Friday Mar 09, 2007

Thoughts on an interesting interview with Chris Hofstader, formerly of Freedom Scientific

[Advanced warning: this is another long posting...]

The American Foundation for the Blind's magazine Access World has an interesting interview with Chris Hofstader in its March 2007 issue. Billed as "A View from Inside: A Major Assistive Technology Player Shares Some Industry Secrets", the article/interview attributes to Chris an enumeration of a number of "myths in the field."

One of the 'myths' Hofstader cited (or more accurately stated, "the most outrageous lie in the assistive technology industry") is that the AT industry "is too poor to fix problems and make better products and that there simply is not enough profit in this small market to do as much as talent may allow." Chris is in a excellent position to comment on these things, as for many years he was a senior member of perhaps the largest AT company in the industry. And while I completely agree with him that this and other things he cites are myths, I don't completely agree with him as to the 'real reasons' for the quality and stability of AT products (especially screen readers), and the price of products.

To be clear - the price of AT is a real problem and burden. I was in Brussels last Friday (among other reasons, I needed to get a chocolate fix from Mary Chocolatier - specifically their dark chocolate mouse offerings), and during conversations at the Belgian Confederation for the Blind and Low Vision, I discovered that it costs €3,000 to get a copy of JAWS professional in that country. The blind computer science student I met who would like to use JAWS professional can't get it from his school (they only provide a less expensive and less feature-full version). His parents aren't in a position to buy it for him, even as his mom (also blind) would like to use it for herself as well. And that is in a wealthy socialist democracy. It is far worse for blind folks in places like the Czech Republic!

Likewise the quality and stability of some AT offerings are also a real problem and burden. The stability issues are most significantly present in the most complex AT - screen readers. But where I disagree with Chris - at least as is attributed to him in the AFB AccessWorld article - is with his reasons for why this is the case.

In the article, Chris claims that annual revenues from all screen readers sold worldwide - a stated 2,000 copies/month - is between $18 million and $20 million. He then claims that this revenue is 10 times that of "all the software development people at all the leading screen-reading software companies." In the following paragraph, this is compared to ExxonMobile charging $75/barrel of oil that costs the company $25, and public outrage at that 3x margin (compared to his stated 10x margin for screen readers).

But I really must question these numbers. Chris claims the average selling price of screen readers is $800-$900 (so we will presume that most sales aren't the Belgian edition of JAWS professional). Chris might know the dealer markup, and percentage of sales that go through dealers, but I will just make a simplifying guess that actual revenue back to the screen reader developers is 65% of retail sales (a generous amount). Applied to the higher of Chris' estimates, we now have $13 million/year in revenue to the screen reader company from screen reader sales.

Next, we need to examine the assumption that the only employees important to getting a screen reader into the hands of a satisfied customer are those in software development. Even counting testing and documentation as part of the "software development" organization - they aren't in all companies - you still need some manufacturing, shipping, accounts payable & receivable, technical support, marketing (all those accessibility conferences), sales, and management. Furthermore, with something as technical and complex as a screen reader, training staff is important. And you also need to factor in things like rent on office space, buying computers and other equipment, and travel costs for that sales and marketing work.

Typically in a pure software development company you will have around 25% of the budget actually devoted to software development - 33% if you are very lucky. So that $13 million becomes $4.3 million (assuming the lucky 33% figure). After you factor in facilities and other equipment costs (again lets be nice here in our assumptions), let us presume we have $3.5 million for software developer salaries.

Next assumption: the average software developer salary is $50,000/year, and the "full loaded" cost is $75,000/year (including employer-paid taxes, health insurance premiums, disability insurance, etc.). That results in less than 50 folks in development, across all screen reader vendors. Seems like a lot, right? But that of course includes folks doing testing and documentation (and engineering management). And that is across all screen reader vendors: Freedom, GW Micro, Ai Squared, Dolphin, and others. If we have half of the software development staff actually writing code, divided by (let's say) 5 screen reader companies, we get a bit less than 5 coders on average for each company. And from what I know of these companies, that number isn't too far off the mark.

So if the reason these products are so expensive isn't because of outsize profits, why do they cost so much? And why are at least some of them of poor quality and stability?

I believe a key reason for both of these issues is the lack of good support for accessibility in the Windows operating system, and from the key Windows applications. 4-5 software engineers can get a awful lot done if they aren't spending the bulk of their time reverse engineering the operating system and software applications - and re-implementing that reverse engineering every new release of the OS or key application suite. For proof of this, I need only point to the small Orca screen reader team. 4 core people in less than 3 years have built a very powerful screen reader - something that is far more capable than any Windows screen reader was after 3 or 6 or even 9 years of development. It runs on Solaris and GNU/Linux; and it runs on the SPARC and x86 and PPC microprocessors - that's two different operating systems and three totally different microprocessors - all from the same code.

