelists on Blind Bargains helped to select the top stories of 2012, and we've included some highlights as well as some other notable moments and trends below.

One of the overarching themes present in recent years has been the shift from specialized devices toward mainstream technology. While an argument can still sometimes be made for a stand-alone notetaking solution designed specifically for a person who is visually impaired, more and more consumers are shifting toward mainstream devices. The iPhone is the obvious example as it has quickly gobbled up market share once held by the likes of Freedom Scientific and HumanWare. However, a quick glance at a user's typical list of apps gives a reminder of just how many devices are being duplicated or often supplanted by the mobile device. With the exception of content from the National Library Service, practically every major producer of accessible and mainstream books is represented, including Learning Ally, BookShare, and NFB-Newsline. Currency identification, which used to cost $100 or more, can now be accomplished with free or low-cost apps. GPS navigation for travel, optical character recognition for reading printed materials, and even a simple light probe? The list is virtually endless. It's easy to account for thousands of dollars of dedicated technology that is now potentially replaced by a single device.

However, this trend may come with some consequences. Consider that the KNFB Reader Mobile Software retailed for $995 just a couple of years ago as compared with $10 to $20 for OCR programs currently available on the iPhone. Similarly, Sendero and Code Factory charged $795 for their Mobile Geo GPS software, but these days, many phone users have an expectation to pay little or nothing for applications. Because of this, the amount of high-quality apps that directly help the blind or visually impaired may be more limited. If users scoff at paying more than a few bucks for any app, the amount of money that is available to pay high-quality programmers becomes severely limited. Do consumers benefit more from a single device that does a lot of things but not very well, or is it still worth it to pay a premium for specialized software that is specifically designed to meet their needs? This is one of the many questions that will be answered as the market matures.

Apple's iPad models have also been much talked about by agencies and consumers, especially when it comes to the low vision market. With the latest version of iOS, speech and magnification can now be enabled simultaneously, allowing the user to use the mode that makes the most sense for the given moment. With iBooks, Nook, Blio, and others, a near limitless supply of books can be read using the eyes or ears, and pairing a device with a braille display allows for all of this without losing the skills of braille literacy, which are still vitally important to today's students. The biggest weakness to this point has been the productivity tools, such as word processing, spreadsheets, and databases. However, as more tools are developed, the realm of what can be accomplished on one of these devices will continue to increase.

More access technology companies are recognizing the importance of mobile technology and incorporating apps into their products. HumanWare and HIMS both released iPhone apps to facilitate simple communication amongst the deaf-blind albeit with slightly different approaches. HumanWare has chosen to charge $99.99 for its HumanWare Communicator app while the HIMS Chat app is completely free. Both companies are using a mainstream technology to augment their proprietary hardware. It's interesting to see a trade show floor with $4,000 specialized solutions next to a $50 app that does the same thing.

Apple devices aren't the only ones worth mentioning this time around. For a couple of years, Android has been chugging along and gaining a lot of mainstream acceptance. While some diehards have been playing with its built-in and fragmented accessibility for this entire time, it wasn't until Google I/O that others began to take notice. Jellybean brought with it many accessibility changes and signs of encouragement from Google. Braille support, which now includes Grade 2 output, has been added along with a familiar-looking gesture mode.

This year, we learned and reaffirmed a few things about Google. When it comes to access, they won't necessarily get it right the first time, but it is readily apparent that they are listening. It takes a lot to implement a new accessibility mode and realize within six months that the solution from Android 4.0 wasn't good enough. While the Nexus line of devices isn't perfect, we've seen a steady stream of improvements throughout the year: continuous reading mode, customizable gestures, and access to the on-screen keyboard to name a few.

We're now getting to the point that the two biggest mobile operating systems will be accessible, a statement that we've never been able to say before. When comparing Android now to what we had a year ago, a lot of credit needs to be given, and while we always like to see the pace of improvement heightened, it's good to see the progress made.

