Happy 20th Birthday, JAWS for Windows

Episode 102 of Freedom Scientific’s FSCast podcast reminds us that 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the JAWS for Windows screen reader. In fact, Jonathan Mosen reminds us that January is, in fact, the month in which JAWS turned 20. I remember installing and using JFW 1.0 back in January of 1995 and I thought I’d dedicate this short blog post to some of my early memories of that product and of that time in general.
In 1995, I was working for Blazie Engineering providing technical support. Windows 3.1 was a fairly well-established operating system with several Windows screen readers already available, including Blazie’s own Windows Master which I believe was already out at that time. While I had used Windows 3.1 and was familiar with it on a very basic level, I was a dedicated DOS user. While I was very familiar with Vocal-eyes and JAWS for DOS, ASAP from Microtalk was my screen reader of choice, along with a trusty Braille ‘n Speak as my speech synthesizer.
It was during the end of 1994 or the very beginning of 1995 when we received our boxed copy of JAWS for Windows 1.0, with January 19, 1995 being the official launch date of that product. If you really want to read a piece of classic assistive technology history, you can, courtesy of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, read the December 1994 Henter-Joyce newsletter which, among other things, contains the big announcement regarding JFW 1.0.
Around this time, I found out that I had enlarged tonsils which needed to be removed. As I constantly used my voice to do my job, it was recommended that I stay home for two weeks during my recuperation. This was, I decided, the perfect time to finally dive into Windows 3.1 with our new copy of JAWS for Windows, version 1.0.
The box contained a collection of cassette tapes with tutorials recorded by Eric Damery and Ted Henter. Eric’s voice is very familiar to JAWS users as he annually introduces the new features which are being added to new JAWS versions. Eric has participated in these recordings since the very beginning of JFW and, even in the 1.0 days, was a fabulous and professional presenter. I think that the product was often referred to as JFW or JAWS for Windows more than it is today as Henter-Joyce wanted to distinguish it from the other JAWS product which ran on DOS machines.
Once I listened to some of the tutorials, I installed the product onto my Windows 3.1 machine from the included 3.5 inch floppy disks, followed by the authorization key, also on a floppy, a form of copy protection I had previously never heard of and was having some difficulty wrapping my mind around. After all, in those days most software packages never had any sort of copy protection; you installed it and then used it.
Well, the installation and authorization process went smoothly and, soon thereafter, I had JFW working with my trusty Bns 640. After all, for the most part we had no software-based synthesizers at that time and so you needed a bns, Accent, Artic, Audapter, Dec-talk or Doubletalk to get speech, with no Braille support at that time.
They wanted JFW to feel like JAWS for DOS by giving it a PC cursor as well as a JAWS cursor. It included the insert-G hotkey to label graphics and the insert-T hotkey to read the window title, two features we didn’t really need in DOS. Insert-down arrow was the “say all” key and the other keys on the numeric keypad tried to emulate what we were used to with JFD. I remember that first version crashing quite a lot but this was quickly fixed in an update which I probably downloaded from the Henter-Joyce BBS.
If you’re curious about what was added in JFW 2.0, you can go to their announcement on an old version of the Henter-Joyce home page, also courtesy of the Internet Archive.
Those early versions would have seemed so limited to us compared to what we have today, but back then it was cutting-edge technology. The JAWS cursor could only move within the active window. When using the Internet, you had to press insert-f5 to reformat the page, which you read using the JAWS cursor. You couldn’t freely navigate through a Web page using standard reading commands with the PC cursor the way you can with any screen reader today. If my memory is correct, that capability didn’t get implemented until version 3.31. In fact, the ability to use single letter navigation keys, such as pressing H for heading or N to jump to the next block of text wasn’t even implemented until a later version, probably around 3.5.
What more can I say, except a happy 20th birthday to JFW, or JAWS as we now call it. JAWS has certainly come a long way in the past 20 years. I wonder what it will be like 20 years from now. I’m sure that it will be supporting Windows 43 or whatever OS Microsoft will have pushed out to us and we’ll all have fond memories of running our screen readers on those ancient, primitive Windows 7 computers. It’s too bad that the Internet Archive doesn’t supply us with snapshots of pages from the future.

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