And it is precisely that need to reverse engineer everything that causes a lot of the issues with product quality & stability. I particularly like the "Telling Press Release" from two screen reader/magnifier vendors who noted with fanfare earlier this year that both of their products could be installed on the same machine at the same time, and both actually continue to function while doing so!

Of course, another reason for the high price comes from the quantity of sales. Worldwide software sales of 24,000 copies/year is minuscule compared to many other software products (cf. the many millions of copies of StarOffice that Sun sells each year - at a much lower price, and with a much larger development staff). Another comparison that I know very well comes from my former employer - Berkeley Systems. We had a team of 5 people making access products (1.5 developers, 1.5 folks doing testing & documentation & tech support all at the same time, and 2 others sharing all the other tasks), and we were struggling to be profitable with a $500 screen reader. Yet the rest of the company (nearly 100 of them) was doing very well selling $20-$50 products - in the millions of copies!

Which rather suggests that a different approach might yield us better quality and stability and lower cost. But this entry is long enough already; so that'll have to wait for another time...

Thursday Dec 14, 2006

Completing the Windows accessibility picture - IAccessible2

Pretty much the entire computing industry has come to recognize that the best way to meet the needs of people with disabilities is through supported programming interfaces for accessibility. With a rich, extensible, programming interface for accessibility, assistive technologies can get everything they need from applications (and applications can provide full support for accessibility).

Today, IBM has announced their contribution of the IAccessible2 accessibility programming interface for Microsoft Windows. This interface is an extension of the Microsoft Active Accessibility API (and most specifically of the Microsoft IAccessible interface - hence the name IAccessible2). This extension of MSAA fills in the many gaps of MSAA by extending it to essentially match the Java Accessibility API and the GNOME/UNIX Accessibility API (in fact, if you look at the IAccessibleRelation header file or the other IAccessible2 header files, you'll see they bear a Sun Copyright from 2000 and 2006 because iAccesible2 was derived directly from the OpenOffice.org UNO Accessibility implementation for use in both the Java platform and UNIX environments).

The other key thing about IBM's contribution is that it doesn't come in the form of a proprietary commercial offering, but rather is a contribution Free Standards Group - a standards body open to everyone who wants to participate in their standards processes. While the FSG is known as a "Linux Standards Body", they are a very logical place for this work because the FSG is already standardizing the UNIX accessibility framework that Sun initially developed and contributed to the UNIX community several years ago. In fact, IBM has been a member of the FSG Accessibility working group, working with Sun and Adobe and the KDE community and other interested parties in the ongoing evolution of the UNIX Accessibility framework. Now this same group of folks (plus some recent additions like SAP and Oracle), will be doing the same for IAccessible2 in Windows. And for the first time, the Windows AT vendors will have an opportunity to do what their UNIX counterparts have been doing for years - to contribute directly to development and implementation of the accessibility standard that they are using.

Brief History of Accessibility APIs

20 years ago - in 1986 with the inLARGE screen magnifier from Berkeley Systems - the assistive technology industry developed a set of reverse engineering techniques to determine what desktops and software applications were doing. With the information gleaned from this hackery, these assistive technologies provided an alternate user interface for people with a variety of disabilities. These techniques in accessing the graphical user interface were part of a 2nd generation of access - the first generation being access to text-based systems like DOS, C/PM, and Apple II, and the 3rd generation being Accessibility APIs (you might find my IDEAS presentation in 2004 a good background on this evolution).

To an number of folks working in the accessibility field (including a number of existing Macintosh developers such myself, Randy Marsden of Madentec, and Arjan Khalsa at Intellitools; and in the UNIX world Willie Walker then at Digital Equipment Corporation), it was clear as early as 1992 that these techniques were fatally flawed. There were simply too many legitimate cases where applications needed to use techniques that assistive technologies would be unable to hack through. These included groundbreaking applications like Hypercard for Macintosh, Postscript font rendering applications like Adobe PDF reader and the UNIX Framemaker application, and the emergence of remote desktop applications like Carbon Copy and VNC. The only way these applications would be accessible to the blind; the only way screen magnifiers could track all user interface interaction; the only way these applications would be well served by voice recognition; would be if the information assistive technologies needed were provided directly by the applications that knew what they were doing. Techniques that attempted to figure out what applications were doing by reverse engineering (and hacking) display subsystem were always going to lag behind such innovation and in many cases would simply be unworkable.

Furthermore, we saw back in 1992 the growing trend of some assistive technologies to hook directly into specific, market leading mainstream applications in order to provide "extra special" access features. This trend has evolved into products like TextHelp and ZoomText's DocReader function that hook into MS-Office and a small handful of other applications to provide special features that aid users with cognitive and visual impairments in reading and composition tasks. While these are wonderful features, the lack of rich accessibility interfaces has meant that such features can only work in with a very few applications. TextHelp functionality simply isn't available in applications a University might develop for its students - such software isn't pervasive enough to be worth a reverse engineering effort by TextHelp developers.