With all of this talk of phones and mobile devices, let us not forget the regular laptop or desktop computer where a big shift is occurring as well in the screen reader landscape. NVDA, the free and open-source screen access program for Windows, continues to garner more attention, more press, and more users. What was once a fun hobbyist toy has turned into a nearly full-fledged option, often rivaling or surpassing its competition with how it communicates with popular applications.

The perpetual question with NVDA from some involves how the screen reader can continue to survive and if there will be enough funding to pay for further development. One by one, NVDA is working to level the playing field with the legacy screen readers and negating the reasons to choose a more extensive solution. Its design is not for everyone, but new features like the recent addition of PowerPoint support are making it a viable solution for more people, especially those who don't have the funds or resources to purchase another option. If an open-source Web browser like Firefox can survive and evolve, why can't the same happen amongst accessible software? As NVDA gains more believers, more funding will come, and it will continue to evolve.

Meanwhile, VoiceOver development continues on the Apple side while Google has made quite a bit of progress with its ChromeVox screen reader for the Chrome operating system. Even Windows 8's built-in Narrator features noticeable improvements over what was previously available.

As free solutions replace the paid, the same questions that haunt app developers will emerge. Will a free solution be able to provide as much support for specialized applications required for business professionals? Who will a state agency turn to for technical support? What if the funding runs dry and a project ceases to exist? While mainstream software is developed with the expectation that millions may buy, the accessibility market is much smaller. It will remain to be seen how or if the free and low-cost solutions affect the legacy companies, especially as their market share continues to erode.

Unfortunately, some products continue to miss the mark when it comes to providing true accessibility solutions. Have you ever gone to a convention or conference where you see a new product and think, "I bet this was never tested by someone who is blind?" This is the feeling that many get when trying out the various iterations of the Kindle. Amazon has promised increased accessibility on a few occasions, but every attempt has fallen quite short. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) even protested in front of Amazon's Washington state headquarters in December.

It's easy to say that people who are visually impaired should just support those eReaders that are accessible, but short of expensive tablets, these are few and far between. The Amazon problem is magnified by schools, libraries, and other institutions that are increasingly using them for textbooks and other materials. A $500 iPad should not be the only option in this market. We'd like to say that we look forward to changes in 2013, but past experience makes us quite weary to make such a statement.

Despite prior promises, Microsoft continues to offer very little in terms of accessibility for its Windows Phone devices. If this were a new company with no experience when it comes to accessibility, we might excuse them just a bit. However, Microsoft has been, or at least used to be, one of the leaders in working with screen reader manufacturers for Windows computers, so we can't exactly say they just don't know who to ask.

In a year in which more companies are taking notice and improving accessibility for their products, it's sad that we continue to have major failures by companies we thought knew much better. Who would have thought that Microsoft would provide the only major smartphone operating system with no access?

Luckily, our top story of 2012 involves a formerly little-known app called Fleksy and its rise toward prominence and mainstream acceptance. When the designers of Fleksy introduced a new way to type using gestures, the idea sounded pretty novel though some questioned if it would really work. However, after people tried the app hands-on at the summer shows, doubters were turned into believers.

Fleksy quickly became one of the most talked about apps for the blind, but that's not entirely what pushed it to the number one story. Over the past few months, Fleksy has gone from cool tool for the blind to actively pursuing the definite possibility of gaining mainstream acceptance. How often do you see a blindness-specific app receive venture capital funding? Already in 2013, the app made a huge splash at the Consumer Electronics Show, and complete integration with mobile devices is a definite possibility. Fleksy has proven that ideas can be designed that will improve life in our little niche but also be valuable to the greater populous. We salute them for the progress they've made and are excited to see what's next.

For more discussion of the best of 2012, listen to the SeroTalk podcast SeroSpectives: This Year in Assistive Tech for 2012 where yours truly and several other panelists take a detailed look at the past 12 months, and of course, many of the stories in this article have already been covered in-depth right here in AccessWorld.

We hope you accomplished much in 2012, and here's to a great 2013.

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