Microsoft released the Surface laptop last week. As someone who absolutely loves the Surface Book, I’ve been following with interest the developments in the surface line. I’m not hugely blown away with the Surface Pro line but that’s a reflection of the state of touch screen access using screen readers more than the device itself. Physically, I think the surface pro is very nice to hold, powerful enough to run all standard productivity and development tools and durable enough to be used for both business and pleasure every day. The surface book however is the perfect computer. When relaxing on the bus on the way to and from work I can easily consume content but with this machine, an I7 with 16GB RAM and a 512GB solid state hard disk, I can just as easily run up a few virtual machines, Visual Studio 2017 and a suite of debug and analysis tools and it hardly breaks a swet. It’s perfectly comfortable to type on for 12 hours a day and the battery life is just brilliant. I sound like an advertisement for Surface Book which is fine. It’s easily the nicest laptop I’ve ever owned.
The Surface Laptop doesn’t quite tick all the boxes for me but that’s a good thing at the moment. It is expensive. Maybe too expensive for most people but it’s what it represents that is important. The Surface line is aspirational. It’s expensive but it’s a product line that shows off the power of Windows. It’s Microsoft’s way of showing the world what can be done with devices that run Windows and as a result, PC manufacturers are following their lead. This means that although the Surface Laptop is at the higher end of the price scale, the introduction of Windows10S in parallel means that Microsoft partners are again following Microsoft’s example by releasing their own devices built on Windows 10S. This will mean lower prices for lower spec machines that although do less, still do more than a device like the iPad or Android tablet.
What has all this got to do with accessibility for Blind people? The answer is unfortunately a bit long but please stick with me for a minute so I can explain. Because the result in a year or two could be huge if the current pace of change is retained.
I love the Jaws screen reader for what I do every day. But for many people, all they need to use is a browser and Microsoft Office. I’m not sure if Jaws will be as compelling in the long term as it is right now for the average user with the recent developments in Narrator, the built in screen reader for Microsoft Windows. Not that I’m saying I could personally use Narrator every day. I think it’s still years behind Jaws but look at Voiceover, the built in screen reader for Apple’s OSX and IOS operating systems. It’s also years behind Jaws and it has quite a few bugs but yet, it’s probably the most popular screen reader in the world at the moment. It is highly likely that it has taken over from Jaws in terms of overall screen reader market
share as more blind users have access to mobile devices than Windows PC’s I’m sure. Those same users might be happy paying $189 to $1200 for various specs of low powered laptops.
For those of you who remember or paid any attention to Windows RT, this really isn’t that. From an accessibility perspective, Windows RT was completely unusable. But with Surface pro, Surface book, the surface studio and now the surface laptop, a blind user can turn it on, hit two buttons and get access to the core of the OS without a commercial screen reader. I bet Freedom scientific are very worried about this – and if they aren’t, they certainly should be.
I’m talking to Microsoft in Ireland and the US every week at the moment about offers for education as that’s the area I’m now working in. I’m consistently delighted when they raise the topic of accessibility without being prompted. There’s a fella heading up the applications for children that includes Minecraft who is great at working on accessibility problems for many difficult areas.
I think it’s a case of watch this space.
I’m also putting my money where my mouth is. There’s an application called Whats up gold that isn’t working with Jaws at all at the moment. I’ve switched to narrator and Edge when using it as I get the best results. This should come as a huge shock for anyone related to the development of Jaws. It certainly shocks me. There are controls that Narrator is reading perfectly such as grid views, tree views and toolbars that Jaws isn’t even seeing in Chrome, Firefox or IE.
I need Narrator to be more responsive and I’ve left feedback with Microsoft in relation to this so here’s hoping that it gets better. I can see myself using it more as time goes on unless Jaws gets a lot better for touch screen access.
I travel a lot on busses so using the laptop isn’t always very comfortable. For that reason, I use a touch screen device such as my phone. I’d really like to be able to use my surface book more for consuming content on the go. If Narrator gives me this freedom first, then there will be no contest.
This is coming from someone who has used Jaws as the primary screen reader for twenty years. So, I have a certain level of brand loyalty. So, the point I’m making is even with brand loyalty from a person who has used this software for 20 years, if Microsoft can take the lead, even I’ll switch. That should drive some serious innovation and changes in Jaws version 19. Because if someone like me will change over, someone who just uses a computer for browsing and Email will change much sooner.