From these observations, I and a few other Macintosh/Windows assistive technology developers put forth a proposal to Apple to develop an accessibility API for Macintosh. This API would provide the information that assistive technologies needed. Working with Alan Brightman (now at Yahoo) and Gary Moulton (now at Microsoft), we called this effort "AccessAware", and had a multi-day meeting to develop this interface. We even presented these ideas at the Apple World Wide Developer Conference in 1993. In parallel, Willie Walker led an effort to define an accessibility API for UNIX system with the Remote Access Protocol on top of X Windows. Coming out of the Mercator project (an early UNIX screen reader effort led by Keith Edwards and Beth Mynatt at Georgia Tech University), they realized that programmatic support for accessibility was the only way to provide what assistive technologies needed. Unfortunately, neither of these efforts were adopted.

Two years later, coming out of a 3 day Microsoft Accessibility Summit in Redmond, I spent some time advising Microsoft on the development of an accessibility API for Windows. Much to the assistive technology communities' disappointment, what came out of that effort was MSAA (Microsoft Active Accessibility), an accessibility programming interface that provided only a small fraction of the information assistive technologies needed. Thus, while all Windows screen readers today support MSAA, they are unable to rely on it for most of what they need. They retain all of their hacky reverse engineering techniques as they couldn't provide access without them.

Starting almost exactly 10 years ago (my Sun hire date is December 16, 1996, and Willie Walker's is in January 1997), Sun began development of a rich, comprehensive, and extensible accessibility API for the Java platform. Unlike the MSAA effort, Sun's development process was open, transparent, and collaborative. We began with a requirements gathering meeting (where we made the acquaintance of Rich Schwerdtfeger of IBM's accessibility effort), and then proceeded to develop the API hand-in-glove with the development of the Swing user interface library for the Java platform. Swing and the Java Accessibility API together were called the Java Foundation classes. On a roughly monthly basis Sun would publish all of the source code to Java Foundation Classes - including the code for the Java accessibility API and the implementation of that API on the Swing user interface library. Through these monthly "developer preview" releases, we received a lot of feedback from experts in the disability community. We worked particularly closely with IBM, who developed a set of Java accessibility guidelines and a number of test tools and prototype assistive technologies for Java. We announced this work formally in July 1997, and released it later that year. We then rolled all the Java Foundation Classes into a release of the Java platform in January 1998. [Though far less advanced or comprehensive - and in development for a longer time - MSAA 1.0 wasn't part of an OS/platform release until June 1998]

Over the next few years we continued to improve the Java accessibility API, extending it to convey accessibility information about 2-dimensional tables, about hypertext, and to expose relationships between user interface elements (so for example a screen reader could know that the static text "Name:" is labeling the text entry field where the user is supposed to type their name). These improvements were rolled into subsequent Java platform releases. Also during this time we reached out to Windows AT developers, working to help them support the Java platform and accessible Java applications. Lacking anything like the Java Accessibility API on the Windows desktop, we developed the Java Access Bridge for Windows, to provide all of the richness of our API to Windows AT vendors in a Windows DLL. While supported to a significant extent by several Windows AT vendors (including Freedom Scientific, AiSquared, Dolphin, and BAUM), the Windows DLL we provided wasn't as natural an interface for them to use as something based on Windows COM interfaces. Combined with the fact that most Java applications these AT vendors' customers interacted with don't have the kind of market share of something like MS-Office, the end result was that Windows AT support of the Java platform hasn't satisfied as many folk as we'd hoped. In 2001 Sun was honored with the American Foundation for the Blind Access Award for our pioneering work on the Java accessibility API.

With the bulk of the Java accessibility work finished, Sun began work on UNIX desktop accessibility, using the then-in-process re-write of the GNOME graphical environment for UNIX as our entry point. We again invited a group of experts in the disability field to join us - this time in a public meeting that was webcast & close captioned, following our press release announcing our work. In partnership with the GNOME open source community & members of the disability community (including BAUM and the University of Toronto Adaptive Technology Resource Center - who built the first two assistive technologies for GNOME), Sun defined and implemented the GNOME Accessibility API. This GNOME accessibility work has now become the UNIX Accessibility API, as the KDE and the freedesktop communities are also adopting it. Then, with the OpenOffice.org community, we built support for this work in UNO - the user interface element library underlying OpenOffice.org and StarOffice. This work is defined in the UNO Accessibility API. With the Mozilla community (and specifically working closely with Aaron Leventhal, the Mozilla accessibility lead and now a member of IBM's accessibility team), we likewise are building support for the UNIX Accessibility API into Mozilla. And in 2002 Sun was again honored by the American Foundation for the Blind - this time with the prestigious Hellen Keller Achievement Award for our UNIX Accessibility work.

