What is wrong in #a11y land

Good evening everyone, and welcome to the Audioboo for June 10, 2016. Having a few problems with the main computer, so I’ve decided to put this onto a digital recorder, because I think the digital recorder is going to be more stable, and may actually record what I have to say.

I want to talk this evening about a few problems that I see in the Adaptive Technology industry, and why adaptive technology may not be as cool or moving forward as much as we’d like. I think this is down to a couple of things.

First of all, we’re dealing with a small market. How many blind people are there? How many blind people can actually buy equipment? How many blind people can get the money out of Rehab/Workplace Mod/whatever your organization of funding is? Adaptive technology venders are selling things to a small population in small quantities. Generally speaking, if you want to get circuit boards made, the higher the quantity they are made in, the cheaper it is to get them done. If you do them by the thousand or ten thousand or by the hundred thousand, it’s significantly cheaper, hence the cheapness of the Raspberry Pie.

I think the other thing that comes into play here is profits. You’ve got to pay all your staff. Most people want to be paid a salary. They don’t want to earn based on units sold. “I’ll tell you what. If you sell a few more braille senses this month, I’ll up your Commission.” That can work for independent distributors, and people who are working for bigger places, but it doesn’t generally work company wide.

Innovation seems to be slow because nobody shares. This is well and truly evident in the way products bet developed. HIMS comes out with a product, and then HumanWare comes out with something that they think is going to be cooler, and then Freedom Scientific comes out with something cooler than that, Depending on what product you’re dealing with. Or the order could shift round, just depending on how quickly they put the product to market.

There’s pressure between development and marketing as there always is. Marketing wants product out the door at the technology conferences, because that’s where you hook Rehab people and figure out who’s going to buy your stuff. Development says “It’s not ready yet. We’re still putting the last coat of A11Y paint on this baby.” Products are pushed out the door in various states of stability. People expect computers to be unstable. People expect computers to be unreliable. If computers are unreliable, running things like Microsoft Windows and the wide variety of hardware, why not have your assistive technology be unstable? Why not have bugs in your assistive technology that causes it to stack when you have written that 10000-word essay? Well, that’s just how it is, and you should have had backups, and you should do this and you should do that. As far as reporting bugs and reporting problems, there seems no easy way to do that sadly. It seems to be a hodgepodge, depending on the company and depending on who you talk to.

The other problem is that innovation isn’t shared. If you come up with a really good idea or you come up with a niche product, and you decide to develop it and make this thing cool, — I can’t mention any names because I don’t want the lawyers coming round and knocking on my door, — but essentially you look at a product, and somebody says “This product’s pretty cool. I want to come out with a free version that works with NVDA.” And then little empire, little tiny company, jumps up and down and says “I’m going to send my lawyers over to have a talk with you.” The other company says “Yeah, but we didn’t nick any of your stuff. It’s all our stuff. It’s not your stuff.” “I think we’ll let the lawyers sort that out, shall we?” “I’d sort of prefer you didn’t.” “I suppose, but I think we really should.” They have a big back and forward fight, and nasty letters are posted up on various accessibility blogs, and then pulled Down, where things get really nasty. Because we wouldn’t want the public to know about the level in in-fighting, backstabbing and backbiting that goes on in the A11Y community. I’ll be your friend until I turn around and stab you in the back because I’ve got a product that does better than you. It’s a dog eat dog world out there in A11y. Yes, there are niche products. Yes, there are products that service a certain percentage of the market that do something specific, something useful, something specific to a Disability. But to have those as the only product starts to look like protectionism if you ask me. What if there is a free version of a product or an extremely cheap version of a product?

Interestingly enough, one of the quotes that Bruce Schneier has been known to say is something along the lines of “When information is stored in a digital retrieval system, making data unduplicatable is a similar task to making water not wet.” Let’s face it. We all know that there are cracked versions of Jaws bouncing around the internet. Let’s face it, if you need Jaws for a particular product, and you’re not legally licensed like me, you toddle off to the Pirate Bay, figure out which Jaws torrent actually has a working crack in and which ones actually stack your system so bad that you’re glad you have backups. The cracking and modification of screen reader software is well and truly known about.

Back in 2007, when I had a class full of Indians, when we were teaching the classes in Bangalore and Enable India, “Does Sir have the latest crack for Jaws for Windows?” “Does sir need the latest crack for Jaws for Windows?” “Jaws for Windows new build only came out yesterday.” “Oh, yes, but this is the latest crack for the latest build.” I honestly asked them why. “Why do you have the cracks for the latest copy of Jaws?” Their honest answer was “Because we cannot afford Jaws, and Jaws is the best thing that is out there.”

Obviously, I was legally licensed for Jaws. I paid for my software maintenance agreements, something I’ll talk about in a minute. I was up to date. I didn’t need the crack. But half the class did, and the class that did need the crack shared it around as you’d expect them to. Sendspace, Dropbox, Mysendspace. Whatever other file sharing service that blind people have managed to find useable and accessible and stuff like that.

