Focused and User Friendly: Doug Geoffray
You never know where a teenager's interest may lead. In one instance in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a high school student's fascination with technology 20 years ago led to the formation of a leading company in assistive technology for blind people.
Doug Geoffray never knew a blind person before he met Bill Grimm, who walked into a local computer store where the Geoffray was working at the time. Grimm owned a company called Computer Aids Corp. (CAC) and had written a talking word processor for the Apple II, the then-current phenomenon in personal computing products. He hired Geoffray part time at first to help with programming projects. By 1982, Geoffray was a full-time employee and wrote a suite of talking products that ran on Apple computers. Term-Talk, File-Talk, and Braille-Talk will be familiar names to blind and visually impaired consumers who entered the world of technology in the 1980s, and Geoffray was behind them all. One of his proudest accomplishments, he recalls, was to work on an early laptop computer, an Epson HX-20, to make it talk as well. Small-Talk, as the product was called, had a regular keyboard, built-in microprinter (resembling an adding machine tape), and additional storage capabilities on microcassette. With a modified speech synthesizer and "cut-down" version of Word-Talk, Term-Talk, and Calc-Talk, the unit became one of the first portable computing devices capable of word processing, telecommunicating, and calculating functions. Though its memory is laughable by today's multimegabyte standards, Geoffray is proud to say that he still has a unit today in working order "although I never use it," just as he still own his first personal computer, an Apple II with a rousing 8K memory. "Writing programs for the Epson was much more challenging," he reflects. "You had to write code very, very small, not like today's applications that are memory hungry and not always efficient. Everything then was burned into firmware, so it took longer sometimes to get it just right."
Geoffray continued to work on talking products for CAC while he was getting his college degree from Purdue University. An entire independent study course, in fact, centered on developing the Small-Talk computer. He completed his B.S. degree in mathematics with a computer option and continued to work at CAC. In 1988, he began writing Vocal-Eyes, one of the first DOS screen-reading programs for PCs. A year later, in November 1989, the program was near completion when CAC went out of business.
"I'd spent my whole working life on adaptive technology," Geoffray reflects, "and I was suddenly out of a job." He and Dan Weirich, a CAC coworker who specialized in hardware, began talking about combining their expertise and futures in a new business venture. Weirich had developed most of the hardware in CAC's product line to date, and Geoffray had created the software. They didn't know much about running a business, but they thought that together they had a solid base in understanding what blind computer users needed and wanted.
A Company Is Born
In February 1990, GW Micro was born. For all practical purposes, Geoffray and Weirich are equal partners. They are co-owners of the business, and their business cards refer to each of them as "vice presidents." For official documents of incorporation, Geoffray laughs, someone had to be president. "So, Dan said, 'Well, since you get the first letter, G, in GW, how about I get to be president?" And that's what we did." The way responsibilities of management have always been divided, however, clearly indicates the 50-50 spirit with which the two men launched GW Micro a decade ago.
In the early years of GW Micro, the leading products were the Vocal-Eyes, the Sounding Board speech synthesizer, and continued support for the earlier talking products. With the advent of Windows, however, it became clear that a new product was needed.
A Team Effort
While Geoffray worked solo on the popular DOS screen reader, a team effort is needed for programming these days. GW Micro's current flagship product, Window-Eyes, is a far more complicated venture. "Back in the days of DOS, I could keep up with changes needed to Vocal-Eyes and maintain the product by myself. Today, it takes a team of four of us to keep Window-Eyes current. It's amazing, in some ways, that we have surpassed other products in some areas and remained competitive overall. We are only four people, but are all very focused."
"Our initial philosophy," Geoffray explains, "was to keep Window- Eyes similar to Vocal-Eyes. Obviously, there are major differences between DOS and Windows, and we had to deal with those differences, but for the most part, we felt the ideas and concepts could remain the same. Vocal-Eyes had proved itself as being powerful yet easy to configure. We still believe this is possible in Windows and will continue with this approach."
Focus may well be the key word that defines Geoffray and his entire company. "We have listened to our users and tried to give them what they want," Geoffray explains. Sometimes, that takes a little longer than it would with greater resources, but the attitude is that it's better to get it right than to do it quickly.
The addition of braille support to Window-Eyes is one example. GW Micro recognized the importance of braille support in a Windows- based screen-reading program, but decided to take the extra time needed to make it the best possible. Ultimately, braille was made a priority, and Geoffray and his team focused until they had it right.
"We talked to braille users and built good relationships with all of the braille display manufacturers," he explains. The payoff? "We believe ours is the best braille support now available."
The company has grown to and stabilized at a staff of 13. Despite its small number, customer satisfaction and delivery remain the priorities.
In an era when more business calls are answered by voice mail than by live human beings, GW Micro has resisted the call. "Our tech support is second to none," Geoffray says. "When you call, you get a live person for tech support right away. If you happen to call to place an order, your call will then be forwarded to an order person, not the other way around."
Caption: Doug Geoffray and Family
Managing from a Distance
Three years ago, Geoffray moved from Indiana to Silicon Valley, where he now lives with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. The move, he says, has both advantages and disadvantages. He is able to concentrate longer without interruption, but recognizes the inconvenience of being 2,500 miles from the office. On the other hand, certain advances the company has made might never have occurred had he not been situated in Silicon Valley.
In a collaborative effort with Adobe, GW Micro has been instrumental in making access inroads with Acrobat 5.0, rendering those irksome PDF files readable by consumers with screen readers. "There's not a day that goes by without communication between their [Adobe's] engineer and ours," Geoffray says. While Adobe access is by no means perfect, he says, GW Micro is making progress all the time.
Eyes on the Prize
The assistive technology industry for blind consumers has seen a number of changes in the past year or two, and Geoffray says that GW Micro has had to take a serious look at its particular niche. "Our philosophy is based on cooperation and building partnerships with other companies," he says, "not on mergers and buyouts." In keeping with that philosophy, many participants at conferences in fall 2001 were seen sporting T-shirts with the logos of GW Micro, Pulse Data, Kurzweil Educational Systems, and Ai Squared, and the combined visual images are a good representation of the spirit of collaboration that is emerging among these leaders of different segments of the assistive technology pie. "Nobody can be an expert in everything that blind computer users need," Geoffray believes. "We've decided to focus on one major product at this time, Window- Eyes. It's an out-of-the-box type of installation, and tech support is always available." His parting shot of confidence to agencies who are unfamiliar with GW Micro's Window-Eyes is simply: "Just take a look at it!"
Previous Article | Next Article |
Table of Contents
AccessWorld, Copyright (c) 2003 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.