What is the Cost of a Free Product?

by Tim Connell –
First published by the Braille Monitor November 4,  2014
Image of Tim Connell in casual blue shirt facing the camera

Tim Connell

Introduction by the Editor of Braille Monitor: A longstanding debate has flourished among blind people about the technology we use. One objection is its cost and, closely related to that, its difference from what people who are not blind are purchasing and using. All of us are looking for bargains, and it is never easy to ignore a sentence in which the word “free” figures prominently. Also attractive is using the same technology that sighted people use, because it is usually less expensive, readily available, and easier to replace if it fails.

About a year ago we ran an article reflecting the opinion that screen readers cost too much and that there were alternatives. In that piece we mistakenly said that the price of one of the more popular screen readers was several hundred dollars more than it actually was. In making apologies to the screen reader developers, we asked if their company might like to make a case for the for-profit companies that have traditionally brought screen-reading solutions to the blind. They said they would think about it, but no article ever came.

Just last month we published an article featuring the presentation made by NV Access at the 2014 NFB Convention. Again a good case was made for blind people having a low-cost or free screen-reading solution, and the National Federation of the Blind was recognized and thanked for our support of the project. But a lack of thought-provoking material supporting the concept of a for-profit company engaging to meet the special needs of the blind has meant that the Braille Monitor has been uncomfortably silent about the tradeoffs there might be if we embrace these free or low-cost solutions at the expense of those we have traditionally relied on. The one exception is Resolution 2014-03, “Regarding Principles That Should Govern the Purchase of Screen-Access Technology for Vocational Rehabilitation Clients,” reprinted in the August-September 2014 issue. What appears below is a piece that attempts to look at all of the funding models for developing and purchasing screen readers around the world. It forces the reader to examine more closely the proposition that the lowest price is always better and that free unquestionably wins the day. It also suggests that we closely examine the concept that, because specialized technology is more expensive and necessarily different from what the sighted use, it should be avoided, especially if the cost of that decision is reflected in lower productivity.

Tim Connell is the founder and managing director of Quantum Technology and has been an active contributor to the field of assistive technology for thirty years. Quantum developed the first talking typewriter, called SpeakWriter, the Braille-n-Print, the Mountbatten Brailler, Jot-a-Dot, and Pictures in a Flash (PIAF). He is also a director of the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Sydney and lives with his wife and two adult children. Here is what he has to say about special devices used by the blind, the various ways their development and distribution can be funded, and the benefits and perhaps unforeseen pitfalls that might be inherent in those now gaining in popularity:

Recently I moved back into the suburb in which I grew up. It has been astounding to witness the changes that have occurred in the last fifty years. I remember a shopping center that consisted of a large number of small family-run businesses, but, as has happened in most Western countries, there is now just a single large supermarket, and the small shops have disappeared. Supermarkets have brought many improvements to the retail arena: lower costs, longer opening hours, and online shopping, to name a few. The downside is a loss of customer service and the personal relationships you had with your vendors. I mention this because what really interests me is the process of change—how change can involve many small incremental steps, none of which by themselves seem all that important.

I think there is a direct analogy with the world of assistive technology (AT). Until recently all AT has been developed and provided by small specialty companies. With greater frequency we are starting to see large corporations becoming involved and an increasing number of so-called free AT options. Perhaps it is timely that we examine what that means for our field. What are the implications for individuals with a print disability (low vision, blindness, dyslexia) of being able to access free AT?

I was drawn to this topic by the recent announcement from GW Micro that its screen reader, Window-Eyes, would now be available to download at no cost if you owned a copy of MS Office. While this is technically not a free product, it has created a great deal of discussion and debate, with many calling it a game-changer and a new era for assistive technology. I don’t happen to think that is the case, and I will discuss why later. There are also other ways that free options are also starting to appear.