I’m sure that all of the adaptive technology companies are aware that they lose a lot of their sales to piracy. People nick it. “I’m not buying Jaws. That’s 1200 orders of pizza right there.” Or “Think how many ounces of dope I could get if I didn’t have to buy that SMA. Yeah. Man, I’m hungry, I think I’ll just eat my Jaws CD,” (With a note that you shouldn’t be eating your Jaws CD, just in case somebody was silly enough to go do That).

The reality is these companies need their income, and they need the continue income from software maintenance agreements. I think it would be fair to say, and I hope you wouldn’t disagree with me on this, Christopher Toth of Accessible Apps learned the hard way that if you sting people one $10 fee or one $30 fee, or one $15 fee for say Hope, Read and Chicken nugget, then that’s all you get. You sell your first run of software, and you make $2000 or $5000 or $10000, and you spend it on whatever it is you spend it on, Pizza, Dope, CAVI course, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you spend it on. And then the money runs out. It was a cash cow. You don’t have any sustainable income. Oops. But try to charge blind people a subscription, and have them bleat about how unfair it is to be charging them anywhere between $2 and $5 a month. You can’t charge any less than $5 a month, because by the time the processing fees of your credit card gets to it and stuff, you really don’t get much out of it. Not only dew we have this need for continued income, which is why if you’re designing stuff for adaptive technology, you’ve got to figure out how to continue to get money out of the people or, heaven forbid, make it free, but you’ve got to figure out how the whole shebang is going to be sustainable.

Innovation is stifled enough because everybody knows everybody else, and nobody’s going to share anybody else’s stuff, because it’s all trade secrets. “Unless you’re one of the insiders, we can’t possibly talk to you about how that product works. I mean, seriously.” News flash, people. The smart people of the planet have torn these products apart. The smart people on the planet have made these products into their constituent parts. There are at least three Jaws script decompilers that I Know of. That’s right, any of those custom Jaws scripts you’ve sweated hundreds of hours into have been decompiled. I’ve never done it. I’ve never needed to. I’ve gone out and bought my scripts. Because I’ve had the money to. But do you really expect someone in India to shell out for JDictate or JSay or Cake Talking? Obviously some of these scripts are quite Cheap. Say, for example, Snowman’s Forge scripts and stuff. We’re talking $25 USD. It’s not a lot of money. Though don’t try to get blind people to pay for too Much, because Blind people, or people in general, will nick anything that they don’t think they can afford or that they don’t want to pay for.

How do I know that? The academy I work for, half of the students didn’t pay for the HTML. Half of them! A whole half of the course did not pay. What can we do about it? Nothing. Did we send out emails and remind them? Yep. But you know how it is. They just didn’t get around to paying. So our instructors get less money. It’s probably what happens to the Assistive technology companies when people nick their stuff. But if you think you’re living in a walled house where everything’s safe and everything’s wonderful and everything’s amazing, someone’s cracked your scripts. Somebody’s busted your serial number protection wide Open.

And while I’m on the subject, is it up to a third party script to decide whether somebody is running a legitimate copy of Jaws? It’s a nice feature script author, nice feature to check your script against a set of blocked serial Numbers and squalk if one of those serial numbers shows up. Don’t you think that’s the job of the vender? Don’t you think that’s the job of Window Eyes or Freedom Scientific or one of the other people that’s trying to track misuse of their software? After all, Freedom Scientific sunk so much money into Internet License Manager you’d hope they were getting their money out of it.

Perhaps they can track copies of their screen reader that had been cracked themselves. Anybody who thinks that adaptive technology doesn’t phone home, what do you think it does every time you check for an update? Obviously, if you update NVDA, which is a nice, free open piece of software that’s supposed to be quite nice and stuff, there’s something in their logs that said that you checked for an update, that you were going to pull an update down. That information is probably sorted for statistical Purposes. But given the fact that people are jumping up and down because web developers want to know what screen reader you’re using, and that’s an invasion of privacy, don’t you think that information would be kind of useful so that you could adapt the page to the screen reader and work around the stupid bugs that haven’t been fixed yet?

Finally, — I agree, this rant has gone all over the place, all over the shop, — missing features. You go out and you buy a $6000 or $7000 note taker a $6000 or a $7000 piece of equipment, and it really can only understand Microsoft Files in 2014 or 2015, 2016? It took the vendors that long to unravel doc files? You know, I’d feel sorry for them if the specs weren’t openly available. Yes, you heard it, the specs for .doc and the specs for .doc and the specs for .xls and .xlsx are available on Microsoft’s website. You’d don’t even have to pay for them as far as I know. Otherwise, how the hell do you think Open Office and Libra Office could manage to implement the reading and writing of the Microsoft formats? Sure, knock yourself out. Our note taker’s cool. Our note taker lets you surf the Web, most of the time. Except for when there’s things like JavaScript or complicated web page things that came out in about 1998 that the browser can’t handle. Because your base platform is a crusty version of Windows CE or an ancient version of Android. 4.3.

