By Curtis Chong
On Oct. 26, 2010, I attended a daylong Mobile Accessibility Roundtable to discuss nonvisual access of Microsoft’s newest entry into the mobile phone market, Windows Phone 7.
Microsoft convened this roundtable at its headquarters in Redmond, Wash, and it was attended by representatives of a number of blindness advocacy organizations, including the National Federation of the Blind, the American Council of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the Royal National Institute of Blind People (from the United Kingdom), Vision Australia, and ONCE (the organization of the blind in Spain).
Prior to the meeting, numerous email messages were circulated, saying that Windows Phone 7 would not be accessible to the blind. It was said that the predecessor to Windows Phone 7, Windows Mobile 6.5, had been made accessible to the blind with the help of the Mobile Speak and Talks screen-reading programs, and these programs would not work with Windows Phone 7. Accessibility advocates wanted to know what Microsoft was going to do about this.
While the news regarding nonvisual access to Windows Phone 7 was not what many of us would have liked (it is not really accessible to the blind today), my natural skepticism was somewhat mitigated by Microsoft’s level of executive commitment to the roundtable.
Andy Lees, president of Microsoft’s Mobile Business, spent a lot of time at the roundtable and stated several times that he was personally committed to ensuring long-term nonvisual access to the Microsoft mobile platform. This commitment was reaffirmed by Rob Sinclair, Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer; Chuck Bilow, Microsoft’s senior program manager responsible for Windows Phone accessibility; and Richard Suplee, a senior product planner in Microsoft’s Mobile Communications Business wing.
Windows Phone 7, we were told, is a “fundamental top-to-bottom rewrite from previous Microsoft mobile operating systems. It is a completely new operating system and user interface, meaning no applications from earlier Microsoft Mobile operating systems will run on Windows Phone 7. No cell phone that can run Windows Mobile 6.5 can run Windows Phone 7.
Microsoft told us it was not technically feasible to build the infrastructure needed to support screen-reading software–no multi-tasking capability, no inter-process communication, and no user interface focus.
So why was it necessary for Microsoft to engage in a total rewrite at all? Simply put, Microsoft felt its Mobile Business was not doing as well as it would like and that an entirely new strategy was required. Hence, Windows Phone 7.
It is regrettable that nonvisual access was one of the first casualties of this effort, and it is also unfortunate that we are not likely to notice any improvement for at least a year. However, during the roundtable, Microsoft did commit to working more closely with the blind community as it develops a nonvisual access solution. Perhaps more significant was the apparent recognition by Microsoft that in order to address issues of accessibility in any meaningful way, the company has to do more to build accessibility into its products directly instead of relying on outside parties to furnish the solution, and in so doing, it must not shut out third-party vendors who are in a position to develop programs that could help to make their products even more usable by the blind.
Can Microsoft build a mobile product that is truly accessible to the blind? If past history is any sort of a guide, the answer to that question is still in doubt. There is little disagreement that over the years, Microsoft has done a lot to enable nonvisual access to the Windows operating system and to some of its more widely-used applications–Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer in particular. However, it is equally true that the majority of products developed and sold by Microsoft today are still not truly nonvisually accessible.
If Microsoft follows through on its commitment to work more closely with organizations of and for the blind to build an accessible mobile product, it is possible for a useful and truly nonvisually-accessible mobile product to emerge. However, if our history with the company has taught us anything, it is that advocates for nonvisual access must continue the pressure for nonvisual access to Microsoft products and regard with cautious optimism the company’s assurances that it will do the right thing on behalf of people who are blind or visually impaired.
It must not be forgotten that historically speaking, nonvisual access has traditionally been the first item to be cut when tough business decisions need to be made. Somehow, Microsoft must be given compelling reasons to build nonvisual access into its mobile product line and to keep it there.
As Lees, president of Microsoft’s Mobile Business, said: “Microsoft’s goal is to deliver platforms, products, and services that are accessible. We recognize that there is more we can do in this respect, and our goal is to develop Windows Phone into a compelling option for people who are blind or visually impaired.”
The challenge is to ensure that Microsoft meets and perhaps exceeds this goal.