  • The App Model: The meteoric rise of the iPad has been discussed at some length, and the number of free or very low-cost apps is increasing daily. New Android and Windows platforms are adding hundreds of thousands more.
  • The Philanthropic Model: The screen reader NVDA is an excellent example of this, in which philanthropic spending from large corporations such as Mozilla and Microsoft has supported the development of a competitor to commercial screen readers.
  • The Health Insurance Model: In some European countries access to vision aids is largely provided through health insurance companies, using a levy paid by all taxpayers.
  • The Universal Design Model: This is where products are designed from the beginning with the intention of being accessible to all. The screen reader VoiceOver on Apple products is an example of this.
  • Various Models of Direct Government Funding of AT: Pretty much everyone has welcomed the advent of these free options and believes they are giving rise to more options and greater choice for individuals with a print disability. What hasn’t been discussed is the possibility that these free options may ultimately have unintended consequences and that there may actually be a high cost for a free product. That cost may involve the loss of specialty providers and an increased dependence on large corporations—what I would call a supermarket model for AT delivery.

Over the thirty years I have been involved in AT, we have travelled an enormous distance from a time when access to information was limited or non-existent, to a world where limitless amounts of information are available. Thirty years ago a person who used Braille needed a large garage or warehouse to store a modest library. Today all of us can access huge libraries just using the phone in our pockets and a refreshable Braille display. It is easy to forget just how far we have come in such a short period and to overlook the incredible changes in opportunities and expectations that people with a print disability now have, all thanks to the small specialty providers that make up the AT industry.

I am confident that history will record this period of technological development and the rise of AT as one of the key factors in the emancipation of people with disabilities worldwide. So, if we are going to move to the supermarket model for AT, we need to be really sure what it is we are leaving behind. Let’s start by looking at access to the personal computer (PC), a foundational part of almost every blind person’s technical life. The PC market has been dominated by Microsoft, both in the operating systems used and by the suite of programs that turn our PCs into productivity tools. Approximately 90 percent of desktop computers around the world use a Windows operating system (compared to Apple’s iOS operating system with around 7.5 percent. Microsoft has a range of productivity tools known as MS Office, which has a market dominance of approximately 85 percent. MS Office accounts for 29 percent of Microsoft’s overall revenue and approximately 60 percent of its profit. These are staggering numbers and explain why so many corporations are keen to knock Microsoft off its perch.

There have been many attempts to do just that by developing alternative products to MS Office. For a little over twenty years we have had access to a free alternative, now known as OpenOffice Apache. OpenOffice has direct product alternatives, such as Writer for Word, Calc for Excel, and Impress for PowerPoint. However, in twenty years a completely free alternative to MS Office has been able to attract only a 3 percent market share. Other free alternatives such as LibreOffice, NeoOffice, and KOffice have been even less successful than OpenOffice, garnering a combined market share of 5 percent.

More recently GoogleDocs has started to pose more of a challenge, and the whole move to cloud-based computing is throwing up lots of competition for Microsoft. However, it is also throwing up many challenges for screen readers and is a far more complex environment than desktop computing. We are not assured at this stage that we will be able to maintain the same level of accessibility in the cloud as we have at the desktop.

The bottom line is that until now Microsoft has been able to achieve such market dominance while there has been a fully featured free alternative. We (the 85 percent of us) have chosen an expensive tool like MS Office over a free tool that is nearly as good. If you Google OpenOffice and read the multitude of reviews and comparisons, you will find this phrase repeated often: “nearly as good.” However, you won’t find a review that claims OpenOffice is the “best.”

To me this highlights a key problem in our understanding of the role of AT. Up to this point I believe we have always been guided by what is best. We have seen the development of solutions that may not be affordable to individuals, like the early refreshable Braille displays. However, they opened the door to innovation pathways that have resulted in lower prices and vastly improved products. The very first video magnifiers were commercialized by Bernd Reinecker in Germany in the late 1960s. His first system cost twenty thousand marks (approximately ten thousand euro), which was the equivalent of an above average annual salary. That is not a tenable proposition for a large multi-national company today.

Our current specialist solutions have all been created by small teams of highly innovative technologists who have applied themselves to solving access issues for a very small population. Low volumes have meant high costs, and those costs have become the focus of our attention.

