You guys may’ve heard the Tek Talk broadcast the other night where Mike Calvo and Matt Campbell covered some changes at Serotek. Didn’t catch it? Click here and listen at your leisure.
Or, if you’d rather read about some of our changes, here’s a breakdown:
It’s clear by now that although Windows 10 attempts to make Windows 7 users feel at ease with the return of the Start menu, the new operating system unapologetically builds on the foundation that Microsoft laid with Windows 8. The cornerstone of this foundation is an application platform and user interface style that has gone by many names. It was once called Metro. Microsoft later referred to apps based on this technology as “Windows Store apps”. We have often called them “modern apps”. Microsoft currently prefers the name “Universal Windows Platform”. Whatever you call it, it’s even more pervasive in Windows 10, from the moment you enter your password on the Windows sign-in screen.
You’ll also find the new style of user interface in the Action Center, where you can review and respond to notifications, and in the Settings app, which is the modern equivalent of the Control Panel. Even the Start menu, meant to entice Windows 7 users, is based on the newer user interface style. And of course, you’ll find it in the Windows Store and the apps that you can download from there.
So what does this mean for screen reader users? Naturally, that depends on the screen reader. In our opinion, other screen readers have done the bare minimum to make the Windows modern UI accessible, but they haven’t made it truly usable. For the most part, they’ll just read whatever control has the keyboard focus, and leave it to the user to use screen review commands to figure out the context. We knew we could do better.
We still believe in providing the best automatic access possible, rather than forcing the user to use stick shift, so to speak. So in many parts of Windows, such as the sign-in screen and the Settings app, you’ll find that System Access reads much more automatically than other screen readers. Of course, our automatic access isn’t perfect, and we plan to keep improving it. And there are other little touches that you’ll find along the way; for example, when you talk to the new Cortana app in Windows 10, System Access will stay quiet, so Cortana can listen to what you have to say.
But beyond simply presenting more information automatically, we believe we can provide a fundamentally better user experience in the Windows modern UI than any screen reader has attempted so far. That brings us to the next thing we want to talk about.
One of the most unquestioned assumptions of Windows screen readers has been that they should mostly leave keyboard navigation up to the applications and the operating system. After all, Windows has always made it possible to move through all of the controls in a user interface by pressing Tab and Shift+Tab. But what happens when keyboard navigation is an afterthought, as it so often is in mainstream apps? What happens when application user interfaces become more like web pages, freely mixing content and UI controls? Must we use clunky screen review commands to explore and understand these apps? Fortunately, a better way has been right under our noses all along, especially for those of us who live in the SAMNet browser.
If you’re a frequent user of SAMNet on Windows, or even if you simply do a lot of web browsing with System Access, then you’ve probably come to love the way that we provide access to web pages. Like other screen readers, System Access lets you move through a web page with the arrow keys, as if you were moving through a document in Notepad or Word. But we’ve always taken it a step further. System Access has no special mode for filling out forms. We’ve always believed that making such a distinction between browsing a web page and filling out a form is unnecessary and clunky. And it seems that our users agree; people tell us that our approach to browsing web pages is smoother than anything they’ve experienced with other screen readers.
While we were working with Windows 10, it occurred to us that there’s no reason why native applications couldn’t work the same way. Why should it matter to a user whether something is a web page or an application?
After all, modern Windows apps are a lot like web pages in the way they freely mix content with user interface controls. Often they even include things called links, like a web page. So why shouldn’t you be able to navigate these apps like a web page?
Now, with System Access, you can do just that. We call this innovative new feature “Webify”. It starts with modern apps in Windows 8 and up.
Whenever you’re in one of these apps, you can navigate it like a web page. This means you no longer have to use clunky screen review commands to explore an app; just arrow through it. In some places we can even detect headings, so you can jump around with H and Shift+H. Other quick navigation commands also apply. Want to get to the next button on the screen, without laboriously tabbing through everything else in between?
Just press B. Of course, just as with a web page, System Access will automatically recognize when you’re in an edit box, so you can just type; there’s no switching between modes.
We’re using Windows modern apps as the initial proving ground for this concept, but we believe it can be applied much more widely. You may have already noticed that by default, System Access now webifies the Windows task bar. We recognize that you might prefer the old way of navigating the task bar, so you can choose not to webify it. But we encourage you to try it and let it grow on you. And we look forward to extending our Webify technology even further. For example, the Ribbon in Microsoft Office has long been a source of confusion. But just wait until we webify it within the next few months; we believe that will make it easier than ever to explore all that Microsoft Office has to offer. As a preview, you will soon have the option to webify the Ribbon in WordPad.
And of course, we welcome your feedback on other aspects of Windows and popular applications that can benefit from being webified. Ultimately, we want you to be able to learn just one way to use your computer, and have it just work everywhere.
