Over the past two years, I've been fortunate enough to write about the advent of cloud computing and how such technologies served as the launching pad for social networks to build virtual online vehicles for us to communicate and share information with each other. Almost 10 years ago, a small software development company called Serotek began to develop a screen reader and accompanying lifestyle tools for people who are visually impaired. Serotek has spent the last decade serving as a beacon for how to create effective software and deploy and support it by means of cloud-based know-how. Led by its founder and pioneer Mike Calvo, a totally blind user of access technology himself, Serotek's staff is predominately visually impaired, and its staff lives and breathes the technology it creates, sells, and supports.
For those unfamiliar with the Serotek product offering, the System Access screen reader is the driving force behind many of its access tools. This screen reader can be purchased and installed on a Windows PC and launched and used from a U3 smart drive. System Access can also be used via an Internet connection. By following the onscreen instructions (verbalized for users who are blind), it's pretty straightforward to get up and running with this web-based screen reader. Users may log into their accounts by means of a user ID and password and install the necessary products on their hard drive.
The System Access Mobile Network (SAMNet), a subscription-based product that costs between $16.95–$21.99 per month, provides Serotek customers with a variety of lifestyle tools and utilities designed to facilitate communication amongst other SAMNet users while also serving as a rich source of information for its subscribers. SAMNet truly is its own social network.
Socializer: The Latest Addition to SAMNet
Socializer allows users of SAMNet and other mainstream social networks to access these networks from within SAMNet. Once SAMNet has been installed on your PC, you simply select and open it from the desktop, then launch Socializer by navigating to it using the arrow keys or by pressing the 8 key.
Product Philosophy: A Single Point of Entry
The product philosophy behind Socializer is quite simple: provide one point of entry coupled with an intuitive, consistent user interface to access all of your social networks. No more launching various social networks with differing page layouts and command structures to accomplish different tasks within each network. By using the Socializer interface, you can:
- Connect to other SAMNet users for real-time virtual chats
- Add existing Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Google, Jabber, Windows Live, AOL Instant Messaging, and Yahoo accounts to Socializer
- Chat in real-time with all contacts from chosen networks from within one Contacts list
- Make audio calls to contacts when using Skype and Google
- Read and post to Facebook walls
- Create and respond to posts and tweets.
- Review web content associated with a post or tweet by opening the desired link.
This unified approach to accessing social networks saves time and offers increased ease of use. Socialize also shortens the learning curve for those who have difficulty switching among various user interfaces presented by very different social networks.
Setup and Usage
For this article, I limited the Socializer to Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Google Social Networks. After launching Socializer, navigate to the "Manage Social Network Accounts" link, which displays your SAMNet account automatically.. By pressing the Tab key, you may change your social network status among "Online," "Away," "Free to Chat," and "Do not Disturb." You may also sign out of a particular social network. Select a social network from the combo box and you'll be prompted to enter your user name and password to login to the social network. Once you've logged on, the network shows up in the "Accounts" list. All contacts from that network will now be displayed in your Contacts list.
Facebook, Twitter, and Skype are extremely easy to set up. Google requires an additional step because Google's security settings reject the process of signing into its accounts via a third party application like Socializer. Prior to logging into Google, visit this link and follow the onscreen instructions to successfully sign in to a Google account. Once you complete this process, all subsequent sign-ins to Google should occur without a hitch. I was quite impressed with technical support's responsiveness when assisting with this minor inconvenience.
Once you've added all of your accounts, you can close the window and return to the Socializer main screen. All contacts from all of your networks should now be organized alphabetically in a vertical list. Each contact name is spoken along with its affiliated network and network status. New contacts can be added by selecting the "Add Contact" button.
Once you navigate to a specific contact, you can easily initiate a live text chat with them. In the case of Facebook, you can view and post to the contact's Wall.