Very few people argue that the free products are better than the commercial products; the argument is nearly always about the cost. So, if we accept that we always want to maintain the best options as one of the choices people have, shouldn’t our focus now be on the core issue of funding? When we make that our focus, it is pretty clear that we have failed to make funding the paramount issue of accessibility. Far too many organizations and agencies have embraced the attitude of scarcity, and, rather than take a rights-based approach and demand more funding, they now promote a free and low-cost approach as the best way to represent the rights of their members. However, those rights are enshrined in law, and we need to base our claims for increased funding on the clear economic benefits of having a more able and productive community. Lack of funding of the best technology solutions is the true barrier to equality of access.

At the beginning of this article I described various models of delivering free products. I’d like to take a look at each of them in more detail. While the benefits may be obvious, the potential pitfalls may not.

The App Model

Technology and apps have and will continue to have an enormous impact on the way we access information. They are rightfully being called transformational technology. Many apps are free or cost just under a dollar and are therefore available to all. However, apps, by their very nature, have limited functionality, and a suite of apps is needed to replicate the functionality of many existing AT products (it is estimated you would need fourteen apps to get close to the functionality of WYNN, for example). [WYNN is software developed by Freedom Scientific to assist people who have learning disabilities that affect reading.] Individual apps may be brilliant, but collectively they don’t offer anywhere near the same level of functionality, due to factors such as a lack of uniform design standards (in menus, gestures, orientation, etc.) and a lack of support and training.

One area that apps have made an enormous impact on is in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), particularly communication tools. An iPad with various apps is providing an alternative for a fraction of the price of traditional communication tablets. As a result we have seen the decimation of the traditional AAC business model, with estimates that there are now fewer than a third of the AAC companies that existed ten years ago.

For the wider print disability field small touchscreen computers and apps may one day provide an equivalent level of access, but they are currently not a solution that will provide true equality of access in education or employment. Anyone claiming otherwise is doing a great disservice to the people he or she is professing to serve. These may serve well as a great personal device, but they are not computers.

A recent report on the effectiveness of federal government funding, as featured in the Department of Education’s evaluation of the MSSAID Program, November 2013, described the increased use of iPads in classrooms as follows:

Mainstream technologies with applications that match specific needs are replacing the former specialized, clunky equipment that was provided for the individual student according to their disability. The subtle but critical shift to the technologies enabling learning as opposed to addressing the “deficit” of a disability is no longer highlighting the student as being different.

Are we to interpret this report and others like it to say that it is more important for students with disabilities to look normal than to have the best tools to address their specific disability? Is this progress? There are many other examples that could be provided in which devices like iPads are being promoted as a generic fix for inclusivity and accessibility.

The Philanthropic Model

The work that the developers of NVDA have done is exceptional. On a small budget they have developed a really good product and have provided a free screen reader to many thousands of people around the world who couldn’t previously afford one, especially in developing countries. Their technical skills and dedication are to be applauded; however, I have a problem with the funding model they have chosen. Philanthropic funding is at best a fragile beast, and it often doesn’t extend to covering services like training and support, which can be the most important components of accessibility (especially in education). The bigger issue of equity and why we accept such a fundamental right as access to a computer to be at the whim of philanthropic generosity should be of tremendous concern. Do we welcome it simply because the recipients are people with a disability? Why is this particular group of people not worthy of a business model that guarantees standards of support, service, and viability? The developers of NVDA need investors, not handouts.

The Health Insurance Model

For people in markets that are largely unfunded (such as Australia, USA, UK, and Canada), the idea that you can get the equipment you need through your health insurer seems very attractive. In these countries the health insurance companies call for tenders for commonly used items such as video magnifiers and Braille displays and are able to negotiate incredibly low prices through bulk national purchasing. On the face of it this seems like a win-win situation—universal access to AT at the lowest possible prices. However, what has happened under the insurance model is that the choice of options for individuals is greatly restricted; in fact, it is only the products that the insurers support that are viable. There are very limited opportunities for innovative products to enter the market, since they are often more expensive and not supported by the insurers. And one of the most damaging features is that the role of assessment has been pretty well bypassed. The role of specialists is marginal when they can recommend only those options that are supported by the insurers.

In most unfunded markets the European insurance model seems attractive. Yet it is achieving much poorer outcomes for individuals and is putting a brake on innovation, affecting long-term prospects. The European insurance model is very much a case of “be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.”