Android 4.3 on the Braille Note Touch. Look, I’m sure there are really good reasons why they did this. I don’t even know what they’d be, but there probably are really good Reasons why they are running Android 4.3 on this brand new product. A release that’s 4 years old. We’d hope that the hardware could support something better, we’d hope that there will be an upgrade in future to 5 or 5.1 or android N. But who knows? It’s blind technology, so we don’t know if it’s going to get any better or not. It all depends on our capital funding, and how much everyone makes, and whether we stay in business. Because there is no certainty in the world of AT. You can be the golden boys of business and raking in the cash today and be the favourite product of the Rehab agencies and be laughing all the way to the bank and the pub and the pizza shop and the wherever else you happen to go, and then somebody innovates and comes out with a better product that completely wipes yours off the map. That’s true in any business. The world just doesn’t have that level of certainty.

Finally, DRM. Digital rights management. That’s what DRM stands for. IT’s the stuff that’s supposed to stop all of the blind pirates from copying stuff. “Ar, shiver me timbers, hoist the mainsail, hand me that book of sea sayin’s, and can ya be puttin’ that latest book of Mosen’s on iOS inta me Dropbox? Ha. Ar!” Well, maybe they’re not exactly pirate pirates with a cutlass and one leg, m dollar that somebody puts out a book like Mosen or Anna Dresner, or one of those quite competent people that put out good training materials at that reasonable price, even the NVDA book is $23, that’s not a lot of money, it’s about the same as a pizza, and blind people hand it around. “Oh, have you got that new iOS book”? “No, I haven’t.” “Oh, I’ll stick it in your Dropbox. It’s really good.” “Oh, I suppose I should go off to the website and buy myself a copy” said by almost no one, ever. How do you lock up your stuff so that people won’t copy it? How do you make sure that the books don’t get shared and copied and duplicated? They did the hard yards for NVDA to come out with vocalizer. A legitimate way of running high quality voices on your NVDA. Well, of course, there’s a copy bouncing round the internet. My wife went and bought her own copy, because it continues to work. But, there’s a copy out there, well their was a copy out there, with an .ini file from a bloke called Josh Kennedy. Never met the fellow but obviously he doesn’t mind handing his .ini files and his codes around. Don’t know what they’re really supposed to do about this. Live with the level of piracy and hope that it doesn’t get too bad? Hope that they’re going to sell enough volume of their books to get rich without people nicking it?

Which brings me onto my final point. I thought I was on my final point, but here’s my final, final point. Codex. It’s a piece of software that removes all the DRM from Amazon books. Kindle books, and other digital books. There are legitimate reasons for removing DRM. One of them is so that the files can be converted into other formats and be read on all sorts of different devices so that you can read somewhat comfortably on your braille display. Another one is so that you can remove the DRM and then shovel it across into different reading applications on your iPhone or whatever. I seriously know of people who rent books from Amazon, remove the DRM, and then return the books and rent some more. Don’t you think that’s kind of wrong? Don’t you think that’s kind of a theft of services? I don’t know where people’s moral compass is pointing in 2016. I’m certainly not going to claim that my hands are lily white and that I haven’t engaged in the acquisition of certain things over the years, but we’ve all got to take a look at what supports the industry, what keeps the industry running, and what is going to give us the best accessibility experience. Isn’t the aim of this game to make as many products as accessible to as many people with as many different disabilities as we possibly can to improve their quality of life, or is it to get more money in the bank?

So, this boom’s asked a lot of questions. It hasn’t really come up with a lot of Answers, and it certainly hasn’t solved any of the underlying problems. But lack of innovation, in fighting in the community, gentleman’s clubs in the community, are a thing. I know this because I’ve been to the conferences. I’ve seen them all sit down and start talking after few scotches about what really goes on. Trust me, you don’t want to know. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you, because well, I don’t have the moneys to be waving off the lawyers right now. I suppose that’s the way it is. I know this stuff goes on because a number of years ago, we were requested by a high profile person in the accessibility community that I shall not name, “could CAVI please not run an iOS course? This would be very damaging to my business model, and I’d really prefer that you don’t run an iOS course.” We ran an iOS course. Why? Because people needed it. Because there was a demand for it. Because there was a need in the community to educate and empower. Just because we run an iOS course doesn’t stop anyone else from running an iOS course. Just because Mosen or Dresner or somebody else writes a book, doesn’t stop you from writing your own book and getting your own piece of the A11Y pie. But watch out for the Gentleman’s clubs. Watch out for the unwritten rules. Watch out for the traps that are going to trip you Up as you try to negotiate your way through this den of intrigue, mystique, and strange under-the-table dealings. Not all is what it seems in A11Y land. There’s far more to it than meets the eye, ear, hand, tongue, whatever you’re using to perceive your world.

If this boom has made you think at all, has made you consider things in a different light or at least opened your eyes to something, I’m glad. This is only my opinion. It’s only my experience. I could be completely wrong. I could be completely way off the base. But this is what I’ve seen in the last 25 Years of being involved in the A11Y universe. If you’d like to get in touch with me, @khoath on Twitter www.kerryhoath.com. You can check out my blog. I do hope you’ve enjoyed listening. I do hope you’ve found this somewhat interesting. I hope that we can have a better, more open freer sharing medium in the Future, although I think this may be a pipe dream. Thanks for listening.

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