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Finally, Apple Speaks to the Blind

By Alex Salkever With its brash marketing campaigns and big brand image, few would accuse Apple Computer (AAPL) of being a silent company. But to the millions of Americans who are legally blind or seriously visually impaired Apple has seemed silent and uncaring because it has no screen-reader program of its own. And software maker ALVA Access Group decided in summer, 2003, to stop making the last such Mac-compatible program on the market.

This leaves visually impaired Mac users without software that allows them to navigate a computer desktop and Web pages by vocalizing complex menu trees, cursor locations, and other key visual cues taken for granted by sighted users.

Apple recognized that ALVA's decision elevated the situation to crisis proportions and scrambled to tackle the problem. This week at the 19th annual Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference in Los Angeles -- the biggest assistive-technology confab in the country -- Jobs & Co. introduced a nifty tool to help the blind use Macs again. Apple calls this new technology "Spoken Interface." The basic concept is to vocalize and make audible everything that visually happens on a desktop, just like screen-reading software.

UNEQUAL ACCESS. That's big news for a couple of reasons. With no screen reader available on Macs, any schools wishing to deploy them faced a potential lawsuit on grounds that the blind would be denied equal access. Even if no one sues, the prospect of advocacy groups for the visually impaired blaming Apple for shunting blind kids onto Windows machines and further isolating them from their sighted classroom peers presented a looming PR nightmare.

Lack of a screen reader could also preclude Apple from winning government contracts. Government info-tech departments by law must ensure that all their technology is accessible to the maximum degree possible. If Apple lacked a screen reader, Windows would be the winner by default.

I suggested in a November, 2003, column that Apple create a screen reader for Macs and offer it to the open-source community (see BW Online, 11/12/03, "A Failing for Apple in the Classroom"). After all, that's just what Apple did with its Safari Web browser, and the result filled a gaping hole in software offerings for the Mac. Apple Senior Product Manager Chris Bourden told me the company was aware of the potential problems and was going to work on something to address them.

BARGAIN BUY. Apparently he meant it. And even better, unlike traditional screen readers, Apple's technology will be built right into the next version of the OS X operating system. That will be a big help. For starters, the price is sweet. Spoken Interface won't cost anything extra because it'll be part of the core OS. Screen readers for Windows can run up to $1,000, on top of the cost of the computer itself.

The majority of visually impaired Americans are unemployed (businesses haven't a great job of adapting the workplace to their needs). So the cost of a computer alone can be a heavy burden. Add on screen-reader software, and the price soars out of reach. Worse, state and federal disabilities benefits don't cover the purchase of these programs.

That makes owning a Mac a bargain for the visually disabled. True, most Apple computers remain more expensive than comparable Windows boxes on a pure price basis. But subtract the cost of typical Windows screen-reader software, and Apple has effectively slashed the cost of computing for blind and visually impaired by $500 or more. That's not chump change.

EASIER FIT. Apple's decision to build Spoken Interface into OS X also hints at all sorts of promising possibilities. Jobs & Co. plans to freely offer "application program interfaces" (APIs) for its screen-reading modules to software developers. APIs are tools, rules, and protocols that guide a programmer in ensuring that new software works well with a specific operating system.

Using open APIs (meaning anyone can look at them) should give Mac developers a relatively easy way to make their software work well with Spoken Interface. Compare that to the Windows world, where software developers have to submit their code to engineers at the two major screen-reader software makers -- then wait until those engineers tell them how to adjust the code to work with the screen readers. It's often an expensive and time-consuming process.

Apple's aid to programmers goes even further. Bourden says if developers use Apple's Cocoa programming environment in writing their programs, they'll already have built in over 90% of the information required by Spoken Interface to make the program fully accessible. Already, he says, a lot of Cocoa-based software works with Spoken Interface without any adjustments to the underlying program code at all.

"BETTER AND BETTER." Apple tested a well-known Cocoa-based shareware application, MacJournal, to see how it did with Spoken Interface with no modifications. "It was really neat. It worked pretty well right off the bat," says Bourden.

So far, the reaction from the folks in the assistive-technology community who worked with Apple on Spoken Interface has been largely positive. "I think they're doing phenomenal work. I wouldn't say [that] it's better than [leading Windows screen reader] JAWS yet, but it could be. Each time they show me a new version, it gets better and better," says Larry Goldberg, director of the National Center for Accessible Media, a Boston (Mass.) nonprofit that develops assistive-media technologies and advises companies on how to make their products friendlier to people with disabilities.

Ultimately, this is a case of doing well by doing good. Apple still garners 25% of revenues from education sales. And the folks at One Infinite Loop surely recognize that visual impairment will strike millions of baby boomers in the next few decades. That makes screen-reading technology essential if Apple wants to hang onto aging customers.

READY TO TALK. What's more, the open-source community is building its own screen readers and accessibility software suites. If Apple had elected not to respond, it would have been the only major operating system not to offer accessibility tools for the visually impaired.

Instead, Apple has taken a big leap -- and one that could pay off in unsuspected ways. In the long term, Spoken Interface could become a key part of how all sorts of people use computer. Many visionaries have predicted a time when interactions with computers will employ the most efficient and natural communication system people have: the voice.

When Spoken Interface will actually roll out in a production version of OS X remains unclear. Apple says it'll probably go into the next upgrade, but Spoken Interface hasn't even entered the "beta" stage of development.

COMMUNITY EFFORT. Still, the decision to go to the assistive-technology community for feedback is tremendous. Apple has traditionally put secrecy among its top priorities. In this case, that would have hindered rather than helped the effort. The only way to figure out whether a piece of software works for visually impaired users is to ask them at every step of the development process.

I'm hopeful that Spoken Interface will prove the first step in the long process of winning back the visually impaired community's confidence, which had largely abandoned Apple a decade ago in favor of Windows machines with better screen-reading software. Hats off to Apple for doing the right thing and finding a solution relatively quickly that feels good and makes financial sense. Salkever is Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online. Follow his Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online

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