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Are assistive technology vendors becoming extinct?

It wasn’t that long ago that commercial Assistive Technology (AT) vendors were viewed as an essential bridge for people with disabilities in gaining access to consumer technologies. While the price for products was high, their role was of vital importance due to mainstream organisations showing little interest in including quality AT products in their operating systems. The vendor space was highly competitive in trying to secure the prime spots for their stands at events and I remember several conferences where the debate over JAWS V WindowEyes or ZoomText V MAGic could become quite animated as each person argued why their choice of product was the best.

These days, however the industry has changed significantly. In recent years many vendors have either been swallowed up through a variety of mergers and takeovers or disappeared entirely. Many of the products that used to be rivals are now owned by the same company such as VFO which has the Freedom Scientific, Enhanced Vision and The Paciello Group (TPG) under their banner. While there may be concern over competition, the power of one company owning several brands has seen great products like Fusion emerge which takes what is arguably the worlds’ best screen reader in JAWS and pairs it with what is generally considered the best screen magnifier in ZoomText and makes them seamlessly work together which is ultimately a great thing for the people that need it.

Yet the acquisition of so many commercial assistive technology providers is no accident. Smaller specialist vendors are feeling the squeeze from fierce competition, and it’s not from each other. Instead, the competition comes from the provision of free AT products built into our everyday devices such as computers, smartphones and tablets. When competition comes from products that have features already built-in, it’s worth asking the question: do I really need to buy something else if something similar already came with my device, and does this mean that the reign of the assistive technology specialist provider is almost over?

Product differentiation

It’s worth noting that just because an AT product arrives built-in doesn’t necessarily mean its better or that people aren’t interested in buying something else. A classic example is the popularity of the Google Chrome web browser. Both Windows and Mac have their own browsers in Edge and Safari respectively, yet people continue to install Chrome due to the perception it provides a better experience and more useful features such as extensions. Likewise, the mere presence of Narrator on Windows or Voiceover on iOS is not enough n its own right to prevent the sale of alternatives.

Yet there is evidence that the existence of assistive technologies being built into popular products is a big factor in damaging the business model of vendors. A great example is the mobile-based screen readers of Voiceover on iOS and TalkBack on Android. While there’s nothing to stop these platforms from having alternative screen readers, the reality is that they are effective tools meaning that there’s no real need to look elsewhere. It’s this step up in quality that has really made the difference. It wasn’t that long ago that third-party screen readers were being purchased and installed on our mobile device but the need for these products has largely disappeared.

To address this, companies like VFO are working to create product differentiation. In addition to Fusion mentioned above which brings a great product to Windows users that differentiates by combining several tools into one, the acquiring of The Paciello Group also opens the doors to new markets such as web accessibility professionals with products such as JAWS Inspect. To quote a recent TPG marketing e-mail:

“JAWS for Windows is a life-changing assistive technology solution that has enabled millions of users to lead more fulfilling lives in the classroom, workplace, and throughout their communities.  but using it to conduct screen reader compatibility testing can be time consuming and inefficient, yielding inconsistent results for testers not familiar with JAWS Commands. TPG’s one of a kind testing tool, JAWS Inspect takes all the complexities out of manual testing. It provides text output of JAWS audio to enable you to quickly identify UX issues for JAWS users, along with additional testing functionalities. The best part is that you don’t have to be a JAWS expert or know any JAWS keystrokes to use it, so you can start testing immediately.”

This means that even in a climate where the already small market share of JAWS has dropped off substantially to free competitors such as built-in assistive technologies and the excellent open-source screen reader NVDA, there is still the potential to sell the product in some form to a new audience by turning its smarts into a gold standard testing tool. It’s a clever repositioning as the tester doesn’t have to learn the complexities associated with learning a screen reader, and yet the results are provided for web accessibility auditing work. This approach highlights the benefits of having several companies merge into one and supporters argue it continues to breathe life into the need for specialist vendors.

Price differentiation

However, before we all start rushing out to buy Fusion and JAWS Inspect, it’s worth noting that there is a significant difference in price and this difference is not in favour of the specialist vendor. The cost of purchasing Fusion Home in Australia is $AUD1,715.00 ($USD1240.00). If you are a web accessibility professional and think that JAWS Inspect would naturally be cheaper as you’re getting a testing tool rather than the actual product, you may be surprised to learn that the cost of JAWS Inspect is $USD10,000 for five licenses.

With those prices in mind, let’s consider what free or more affordable options there may be to help counter the costs of such tools. Sticking with Windows for the moment, instead of Fusion you could potentially enable the Narrator screen reader and Magnifier which are free. You could also enable the high contrast themes to make it easier on the eyes and adjust the mouse pointer size, similar to the features found in Fusion. These are all available for free as part of the operating system and all work well together.

When these type of suggestions are mentioned in disability circles, the question that inevitably comes up is one of quality. It’s a fair point that Narrator is not the most polished of screen readers, but it has just improved significantly as discussed in my hands-on review of Narrator in the recent Windows 10 October update. The usual counterargument to commercial screen readers though is NVDA which is a screen reader of high quality and similar functionality to JAWS. If you’re able to look outside Windows there are many choices including the built-in VoiceOver for Mac, VoiceOver for iOS and TalkBack for Android.

In terms of web accessibility professionals, it’s fair to say there’s not many products like JAWS Inspect. However, if you’re a web accessibility specialist you really should in my view learn how to use at least one screen reader so you have an understanding of the target audience you’re supporting. If the issue is ease of use, the latest Narrator update provides a great tutorial on first use for desktop users and TalkBack on Android has a great first use tutorial for users of touchscreen devices.

Such excellent tutorials suggest to me there’s no reason a screen reader can’t be learnt quickly and in turn used for accessibility testing. Furthermore, there are many automated testing tools that assess websites against the WCAG 2.x standard of which there are free options and other great products priced much lower than JAWS Inspect.

The end of an era – or is it?

The upshot is that the business model of the 1990s and early 2000s which relied heavily on high prices for AT software at a time when there were few other options is no longer viable. To quote the tagline on the NVDA website:

“We believe that every Blind + Vision Impaired person Deserves the right to freely & easily access a computer!”

This is the current expectation of AT users and a view I personally share. In this era of hot-desking, always-on connectivity and the expectation that people with disabilities can walk up to any device and use it, the idea that an accessible experience has to be tied to one license on one device seems antiquated and unnecessary.

That said, I still believe that AT vendors have an important place but the business model has to change. The creator of the Dragon products, for example, has demonstrated in recent years that it is possible to provide quality AT software at a reasonable price point and as a result it continues to be popular. AT vendors also have an important role to play in the innovation space, especially  in hardware-based specialist products that continue to meet a need currently unsupported by mainstream devices. The biggest difference in the market now is that accessibility is no longer seen as a luxury, but rather a right to participation. While companies understandably need to profit from their inventions, the expectation now is that vendors will ensure that the first priority for any new product is that people will benefit from it rather than companies profiting from it. It’s my hope that this will be the focus of the future so that people with disabilities can get the access they need while the vendors continue to innovate in this space.

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