In the last few years, pretty much everyone has come to the conclusion that the way to do accessibility is with a supported accessibility API. With such an API applications and assistive technologies can work together to support the needs of people with disabilities, and provide the alternate user interface that work for folks cannot see, or cannot type, or cannot hear. This conclusion is evident in the Apple Accessibility API that is part of Macintosh OS X, and the Microsoft UI Automation interface that is just now becoming available with Microsoft Vista.

Which brings us to today, and the IAccessible2 announcement. I will leave it to IBM and Rich Schwerdtfeger to explain why they felt it was important to define an accessibility API for Window (given Microsoft's UI Automation coming for Vista). But there are a few important benefits with IAccessible2 that are worth noting:

  1. IAccessible2 is based on and is an extension of MSAA. This means that is a natural and comfortable extension of what Windows AT vendors are already supporting, and what a number of Windows application vendors are already using.

  2. IAccessible2 looks remarkably like the UNIX Accessibility API (no surprise, it was derived from the OpenOffice.org UNO Accessibility API implementation designed for use in UNIX). This means that cross platform applications that want to run on Window and UNIX systems can implement accessibility support in largely the same way for both platforms.

  3. IAccessible2 works today, and on Windows XP. We don't need to wait until Vista market penetration reaches some magical tipping point before it makes sense to start supporting a rich accessibility API for Windows.

  4. In addition to looking a lot like the UNIX (and Java, and Mozilla, and OpenOffice.org) Accessibility API, IAccessible2 looks a lot like the WAI ARIA specification for rich dynamic web applications. This too is no accident - Rich Schwerdtfeger of IBM is one of the editors of that W3C specification. This means that it should be fairly straightforward to map accessible "web 2.0" applications to work with assistive technologies on Windows via IAccessible2 - in just the same straightforward way one would mapping those APIs to work with assistive technologies on UNIX - via the UNIX Accessibility API.

  5. IAccessible2 is coming under the control of the Free Standards Group, where application vendors and AT vendors and interested parties from academia and the disability community can together chart the evolution and future of this API. This means that more than just one entity will have a real say in how the API develops going forward.

ODF Implications

If you have read any of the recent articles about the IAccessible2 announcement (like Andy Updegrove's blog or the InfoWorld article or Gary Bishop's take or even this article in Japanese), you will see lots of references to Open Document Format. While IBM has clearly believed for some time that supported accessibility APIs are the right way to do accessibility, the accessibility concerns around ODF in Massachusetts brought home the clear need for these APIs in Windows. The Massachusetts ODF experience further underline the need for those APIs the work in more than just Windows Vista, and the need for them to provide all of the information needed to convey the richness and complexity of an office suite and ODF document content. Proof that this was a good approach has been evident from the early success of essentially the same accessibility API working well in UNIX = with the Orca screen reader on UNIX providing increasingly powerful and satisfying access for blind user to ODF via the OpenOffice.org and StarOffice applications. Further proof came with IBM's work with Freedom Scientific as they together tested this API and its implementation to provide rich access to ODF via the JAWS screen reader.

Here is what Eric Damery, Vice President, Product Management Software, Freedom Scientific, Inc. has to say about IAccessible2 and ODF:

Freedom Scientific's participation with the IBM team during the design of the API, and implementation phase with IBM's office suite, has gone a long way in demonstrating the benefits and possibilities of an open standard. All users of assistive technology will certainly benefit from the successful implementation of this solution by application developers. The benefits of the IAccessible2 work will greatly improve access, offering a far more robust interface than MSAA alone. We welcome the opportunity of expanding our support to applications in the future with both JAWS and MAGic at a much faster pace, with a greater emphasis on usability, in the variety of choices the ODF will offer going forward.

At this point two Windows assistive technology vendors have announced their work on and support for IAccessible2. While this is a critical start (and the two vendors represent the lion's share of the screen reader market for the blind), there are still quite a few Windows assistive technology vendors not yet on board, representing products critical for a number of disabilities not yet supporting IAccessible2. For this reason, the work of Sun and others in developing tools to import/export ODF into Microsoft Office remain a key part of ensuring the people with disabilities are well supported with ODF. And for customers who aren't in a position to pay for an upgrade of their AT product to the new version that supports IAccessible2, ODF import/export will remain attractive.

So for ODF, IAccessible2 helps complete the accessibility environment by enabling rich assitive technology access on Windows to match the approach we have already achieved in the UNIX world. It further paves the way for direct access to ODF applications. As more and more Windows AT products support IAccessible2, Windows AT users who are using an ODF import/export tool with MS-Office will be able to migrate to using ODF applications directly.

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Peter Korn

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