System Access to Go represents a major step forward, not just in accessibility software, but in the fundamental way software is delivered. It is feature-rich, easy to use, and amazingly inexpensive. But it is in no way the end-all and be-all of what accessibility software can be. Nor was it created from whole cloth. It rests on the shoulders of accessibility giants like Ted Henter, Doug Geoffray and Dan Weirich, Jim Fruchterman, and others who broke down the barriers to the digital world and created a structure and process by which those without sight can use the computer and Internet with nearly the same ease as those with sight.
Serotek gladly acknowledges its debt to those who went before. Without them there would be no adaptive technology industry. They gave us standards and a framework that makes innovation possible. At the same time, we must point out that we are standing on their shoulders, which means we are reaching higher and accomplishing new accessibility goals that are beyond the capability of traditional tools. We can do that, in part, because we joined the party after lots of the hard work was already accomplished. We didn’t have to invent what was already there; nor did we have to carry the burden of legacy software, accommodating users with older versions and a huge investment in training. We entered the frey lighter, with fewer restrictions and the benefits of 20/20 hindsight. We have used this advantage to create an even greater accessibility advantage for our customers.
If you follow the history of technical innovation you will note that it is almost always the late comer who breaks the mold and disrupts the technology pattern to the benefit of technology consumers. It was not IBM that created the personal computer; it was companies like Commodore and Apple, among others. It was not AT&T that gave us the cell phone. The fact is, the dominant player in any technology has a very difficult time innovating the next generation. Their investment in the entrenched technology — their bread and butter — is great, and they cannot afford to innovate at the expense of their cash cow. As one industry veteran noted, “A cash cow can be a damned heavy monkey on your back.” Only new players with nothing to lose can take the risks of doing things in an entirely new way.
This is as true in the adaptive technology field as it is in mainstream technology. However, the unfortunate truth is that the dollars are a lot less in adaptive technology, so innovation is far more difficult to justify. There are no big venture players throwing billions at adaptive technologies. It’s a game that has to be played for the love of rattling the cage and changing the mix. It is a matter of commitment to community and caring that each and every one of us has the same opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The challenges thrown at disruptive technologies are remarkably similar: people say that it doesn’t do everything the traditional technology did, it’s based on a mistake and when the mistake is corrected it won’t work, it promises more than it delivers, and so on. Often the challenges are thrown by people who haven’t taken the time to even use the new technology or by those who lack the vision to see how something might be done in a new way and thus open up vistas that have never been possible.
Let’s look at System Access to Go versus these challenges.
First, SA to Go is simply a new delivery approach for System Access. Whether or not all System Access features work perfectly in the beta release, you can be sure that when the full product is presented to the marketplace it will be as robust as System Access. It has to be; it’s the same software.
But it is also true that System Access doesn’t deliver every feature and benefit that the traditional screen readers deliver. It really doesn’t need to. What it does deliver are the features and benefits used most by most people most of the time. Screen readers are no different than any other technology. The vast majority of features go unused by most users. It’s a comfort, to be sure, to know the features are there, but without a specific need, there is no incentive to invest the training time and dollars to become adept at something that will never be used in day to day life. System Access is an accessibility tool for the way we live, work, study, and communicate. And from the current, highly functional base, over time, other features will be added as demand dictates. (That, by the way, is precisely how the traditional screen readers evolved.) And, because System Access can do many things traditional screen readers cannot do, we expect that whole new applications that we have yet to imagine will emerge simply because they can. Think of it like the transition from rotary dialing to touch-tone dialing. Originally SA to Go technology may be just a replacement. Eventually it will spawn its own definition of what accessibility means.
During System Access development, Serotek worked closely with Microsoft, and Microsoft was fully aware of the techniques System Access uses to effectively access the Windows operating system. Not only did Microsoft not object; they have actively encouraged us and helped us to market our approach to accessibility.
Will Microsoft change its approach in the future and close some of our access methods? It’s always possible. We certainly aren’t so arrogant that we expect we can dictate what Microsoft chooses to do. On the other hand, there is no particular reason for them to close this path, so we do not expect it to happen precipitously. After all, some of the access methods we used in System Access have been around since Windows 3.1 and are still used even by Microsoft. Anyone that opines that Microsoft will change things about its operating system, unless they are reading documents that we aren’t, is just stating an opinion. As a Microsoft partner we are just as in touch and privy to the same information as any other accessibility technology vendor.
The one thing that the industry can be confident of is that Serotek will stay right on top of the emerging mainstream technologies from Microsoft and others, and we will always be looking for ways to apply the latest mainstream features to make accessibility more natural.
If there is any criticism that really seems unjust it is the accusation that Serotek promises more than it delivers. We believe our company is unique, not only in the adaptive technology field, but in the entire software industry, for refusing to sell “vaporware.” We go out of our way to make sure that every promise made is fulfilled.
That doesn’t mean that we haven’t had a bug or two from time to time. We have as good a track record as anyone, but not a perfect track record in that regard. But we have always fixed the bugs and brought the performance up to snuff at no additional cost to the user in very short order. In fact we’ll put Serotek’s release history against anyone in the adaptive technology industry and are confident that we have been faster, cleaner, and more functional, and have more consistently met expectations than anyone. One of the reasons we do public beta releases is to exercise the software fully before the first official release. It’s the best test methodology we know.
Our biggest disappointment, though, is how slow our community has been to understand the implications of SA to Go. Hello? People, we are standing on the very edge of universal accessibility. We are delivering, in this beta release, software that can be accessed from anywhere and which immediately turns an ordinary Windows XP or above computer into a fully accessible device. It doesn’t hack into any touchy parts of the computer creating a security risk. It simply works as long as it is needed and is then discarded like a used tissue, leaving no residue on the host machine. It’s disposable accessibility. It’s accessibility anywhere. Yet somehow several members of the community are more concerned about esoteric features, used by a tiny fraction of the public, than they are about the fact that with SA to Go, there need be no inaccessible computers. The shackles that have bound us to one machine, in one place, or put us at the mercy of businesses and government agencies to think that “accessibility” might be nice to offer, are gone. We don’t need to fight for our right to accessibility in court. It’s simply there.
The giants gave us a platform. Serotek has used that platform to leap forward into a world where accessibility is taken for granted. We are inviting everyone to come along and hoping that among them is the innovator who will stand on our shoulders for the next great leap.