In Australia we are starting to see health insurance companies provide rebates on classes of products rather than individual items, though at this stage they are only small. This is a far better design, since it leaves the choice of device up to the user, supports normal commercial competitiveness, and ensures that assessments are based on individual needs and a wide choice of products.

The Universal Design Model

Universal design began as a concept in architecture—that buildings should be inherently accessible by all—but has evolved now to mean access to all products, to learning, and to information. In 1963 Selwyn Goldsmith wrote a book called Designing for the Disabled, one of the earliest treatises on universal design. Goldsmith is remembered for the creation of the curb ramp—now a standard feature of the built environment. Curb ramps, ramps to buildings, ramps on buses that kneel for wheelchairs—all are good examples of universal design that are part of our standard expectations for how the world should work.

Typically any discussion of universal design considers both the specialist tool and the wider environment in which it has to work. So with the wheelchair we looked at how to change the environment so that a wheelchair can more easily access it. For the hearing aid we looked at how we could change the environment by putting hearing loops in schools, buildings, and cinemas. Universal design has been all about designing the world so that it includes the specialist device.

However, the argument that is emerging within the print-disability field is that we should get rid of the specialist tool altogether so that the environment is accessible to all. At the heart of this argument is the proposition that the differences of being blind, for example, are small enough that they can be catered to in a one-size-fits-all product. This idea seems reckless. The discussion of universal design has moved away from the myriad of other access issues that still exist—things like accessible white goods [home appliances], accessible transportation, accessible signage and public information, or even accessible education and the design of curricula. Instead we have various prophets going around deliberately promoting the end of specialist AT products and providers and talking about liberating people from the high cost of specialist tools.

The cost of screen readers has become a bigger issue than all the other accessibility challenges facing every person with a print disability. What happens if universal design ends up giving us less functionality or features than the specialist products? To what extent can we sacrifice efficiency in order to minimize our appearance of difference by using technology different from that used by sighted peers?

It all comes down to whether we can trust the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Google, and the new players that will arrive in the next decade. Over the long term how important is the 1 percent of the population who are visually impaired, or a subset of that being people who depend on Braille, or a subset of that again, people who are deaf-blind or have multiple disabilities? Should we start trying to assess what level of specialist support to those groups will be lost? There is a clear-cut economic argument called majority rules that will eventually win the day, and a large multinational corporation is never going to provide the same level of nuanced accommodations that a specialist provider will.

Proponents of the universal design model argue that they are not promoting the end of specialist tools; they want a world where people can have both. Whether that is possible remains to be seen, but I suspect we will continue to see the incremental loss of small specialist providers, just as we have seen in the AAC sphere. The recent fate of GW Micro offers clear evidence of this. People too often conclude that the high price of specialist AT products springs from extortionist pricing policies, instead of the real costs of providing the best specialist solutions to a very small population. Shrinking what is already a very small commercial market will simply make it unviable for many more companies.

In the absence of funding, however, a free product like Apple’s VoiceOver is attractive, and there are many people extolling its virtues without asking how free it is given how much you pay for the Mac versus an equivalent PC. It is a very good accessibility solution straight out of the box, but it is not without problems. VoiceOver is not a separate program but an integral part of the operating system, which means that bugs and fixes occur only when the operating system is upgraded. There was a significant bug in the way VoiceOver handled Braille translation that took nearly three years to fix. It took over a year for a bug that moved you backwards on a webpage when you chose to go forward. Plenty of other examples provide a sharp point of differentiation between VoiceOver and the products produced by the developers of JAWS and NVDA, for example, who provide regular updates and fixes. Even the most ardent supporters of VoiceOver admit that sometimes the little things seem to get overlooked, or features that seem obvious never arrive. (For example, see the article written on the AppleVis website by the editorial team in April 2014.) While Apple is riding the crest of an economic wave, these little things may be just annoyances. It is yet to be seen how many of these little things would exist if they were struggling financially and if they would again abandon accessibility as they did in the 1990s.

