In the wake of our farewell to Internet Explorer, where we announced the coming end of System Access to Go (or SAToGo), there has been some unfortunate confusion about the future of System Access in general. So in this post, as chief technology officer of Pneuma Solutions, I want to personally set the record straight. This will be a long post, but I think it’s important to be completely candid about where we’re coming from and where we’re going, so please bear with us.
The short version is that System Access isn’t going away. Its scope will be changing, to better reflect the current assistive technology landscape and make the most of our limited resources as a small company. But if you use System Access to browse the web and access our Sero services, as Mike and I do every day, then the things that you love about System Access aren’t going anywhere.
It’s true that System Access hasn’t seen any substantial new feature development in quite a while, particularly since I joined the Windows accessibility team at Microsoft about 5 years ago. And even though I moved on from that chapter of my career at the end of 2020, we’ve remained focused on innovations beyond the screen reader, such as Scribe for Meetings, Scribe for Personal Documents, and coming soon, an exciting update to Remote Incident Manager (RIM).
Still, we’ve put out maintenance updates for System Access as needed. We’re aware that some areas of System Access need more maintenance; there are gaps in our support for modern browsers that frustrate us as well, and we understand that as people get new computers and upgrade their existing ones, support for Windows 11 is becoming a must-have. Rest assured that we haven’t forgotten about these things, and we’ll get to them soon.
So what’s next for System Access? First, let me tell you what’s not changing. If you use our Sero service on a Windows PC, System Access fits that use case like a glove, and that will continue to be the case. And as I mentioned above, we know that many of you love the way System Access works with the web. Whether it’s the smooth flow of the virtual cursor in and out of form controls, the lack of clutter when reading a web page, the ability for our community to fill in accessibility gaps with our Community-Supported Accessible Web (C-SAW) service, or the beeps that accompany links (a small touch that I’m personally proud of), we’ve created a web browsing experience that many of you love. And so do we. I once jokingly told Mike that our web browsing experience, going back to FreedomBox 2.0, was the worst thing that ever happened to my own productivity, because it made web browsing so much more enjoyable. As I said before, that experience isn’t going away.
But System Access can’t do it all, and we believe it doesn’t make sense for us to try. Even on the web, leaving aside the gaps in modern browser support that we will soon address, we know that our focus on simplicity isn’t the best fit for all use cases. For example, in some complicated web applications, the distinction between browse mode and focus mode, or virtual cursor and forms mode, is really necessary. When it comes to Windows applications outside the web, we know we can’t match the rich ecosystems of third-party customizations available for JAWS and NVDA. And when your primary screen reader or your PC as a whole gets into a sticky situation, or if you just need quick access to any Windows PC, there’s nothing more reliable than Narrator. The other available Windows screen readers are great tools; we use them ourselves, and we think you should too.
That’s why we want to make it easy for you to use System Access side by side with other Windows screen readers, so you can use the right tool for the job. The plan is something like this: System Access will still fully support our Sero service, modern web browsers, essential features of the Windows operating system, and other tasks that everyone does on a PC. But when you switch to an application that we don’t support, System Access will smoothly step back and bring up your chosen full-featured screen reader. When you move back to a task that System Access does support, it will unload your other screen reader and come back to the fore. And if you find that System Access isn’t working well for your use case in an application that we do support, such as web browsing, you’ll be able to switch back and forth with a simple hotkey. The devil’s in the details, and we’re still working out those details, but that’s the current plan.
Some of you are probably wondering about Microsoft Office. We’re still figuring out the details on this as well. Basically, we plan to support simple Office tasks that home users do every day, particularly around documents in Word. But when it comes to advanced productivity, particularly on the job, there’s no substitute for the rich set of commands and features provided by JAWS and NVDA. Because the right choice of screen reader for Office will depend on what you’re using it for, we plan to let you choose whether System Access will keep running or switch to your other screen reader when you open an Office application.
If you’ve been relying exclusively on System Access for years, you may be concerned about these upcoming changes. So we’re planning to do everything we can to make the transition painless. If you haven’t yet set up another screen reader, or if you just need to get up and running quickly on a new PC, we’ll make it easy to install NVDA with one command. And whether you let us install NVDA for you or have already been using it, we’ll give you a way to smoothly use your System Access text-to-speech engines with NVDA as well, subject to appropriate license restrictions. Some readers may worry that we’re playing favorites by choosing to integrate more tightly with one screen reader in particular. But the unavoidable reality is that because NVDA is open-source, it’s the only screen reader that enables this level of integration. And from an economic perspective, while JAWS is now affordable for home users at $95 per year, that may still be an imposition for some of our users; it’s hard to beat free.
