Not four score, but seven years ago we launched Serotek. I like to think that the company was conceived on liberty. In fact our first product was all about emancipation – helping blind people access the internet with little or no training, using an easy menu selection process. Even the name was liberty-based, but we’ve since stopped using that brand name.
The first product was an Internet appliance. We were more than a little ahead of the market and our original prototype appliance was about the size of a microwave oven. But compared to everything else out there it was a miracle – a breakthrough in human computer interface where we made the computer do the work, rather than the human.
The percentage of blind people using the Internet in those days was miniscule – just the super geeks. I’ll never forget the joy of a newly blind lady in her sixties who had never in her life used a computer when, with just her voice, she got on line using our product and made a purchase. She was so excited. Our little product had opened a door she never thought she would go through.
Back in 2002 we began to build what is now the SA Mobile Network – the largest compilation of blind-friendly web sites and online services in existence. Our mission then, as now was Accessibility Anywhere for Everyone. I like to think we were the first company to look at blind people as people, rather than as needy disabled folks that the government was going to take care of.
The competition paid no attention to us. We weren’t even on their radar screen. They had a business model that worked – for them – and they weren’t about to change it.
We played around with a variety of ways of packaging our Internet appliance, getting it down to about the size of a PDA – unfortunately not battery operated. Still it was very portable and that meant we could put accessibility on the move. Later we put the software on a thumb drive and our motto, Accessibility Anywhere was born. The competition was a little annoyed, but basically they thought we were selling toys and would go out of business before we could do any damage.
In 2004 we captured their attention with System Access. Suddenly it wasn’t just Internet Access we were offering it was full accessibility – the complete power of a screen reader. In 2005 System Access won the Da Vinci award, offered by Michigan Multiple Sclerosis Society to innovators who advanced the cause of accessibility. We put System Access on a thumb drive and now the competition was getting a little worried. Where they sold a separate license for every computer you made accessible, we offered completely portable accessibility and at a tiny fraction of the cost. SA was and is fully intuitive, requiring minimal training. It accesses many major commercial applications and on a thumb drive you could take it with you anywhere and make any computer accessible. It even stores your preferences for text to speech and other adjustable parameters.
In 2006 we turned our attention to businesses and trainers. We offered RAM, the first fully accessible corporate enterprise network package that made it possible for people with visual impairments to work as technicians, network managers, online trainers and help desk personnel, all in a completely secure environment. The cost was peanuts compared to outfitting a network with the necessary screen reader licenses and other support that would have been required if the competition could even conceive of the application. We also created RIM for visual resource trainers. RIM allows a trainer to share the desktop with any client, anywhere and teach any application – even the competitors’ products. The competition began to take us seriously. So seriously that in 2007 – well everyone knows that story. We began to build the System Access brand.
We had a lot of innovations in portability and ease of use as well as functionality. But in mid 2007 we put System Access To Go into beta test. SAToGo took accessibility onto the cloud. Anyone could download it anytime they were connected to the Internet and use it on any computer.
There was a lot of speculation on how we would price SAToGo. Most people thought we would add it as a capability to our Software as a Service package which allowed people to lease the entire Serotek software repertoire for a modest monthly charge.
At ATIA in 2008 we revealed our pricing. SAToGo was free. In cooperation with the AIR Foundation (Accessibility Is a Right) we put SAToGo on the cloud for anyone, anytime, at no charge. The competition thought we were crazy.
Here we were taking a veritable money tree and giving it away as firewood.
Slowly people began to understand. Serotek is a whole different animal. In 2008 Serotek Was Honored with The AFB Access Award
Also at ATIA we introduced the Accessible Digital Lifestyle which opened a world of fun products and gadgets to blind people just like we were – people. Can you believe it?
Now the industry was taking full notice. In fact, GW Micro beat us to the punch and, working with Apple Computer, made the Ipod accessible – a huge breakthrough. All manner of products and services that used to be available only to sighted folks are suddenly becoming accessible: GPS devices, MP3 players, PDAs, Facebook, MySpace, and more. The paradigm was shifting and little old Serotek was the lever that pushed the industry off its old model and into the scary world of full technology access for blind folks.
This year we pushed them again. We eliminated the software maintenance agreement (SMA) a little bit of legal larceny that forces blind folks to pay their vendor to fix stuff they should have gotten right the first time.
Of course along the way we’ve added all manner of fun and useful products and services. You can see them on our new, revamped Web site. But the 7th birthday is supposed to be the age of reason. I’m hoping people everywhere are beginning to see our reason and our reasoning.
At Serotek we believe in universal accessibility – no exceptions. The day we don’t have to design or sell another piece of software created to make inaccessible applications accessible, will be a celebration. We know we won’t lack for marvelous new things to do that make life more fun – more livable for everyone. And when that day comes the products we design for our blind brothers and sisters will have a market of billions worldwide. Our competition will be the big software players, not the niche organizations that specialize in government funded aid to the visually impaired.
No question but that Serotek is a pioneer and we may end up just collecting the arrows while others move on to settle the territory. But I don’t think so. I think we have the brains and genius to be designing world class products for the entire business and consumer market – products that blind folks can use right out of the box.
What will they be?
Short term you can believe that a great many applications will follow SAToGo onto the net. Cloud computing they call it and with Microsoft and Google focusing on it you can be pretty sure it will be ubiquitous in months, not years.
A big part will be social networking and social networking appliances. We are evolving to a whole new level of communication among groups with common interest. Look at the kids and their text messaging, We will all twitter, blog, and jott. We’re already podcasting and providing our own Internet radio channel. The future is about an evolving multimedia environment where groups with common interests share everything online.
If I started this post like Abraham Lincoln, let me finish it like George Washington. I can’t tell a lie. For me the current adaptive technology industry is a big cherry tree behind a fence that only feeds a few and starves the average blind person making it impossible to afford to have access to all the things his or her sighted peers can access. This tree is blocking the light and preventing innovation. And I have this little hatchet.
Well, Nuff said.