VoiceOver may be a good product for the person who wants to use email and browse the web. But it is not a solution for anyone who works with complex Excel files, writes in various programming languages, manages networks, or plays any number of other real-life employment roles. It would be devastating if it was the only screen reader around.

Microsoft has chosen to go down a different path altogether, with the arrangement mentioned previously to provide Window-Eyes to anyone who has purchased MS Office. Many commentators are calling this a universal design solution, but that is the case only if Microsoft is going to incorporate Window-Eyes code into its own operating system, and at this stage there is no evidence of that happening. A more cynical suggestion has been that the deal came about as a means of complying with legislative and consumer pressure on Microsoft to do more about accessibility. A possible outcome of this deal is that philanthropic funding will be harder to secure because an equivalent free product exists, putting a great deal of pressure on NVDA. So the first consequence of Microsoft’s move could be the demise of a product that many argue is better than Window-Eyes. Once again we have a short-term gain, with some people able to access a free screen reader, but at a longer-term cost of having less diversity and product choices and less competition driving innovation.

The Government Funding Model

Many models for government funding exist, some good and some bad. The best ones are based on outcomes and not on upfront costs. The best ones value the long-term social and economic benefits of enabling all people to participate in employment and education.

In March of 2014 a program of support for people who are blind was announced by the government of Colombia. The local blindness consumer group made a convincing argument that many blind people in Colombia could not afford accessibility tools needed for education and employment. They argued that, by empowering them with the right tools, together with training and support, the government could save money by helping people move off social welfare. The Colombian government agreed and provided US$3 million for a package of support that includes a copy of either JAWS or MAGic, training centers in fifteen cities around Colombia, and hotline phone support for all users. In the first few weeks of being implemented, over thirty thousand people in Colombia had downloaded a copy of JAWS or MAGic. The bulk of the cost for this effort was in training and support and not in the purchase of the software. The government could have chosen a free solution but realized that the success of the program depended on having a business model that focused on outcomes and which guaranteed training and support. This initiative by the Colombian government shows us another way for consumers to have a free product.

Summary

A growing number of people in the print-disability field are not happy with the status quo and with the fact that specialist products are expensive and not available to all. The prospect of cheap or free products has become the goal that many individuals as well as some agencies are now supporting. When I started to think about this subject, my first question was, “Who is going to support an argument against free products?” “Not many people” is the answer. So perhaps the days of specialist developers and vendors really are numbered. In a world where many problems still exist, particularly in employment, some people need to assign blame and prefer to view the specialist providers as the problem. The cost of a commercial screen reader is viewed as the problem, and getting something free would help solve that problem. However, I keep returning to the supermarket analogy and have come to the conclusion that those small steps of change that occur incrementally mean we may not know what has been lost till it is too late. We may not really be aware of the change that is currently underway in the AT market. The point that is being missed is that it is not the cost of the product that should be our focus, but the ability of the product to fully meet the needs of each individual. Does a keen fisherman get all of his fishing gear at Kmart, or does he go to a fishing gear specialist? Do elite athletes buy all their sporting gear from Target, or do they go to specialist suppliers? Is price going to be the driver to make people successful, or is it getting the best possible solutions that will determine whether people can achieve their potential?

I would like to see a robust and informed debate on this issue, focusing on achieving the best possible outcomes for people with a print disability. At the heart of that debate are funding and finding business models that support choice, training, and ongoing support, as well as nurturing innovation. Agencies in particular should be at the vanguard of this debate, ensuring the best long-term outcomes for their members.

Championing something that is “almost as good” is actually a major step backwards; if it wasn’t, we would all be using OpenOffice. Product cost is not the issue that should define this debate; it is real life outcomes.

Generally our attitudes about technology are that we feel comfortable with what we know. However, what we don’t know is just around the corner, and in ten years we may find we have completely new ways to interface with technology, like holographic displays or other systems that rely more on vision or cognitive ability. If it comes to a choice between large multi-national corporations or small teams of dedicated and innovative technologists to ensure true accessibility, I know whom I would rather have in my corner.

1 Comment

  1. Tim
    You are great.
    Many wonderful things you mention.
    But it is too long, nobody reads.
    Please make them one by one in different media.
    They are just wonderful. World needs people like you .

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