Windows 10’s rough edges
In some ways, Windows 10 is even bolder than Windows 8 was. A case in point is Windows 10’s new web browser, Microsoft Edge. Edge is a drastic change from Internet Explorer, and this level of change was bound to impact users of screen readers and other assistive technologies. System Access has some experimental support for Edge, but it’s nowhere near ready for everyday use yet. Like other third-party screen reader developers, we are still waiting for Edge’s accessibility support to mature. According to a blog post from the Edge team late last month, Edge’s accessibility support is still “getting to good”. Microsoft continues to recommend that users of third-party screen readers use Internet Explorer for now. Naturally, we agree with that recommendation.
So what happened? Why isn’t Edge ready to use with third-party screen readers, despite the long preview period for Windows 10? Naturally, we can’t speak for other assistive technology developers. But we at Serotek were surprised by just how completely the Microsoft Edge team broke with the legacy of Internet Explorer, particularly when it comes to accessibility. For as long as we’ve been in the screen reader business, our methods of accessing content in Internet Explorer, via Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) and the Document Object Model (DOM) interface, have been more or less unchanged. But Edge throws all of that out and introduces a brand new way of accessing web pages, based on Microsoft’s newer UI Automation (UIA) interface. This level of “out with the old, in with the new” is unprecedented in our experience; even the infamous Windows Vista didn’t change anything this drastically.
Naturally, the brand new accessibility implementation in Edge isn’t perfect. We have provided our feedback to Microsoft, and we will continue to do so as Edge’s accessibility support matures. When it’s ready, we will fully embrace Edge as the preferred web browser for Windows 10. We look forward to the day when Serotek users can benefit from the excellent work that the Edge team has done to produce a modern, standards-compliant, secure, and fast web browser for Windows.
The impact of Edge extends beyond the Edge web browser itself. For example, the Cortana app uses the Edge browsing engine to display search results and other information. Some other apps, such as Groove Music, are also based on Edge. As Edge’s accessibility and System Access’s support for Edge improve, access to these other applications will improve as well.
There are some other aspects of Windows 10 that are brand new and not yet usable with System Access and other third-party screen readers. For example, the Mail app in Windows 10 is not yet accessible. Stay tuned for future developments on that front as well.
In short, Windows 10 brings dramatic changes on many fronts, and like the operating system itself, accessibility on Windows 10 is still a work in progress. We at Serotek look forward to continued improvements in the accessibility of Windows 10, and we will take full advantage of Microsoft’s ongoing work to provide the best possible user experience on this exciting new operating system.
Sero, the future of SAMNet and iBlink Radio
Of course, we realize that today’s online world is a lot bigger than Windows. People expect to access their favorite content, social networks, and services wherever they are, whether on the go with a smartphone, around the house with a tablet, or while sitting in front of the TV. Our slogan, “accessibility anywhere”, is just an empty phrase unless we embrace these platforms too.
We were quick to recognize the importance of these newer platforms. When Apple took the unprecedented step of adding built-in accessibility to the iPhone in 2009, we jumped at the chance to bring some of our content to this exciting new platform, and iBlink Radio was the first iOS app to cater specifically to the blind community. We later expanded iBlink Radio to provide access to much of the content on SAMNet. Today, in addition to iOS, iBlink Radio is available for Android, Amazon Fire OS, and the Mac.
However, we realize that the level of access to our content, community, and services has become inconsistent across platforms. Some important aspects of SAMNet, such as voice chat, remain exclusive to Windows, while others, such as the forums, are currently unavailable on Android.
We also recognize that our branding is confusing. What is the System Access Mobile Network, and what exactly does it have to do with System Access the screen reader? And why is SAMNet buried in the iBlink Radio app?
We know you like things to be simple, and so do we. That’s why we’re unifying our content and services under one app and one name across all platforms. We call it Sero, which means “connected”. The Sero app will give you a consistent interface to all of the content and services that you love from iBlink Radio and SAMNet, across Windows, iOS, Android, and Mac. Yes, this means that voice chat, along with voice messages on the forums, will be coming to iOS, Android, and Mac. You will no longer have to be chained to your computer to hang out with your friends in our popular voice chat rooms.
Of course, there are always new platforms and devices on the horizon.
For example, you can find the iBlink Radio app on the fourth-generation Apple TV. When we release Sero, it will be available on the Apple TV at the same time that we release it for the other platforms. Note that there will be some limitations in Sero for Apple TV; for example, third-party apps don’t currently have access to the microphone in the Apple TV remote, so there will be no voice chat on the Apple TV. But we will bring as much of Sero as we can to this exciting new platform. And when Amazon eventually sees fit to make their Fire TV devices accessible, Sero will be there as well.
In short, Sero will take accessibility anywhere to a whole new level. On your computer, on your tablet, on TV and on the road, Serotek continues to evolve right alongside your personal needs.
For current customers, we appreciate you sticking with us through these exciting changes. For prospective customers, what are you waiting for to jump in and try us out for yourself?