In a deal described as “a huge step forward” for blind computer users, the developer of one of the world’s most sophisticated text-to-speech screenreaders has announced it is now giving away for free its previously chargeable software.
US-based software firm GW Micro has revealed it has reached a deal with Microsoft – on unspecified terms – to provide people who are blind, visually impaired or print disabled with a free licence to use its Window-Eyes screen reader.
Window-Eyes is a highly-regarded screen reader first released in 1995, enabling people with sight problems or other print disabilities to access computers running Microsoft Windows by reading text on the screen as synthesised speech. The software is also designed to help people access major programmes that run on Windows such as Microsoft Office, with versions available in more than 15 languages.
Until this month, users had to pay hefty licence fees to use the software – in the UK, for example, a single licence had cost about £600. Under the new “partner” deal, however, Windows users who own a licensed version of Microsoft Office 2010 or later can download Window-Eyes for free.
Disability organisations in the UK and US have welcomed the move, while raising questions about its detail.
Steve Griffiths, digital accessibility development officer at Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), told E-Access Bulletin the move could help level the playing field between Windows and Apple computers in terms of accessibility. Until now the fact that Apple machines speak to the user “out of the box” through the built-in VoiceOver screenreader have led to many blind people favouring them over Windows devices, but this could now change, Griffiths said.
“It is a big step forwards in terms of Microsoft Office – people tout Apple as accessible but only way they did this was to drastically simplify [the Apple office software suite] iWork so it works better with VoiceOver. Because it was simplified however, it is no longer comparable with Microsoft Office.
“Maybe Apple will now start building more accessible functionality back in [to iWork] but to my mind, Microsoft has now jumped ahead. It’s a huge step forward.”
The move could also have significant repercussions in the wider market for screenreaders, which split roughly into two types: more expensive tools such as SuperNova from UK-based Dolphin Computer Access and JAWS from US firm Freedom Scientific (and formerly, Window-Eyes itself), alongside already existing free screenreaders which have tended to be less sophisticated such as NVDA from Australian firm NV Access and Thunder from UK-based Screenreader.net, he said.
“It will be really interesting to see how it affects other commercial products like SuperNova and JAWS and other low cost or free ones, but how it will pan out depends on how many people do actually put in the work and learn how to use Window-Eyes, because it is a bit different from other products,” Griffiths said.
Although GW Micro are offering free installation support by email or phone, and the software manuals and tutorials are available online, all other technical support must now be purchased. Another small potential extra cost may come from the third-party voice synthesiser programmes that have often been packaged with Window-Eyes: the free version comes with the open source synthesiser eSpeak or Windows’ own default text-to-speech voices, but many users will prefer to use alternatives, Griffiths says.
“Most people in my experience don’t like eSpeak as it is quite robotic, while most other ones now are easy on the ear.” Some people will be happy to put up with eSpeak for free, though it does not cost much to buy a better voice separately, he says – users can pay typically between £25 and £50 for synthesisers such as Eloquence, Vocalizer or IVONA.
As to why GW Micro has struck the new partnership deal with Microsoft to give away its flagship software, and on what terms, Griffiths said no details have emerged from the US. However he said observers have speculated that either sales of Window-Eyes have been so poor recently that GW Micro are trying a new business model based on selling support and training; or that Microsoft has paid a sum of money for the benefits the deal brings to Windows.
Roger Wilson-Hinds, founder of Screenreader.net which developed the first free screen-reader Thunder which is still available but is no longer being renewed, said the Window-Eyes announcement was “brilliant news.”
“Our business is getting free PC software to blind people worldwide. We have played a part and this is a huge step forward alongside NVDA and the Apple Mac story” Wilson-Hinds said. “Over the past seven years, we have had more than 400,000 downloads of Thunder, and Window-Eyes is superior to Thunder.
“So it is all good news, so long as GW Micro continue to invest in and update their offering to keep abreast with Windows advances. If the money from Microsoft tempts them away from their mission and vision and they stop changing and innovating, that would be sad.”
The announcement has also been welcomed by the National Federation of the Blind in the US, whose president Marc Maurer described it as “revolutionary”.
“For the first time, users of Microsoft Office 2010 or later will not have to pay hundreds of dollars… to obtain an accessibility solution,” Maurer said. However, he said the battle for computer access by screenreaders was far from over, as every other software developer must ensure their own packages are compatible with access technologies.
“The usefulness of any screen reader product, of course, is limited by the degree to which other products are compatible with it,” he said. “Developers of mainstream technology, as well as the businesses, institutions, and governmental entities that use it, must continue to do their part by making sure that screen reader users have full access to what they produce, procure, and deploy.”