The Changing Landscape of the Assistive Technology Industry

I remember when I first began using what we call assistive technology back in the 1980’s. Computers were incredibly expensive and the screen readers which powered them were actually cheaper than those computers. Specialized devices made for blind consumers were produced by companies which exclusively made such products and you had to pay a high premium for those products. As we fast forward through time to the year 2014, things have radically changed and I predict they will continue to do so. Companies in the a.t. industry are developing new and, to some, surprising business models in how they distribute their products and services. Some consumers are asking why this is happening.
In a nutshell, the landscape for computer access, and the computer industry as a whole, has radically changed and producers of screen readers simply can’t use the business model that worked for them in the 1980’s and 1990’s. For Windows users, we now have NVDA, which has become an extremely robust, reliable and stable screen reader. That’s not meant as an advertisement but this has been my personal experience as I continue to use, teach and support consumers in the use of most of the major screen readers. It offers enough features to satisfy most home users, as well as many students who are in school. In January of this year, GW Micro, now AI Squared, turned the industry on its head by offering Window-eyes to consumers who have Microsoft Office 2010 or later installed on their computers, which is a lot of people. With the economy being what it is, state rehab organizations are less likely to want to pay thousands of dollars for access software for a client and this will surely hurt manufacturers of some of the more expensive screen readers. Of course, there will always be visually impaired workers in a corporate environment who will require a screen reader with the power and configuration of JAWS and window-eyes but users at home or who are in school may not always need such a product to get by. I can anticipate the objections that NVDA doesn’t have the power and flexibility of a product like JAWS but for a product which was officially released in 2009 it’s come a long way and additional support for Office is being added, not to mention that NVDA, like most other screen readers, is also scriptable. Let’s also not forget that blind consumers have understandably embraced apple with open arms, due to their commitment to universal accessibility in nearly all of their products. Basically, the economy is struggling and computers and other mainstream devices are becoming less expensive and more accessible all of the time, making the prospect of paying a thousand dollars for an access package very unappealing and, to some, unacceptable.
Therefore, companies which sell products the way they did in the early 1990’s are going to be clobbered by their competition and they must change the way they offer their products. This out of the box strategy could work, assuming it’s the correct strategy. Open source products like LibreOffice come to my mind where the product is free for anyone to download, install or distribute but consumers need to pay if they want support or if they require custom configurations. It’s an intriguing business model and it seems to work if you’ve got the right product. If you’re a state rehabilitation counselor and are responsible and accountable for the money that you spend on your consumers who are requesting software for corporate use, I’ll offer you two choices and I’d like to know which one you’d consider. First, you could purchase a screen reader for a thousand dollars, in addition to paying an hourly fee so that a programmer can write custom scripts to ensure that the screen reader is compatible with the company’s proprietary applications. After all, many companies aren’t just using Microsoft word and Microsoft Outlook as their main suite of programs. Your second choice is to see to it that the free NVDA screen reader or Window-eyes for users of Microsoft Office is installed on your consumer’s computer. Once your consumer’s free screen reader is installed, you might still need to pay someone to write custom scripts but you’ve saved a thousand dollars in purchasing a screen reader.
GW Micro is a great example of a company in the a.t. industry trying to make money in this changing landscape by thinking out of the box. First, finding a convenient way to essentially give away an $895.00 screen reader was a pretty brilliant move on their part. For other companies, it would have been quite risky but I suspect it’s not as much of a risk to them, considering their partnership with Microsoft. Secondly, they actually do charge for several support plans for consumers who chose to get the “window-eyes for Users of Microsoft Office”. Also, they do offer phone-based training for a fee. This type of out of the box strategy is also being done by Fedora Outlier with a service they call the $6 question where they will answer any support question you have for $6.00. That may not make them a ton of money but it’s a brilliant move and nobody else in this field is doing anything quite like that, at least to my knowledge. As I write this, it occurs to me that mainstream companies like Microsoft and Apple are getting the same message and are doing things we wouldn’t have expected even five years ago. Microsoft is essentially giving away new versions of Windows to consumers who are running Win8 or later. Apple is now offering packages like Pages and iBooks for free, at least for new users, and they even gave away the last OSX upgrade for free and I believe Yosemite will also be offered at no cost.
It’s also interesting to note that we’re seeing mainstream companies offer products and services which, years ago, would have only been available through specialized companies and this move, while a welcome one to consumers, is already affecting the assistive technology industry. Dynavox and Tobii have merged and the assistive technology built into the iPad is something which Dynavox couldn’t compete with. In fact, the Guardian Liberty Voice recently published a piece proclaiming that Apple is a leader in the assistive technology field. When I first saw the article, I nodded my head in agreement and didn’t think much about it. But then I thought about what the piece announced. One of the biggest leaders in the assistive technology industry is not one of the well-known or even well-respected companies in this field but instead it’s Apple, one of the biggest mainstream companies on the planet. Once I really started thinking about this it positively blew my mind and I could barely wrap my head around that fact. So, as I said companies, both mainstream as well as adaptive, have to change the way they do business if they want to continue to stay in business. Some of them are doing just that and those are the companies which will likely survive as the industry continues to transform into something totally different and truly wonderful.

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