Speaking of NVDA integration, let me give you a sneak peek at the future of accessible remote technical support and training. Remote Incident Manager (RIM), our product for technical support professionals and trainers, has been in need of an overhaul, and that overhaul is finally coming. RIM customers can look forward to high-quality remote stereo audio from any screen reader or application that may be running on the end-user’s machine, smoother screen output, the return of clipboard-based file transfer, and more. And when a blind technician connects to a sighted user’s computer, the technician will be able to access that computer with NVDA, without requiring the sighted end-user to hear the speech output. We know that many tech professionals love the versatility of NVDA, and we look forward to bringing that versatile access to remote technical support. The private beta of RIM version 3.0 has begun, so stay tuned for more details about this upcoming release. And these exciting new remote access features will also be making their way back to our consumer offering, so Sero customers will be able to use these capabilities to help friends, family, and others in the Sero community.
I’ve already written at length about why we believe System Access is a great fit for web browsing. So while I’m talking about new and updated products, let me tell you a little about the return of our own browser as part of Sero. The goal of Sero, all the way back to its beginning as FreedomBox, has always been to provide everything you need to use and enjoy the Internet, in an integrated, easy-to-use package. For many years, the centerpiece of that package was our own web browser. Unfortunately, due to limitations in our ability to make use of the Internet Explorer engine, we had to discontinue our browser about 6 years ago. But now, thanks to advances in the open-source ecosystem around the Chromium web browsing engine, we’re ready to bring back everything that our long-time community members loved about the browser, and more. With features such as built-in ad-blocking, an automatic reader mode, and our own integrated PDF reader, we believe that our browser will be the fastest, most enjoyable way for blind people to access the web. And while our browser will work with all Windows screen readers, we will continue to provide the most optimized experience when using it with System Access.
With the return of our browser and our upcoming changes to System Access, we’re going back to our roots. When we started Serotek in 2002, and even when we introduced our self-voicing web browser with FreedomBox 2.0 in 2004, we didn’t want to develop a full-featured screen reader; we simply wanted to make access to the Internet affordable, easy, portable, and fun. But we saw the need for affordable, easy, and portable access to Windows as well, and we worked to fill that need with System Access. But as we said in our farewell to Internet Explorer, the assistive technology landscape has changed a lot since then. We’re happy that blind people now have great choices for affordable access to Windows PCs, including truly usable built-in access to any Windows PC with Narrator, a great free screen reader with a rich third-party add-on ecosystem in NVDA, and even an affordable JAWS package for home users. If these things had existed in 2004, we probably wouldn’t have developed System Access as we did. And now that they do exist, it’s time for us to return to our focus on making Internet access as easy and fun as possible for our community.
So when are these changes coming? Estimating software projects is always risky, but we plan to begin the public beta of the new browser and the upcoming changes to System Access by the end of this year. As part of these changes, we will discontinue selling System Access as a stand-alone product and make it free for everyone using Sero on a PC. Stay tuned to the Pneuma Solutions blog and email for more details as we get closer to release.
In closing, Mike and I appreciate that the past 5 years or so have been a bumpy ride for our community. But please understand that they have been rough for us as well. The combination of my time at Microsoft and the unexpected illness of Mike’s former business partner basically meant the end of Serotek as a company, requiring us to start over as a new, bootstrapped company with no investors. Add the pandemic on top of all that, and our efforts to sell our new products haven’t gone as well as we had hoped they would. We appreciate the continued business of our loyal customers, but even with that support, our development resources have been very limited. Despite all of that, please remember that unlike most current assistive technology companies, Pneuma Solutions is owned by blind people who care first and foremost about serving our community; we have no investors, and this company is for us, by us. If you believe in what we’re doing, please support us by buying our products if you’re able, and by spreading the word. Whether it’s Sero, Scribe for Personal Documents, Scribe for Meetings, or the upcoming RIM version 3.0, we believe we have something for everyone in the blind community. And as I hope this post has made clear, the best, including for our loyal System Access users, is yet to come.