Chatting with Socializer is truly an amazing experience. Regardless of which social network is in use, Socializer provides an effortless way to initiate chats, and provides a keystroke (Control+ Shift+ M) to open waiting chat messages. Socializer alerts you when new chat messages arrive. Simply type your chat, press "Enter," listen to messages being written, and use the arrow keys to review missed messages.
Aside from its world-class chatting capability, Socializer's "Preference" option, found on the main screen, allows you to determine when a contact has signed on to or off of a particular network. By default, Socializer speaks when someone has signed into an account. This can be a bit verbose for the advanced user, but is easily disabled within "Preferences." You may also elect to sign in automatically to Socializer when you open SAMNet. By default, this option is enabled.
As mentioned, you may initiate and respond to online chats, post on users' Facebook Walls, post a new status update or tweet, and initiate audio calls. You may also open either Facebook to review news feeds and status updates or Twitter to browse tweets. Facebook updates and tweets are arranged vertically (much like the contacts list), and the "Tab" key lets you navigate to the desired functionality. Press "Enter" to execute a specific function. Links to both Facebook and Twitter are displayed prominently from the Socializer screen, clicking on the links will open a new window that displays the contents of the desired network.
Socializer's command structure takes advantage of standard Windows hotkeys as well as a few hotkeys specific to System Access and SAMNet. If you have another screen reader running on your system when you launch SAMNet, the screen reader is temporarily disabled while SAMNet and Socializer are running in the foreground. Simply Alt+ Tab to another Windows application, and the functionality of your preferred screen reader is instantaneously restored, allowing for seamless auditory multi-tasking between Socializer and other PC tasks.
Areas for Growth
It's important to note that this is the initial version of Socializer. The issues below have been reported to representatives at Serotek. They believe that the issues raised are all reasonable expectations that are worth considering and they are fairly confident that solutions can be implemented in subsequent updates. The following concerns primarily relate to the usage of Facebook and Twitter:
- Currently, you can't share another Facebook user's status update.
- If you include a link to a video, news story, or website within a status update or tweet, only the URL is displayed. Socializer does not extract and post the contents of the webpage.
- A status or new feed can be "Liked" or "Unliked," but comments posted about a particular status cannot be "Liked" or "Unliked."
- It's not always clear when status updates are responded to by other Facebook users.
- Facebook and Twitter apps that allow users to simultaneously post/tweet the same information to Facebook and Twitter accounts are not recognized when using Socializer. Users must manually share information to each network separately.
- Socializer assumes that users have established social network accounts. It would be great if you could easily set up an account through Socializer and customize your profile from within Socializer.
- Serotek understands the value of video calls for both Skype and Google, and it stands to reason that screen sharing functionality is also desired for a virtual collaborative experience between and among users who are sighted and visually impaired.
Socializer is a giant step forward for streamlined access to multiple social networks from one location in an extremely efficient, easy-to-use environment. Its strengths are multi-network contact management and text chatting in real-time with other logged-in users. It provides a comfortable means of reviewing Facebook and Twitter content on a Windows PC. You can customize it to provide as much or as little verbosity as you like. As with other Serotek products, updates are developed, deployed, and supported via cloud-based ingenuity transparent to its users. Technical support for Socializer is exceptional and is spearheaded by other users who are visually impaired and understand the value of concise, effective, and timely follow-up.
Serotek's willingness to listen and engage in dialog about current issues warranting attention gives me confidence that this product will continue to take significant strides forward in simultaneously accessing multiple social networks. While Serotek representatives would not give any specifics for when this application might be available on other platforms besides the Windows PC and a Safari web browser utilizing VoiceOver, they were adamant about being committed to offering Socializer on as many platforms as possible. Therefore, we definitely have no reason to doubt that, as the market demands, Serotek will respond. If you're a current SAMNet subscriber, why not try Socializer? If you're not currently using SAMNet, you may want to consider a monthly subscription to a product that gives a wealth of information to its users and now provides them with a means of interacting with other commercially available mainstream social networks. In either case, it's money and time well spent!