Summer months are typically a great time for relaxing and unwinding. We here at Serotek recognize the value of rest and recreation, but as you know, the technology landscape is in a constant shift, requiring us to work overtime in the lab so that your favorite applications work the way they’re supposed to when you’re ready to come back from vacation. We have a number of short-term and long-term goals on the drawing board, some of which we’ll share in upcoming posts, some of which we’ll explore in a soon to be announced series of podcasts.
In the meantime, we bring you the first in a series of articles exploring recent developments in mainstream technology.
Earlier this week, Microsoft released the long-awaited Windows 10 Anniversary Update. Among the most prominent features in this update are several major improvements to the Edge web browser. The Edge development team recently published a blog post describing these improvements. Among other things, that post states:
“we’re proud to say that Microsoft Edge in the Anniversary Update is easily the most accessible browser we’ve ever shipped”.
While we at Serotek appreciate the considerable improvements that the Edge team has made in accessibility since the original release of Windows 10, we must emphatically insist that the claim quoted above is, at the very least, misleading. In our opinion as assistive technology developers, the only way that claim can be considered true is if the word “we” in that sentence refers strictly to the Edge team, and not to Microsoft in general. That’s because in practice, the accessibility of even the new and improved Edge is a significant regression compared to what we always had in Internet Explorer, and even compared to Firefox and Chrome.
There are two main problems: Edge does not give assistive technologies a way to access the raw Document Object Model (DOM) of a web page, which we need in order to fill in gaps in website accessibility. Further, the speed that we can achieve in Edge is hobbled in comparison to all other browsers on Windows.
First, in both Internet Explorer and the Windows version of Firefox, screen readers have always had a way to access the raw Document Object Model of a Web page. This is the browser’s internal representation of the HTML code that makes up a page. This level of access allows all screen readers to provide various features that can fill in the gaps when a website isn’t perfectly accessible out of the box. For example, Serotek has long been known for its C-SAW (Community-Supported Accessible Web) feature, which lets users provide labels for graphics and form fields that aren’t labeled by the website developer. We are also able to implement our own website-specific work-around for accessibility problems, such as when a button or link isn’t properly marked up but just appears as plain text, or when a site doesn’t properly indicate that part of the user interface is currently invisible. Even very popular sites such as Amazon.com and PayPal still have problems like these sometimes.
At Serotek, we’ve always believed that, to the extent possible, we should make our own accessibility, rather than wait for it to be served to us on a silver platter. But to do this, we need some help from the browser. And so far, the Edge team has not provided the level of raw access to a Web page that we need to fill in website accessibility gaps as we do in other browsers. Instead, the Edge team has apparently taken the position that its only job is to provide access to websites that already do everything right in terms of following the accessibility standards. In this respect, the Edge team has done a great job, and Edge’s perfect score from the HTML5 Accessibility browser benchmark reflects that. But real websites, even from large companies such as Microsoft itself, do not always properly implement the latest accessibility features of ARIA and HTML5. It’s our job as assistive technology developers to make up for these real-world shortcomings, and so far, Edge doesn’t let us do that job nearly as well as other browsers.
That’s not the only problem. One of the most touted features of Edge is its speed. However, when it comes to accessibility, the speed that any full-featured screen reader can achieve in Edge is hobbled in comparison to all other browsers on Windows. Historically, all full-featured Windows screen readers have provided access to browsers by running some of their code directly inside the browser. Basically, the screen reader gets right inside the browser’s space, and can then access all of the available information about a web page with very low overhead. But now, as part of Edge’s stringent approach to security, Microsoft has decided that screen readers and other assistive technologies must stay out of the browser, only communicating with it from a distance. We don’t have a problem with this limitation in and of itself, but it means that the mechanism that the screen reader uses to get information from the browser needs to be carefully designed for maximum efficiency, and so far, Microsoft has not done this consistently. With Edge, it’s like we’re sucking information through a straw, whereas before, we were gulping from the fire hose. Again, it’s possible for Microsoft to solve this problem without backing down on security, which is also important, but that hasn’t happened yet.
We have provided feedback to Microsoft on both of these problems. Microsoft has been receptive to this feedback, and we look forward to working closely with the appropriate development teams on further improvements. But for now, we believe these regressions are so significant that we cannot provide a level of access to Edge that we consider usable, let alone enjoyable.
Note that Serotek is not the only assistive technology developer to take this position with regard to Microsoft Edge. The following statement is transcribed from the latest podcast from Freedom Scientific:
“There will not be any immediate change to the accessibility of Microsoft Edge. Many people who use JAWS are increasingly using rich Internet applications that are Web-based, so for us, it’s very important that when we do support Microsoft Edge, we do so in a way that gives people a level of access that they expect and that they can rely upon on the job. Perhaps it would be possible to hack around in Microsoft Edge and come up with accessibility of sorts, but that’s not really what JAWS is about, and the reality is that at this point, the hooks have not been put in place in Windows 10 by Microsoft to allow third-party screen readers to make Edge as accessible as Internet Explorer, Firefox, and increasingly Chrome currently are in Windows. […] But rest assured, we want to get Edge as accessible as other browsers as soon as possible, but we do need Microsoft’s help.”
We are in full agreement with Freedom Scientific on this point.
We recognize that Internet Explorer’s days as a top-tier browser are numbered. That is why we are working on significant improvements in our access to Firefox and Chrome. We are committed to providing first-rate access to modern browsers. But Edge still has such serious limitations that we believe our time is best spent elsewhere. We look forward to a time when we can provide excellent Web access through Edge as well as all other modern browsers.
Questions? Opinions? Please feel free to share your comment!
– Joe Orozco and Matt Campbell