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A Failing for Apple in the Classroom

By Alex Salkever On June 10, small software developer ALVA Access Group announced that it would no longer support or build new versions of two products for blind and visually impaired Apple users. One, inLarge, allows users to zoom in on a section of the screen, making the letters, numbers, and outlines appear much larger. It became redundant when Apple included that capability in OS X.

The other program, outSPOKEN, was a screen reader that could speak text and describe graphics and pictures. Such devices are essential to people with severe visual impairment who can't use computers otherwise. And outSPOKEN was the only such screen reader for Macs on the market. So the announcement elicited a good deal of concern from the blind community.

SWITCH TO WINDOWS? It has also caused concern at Apple (AAPL) headquarters -- and for good reason. The lack of a screen reader could threaten its push for one-to-one computing initiatives in big public school systems, where each pupil gets a laptop (see BW Online, 11/4/03, "A Classroom Comeback for Apple?").

Apple's largest victory thus far has been a contract with the state of Maine to give laptops to all seventh- and eighth-grade pupils, a $37 million, four-year deal that Jobs & Co. regularly points to as evidence of their success in one-to-one computing. Apple execs have touted the initiative as the future of educational computing in elementary, middle, and high schools.

Without screen-reader software, however, blind pupils can't use Apple products and would be forced to turn to Windows products instead (two viable screen readers for Windows are on the market today). The reason: School systems buying Apple products today are knowingly purchasing systems that can't be used by all their pupils, which runs counter to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"VERY ANNOYED." Equal-access advocates are up in arms. "I think it's horrible," says Curtis Chong, president of the National Federation for the Blind in Computer Science. Giving blind students Apples will "further isolate blind kids who are already isolated from the basic school population. I'm very annoyed at Apple," says Chong.

Good screen readers go way beyond the spoken-text capabilities that have long been a Mac feature. Today, they not only convert text and images to speech output but can also handle the different command structures and quirks of hundreds of commonly used programs, from e-mailers to spreadsheets.

School districts would have to buy not only a comparable Windows PC but PC licenses for all the same software as well. But in some cases, no non-Apple alternative exists. In Henrico County, Va., where the school district has leased 28,000 iBooks in the second-biggest one-to-one computing initiative to date, Apple's iLife suite has become an integral part of class projects. No comparable suite exists in the Windows world.

LEFT IN THE LURCH. In a worst-case scenario, Apple's dearth of blind-friendly software could be construed as a violation of federal accessibility guidelines under the ADA. Chong says some talk of lawsuits against school districts has already started circulating in the activist community. None have been filed to date. Maine's Education Dept. says only three totally blind pupils have been affected by the Apple initiative, and all have received satisfactory PC substitutes.

Maine may not be a good test case, though. It has a very low percentage of totally blind students in public schools compared to other states. In any case, you can bet that Dell (DELL), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and other big competitors have spotted the issue and will make sure that school tech buyers know that Apple has a major flaw.

To be fair, the situation isn't entirely Apple's fault. CEO Steve Jobs himself can't force third-party software companies to continue developing products they don't want to build. And Apple can't be expected to pick up the slack for every third-party developer that leaves Mac users in the lurch.

OPEN-SOURCE SOLUTION. Apple claims that it's not ignoring blind users. "A screen reader is something that's important to us, and we continue to evaluate our options in that area. Accessiblity is something that has been important to us through the entire development of OS X," says Chris Bourdon, senior product-line manager for OS X.

Still, this is no ordinary piece of software. And the threat to Apple's nascent education comeback is real. Apple has acknowledged as much by recently hiring a software engineer who specializes in screen readers and mounting a search for new leadership for its accessibility-features group.

The good news: This is a case where Apple can take lemons and make some tasty lemonade. What it needs to do is build a screen reader and then release it into the open-source domain, much like it did with the Safari Web browser.

MONEY-SAVING MOVE. This strategy would have several advantages. First, Apple would silence critics and eliminate any school-district fears of lawsuits and bad publicity. Also, by releasing the product into the open-source domain, Apple would do a huge service to the visually impaired community. Screen-reader software for Windows costs $800 and $1,300 for professional licenses -- more, in many cases, than a standard PC. An open-source screen reader would allow millions of blind users to save money by buying Macs instead of PCs.

Programming a screen reader from scratch could cost tens of millions of dollars and would require at least a handful of highly competent engineers. It's not a trivial undertaking. If Apple wants a quick leg up, it could always buy an established player such as GW Micro, a small Terra Haute (Ind.) outfit that makes an increasingly popular Windows screen reader.

Or it could take on the task itself. Once Apple has built the program, two engineers could probably maintain it with the help of an active open-source community. A programming group tailor-made for the endeavor already exists. As part of the GNOME Linux effort, a team of developers has started building an accessibility module to bring the Penguin to those with disabilities.

BOOMERS' BLURRY SIGHT. What would such an effort cost Apple? Certainly less than $30 million. Considering that it still gets close to 40% of its revenues in education sales and that Jobs & Co. has $4.5 billion in the bank, that's pocket change.

Still need convincing? Chong estimates that about 5 million Americans right now are legally blind or suffer serious visual impairment. That number will soar in the near future as aging baby boomers lose their sight. So, Apple might need a screen reader to even be considered a viable computer by many millions of Americans.

Meanwhile, Microsoft (MSFT) is working feverishly on its next-generation Longhorn operating system. Redmond has sworn that the new version will provide backward compatibility to Windows screen readers. That'll be a pretty tough trick to pull off since it involves multiple levels of interaction between Windows, Longhorn, and third-party applications such as the screen-reader.

WELL AND GOOD. If Apple gets a reader up and running ASAP and screen readers on Windows platforms get gored by Longhorn, then Jobs would have an significant advantage in selling to schools for the same reason he now has a disadvantage.

In the final assessment, open-sourcing a screen reader for OS X could make Apple a stronger player in the education field. Equally important, it could do well by doing good. The move would help sight-impaired kids learn more effectively. It might help older blind users -- members of a community that generally lags behind the rest of America in income -- gain better access to affordable technology. And it would ensure that Apple keeps selling to baby boomers with dimming vision. What's not to like? Salkever, Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online, is alternating with Charles Haddad on Byte of the Apple

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