On May 19, we celebrated Global Accessibility Awareness Day. It is ironic that, four days earlier on May 15, GW Micro (VFO) announced the news that the Window-Eyes screen reader would cease development. All users who were using the commercial version of Window-Eyes would be entitled to upgrade to JAWS, with users of version 9.0 or later being given the chance to receive a JAWS 18 license at no additional cost. Users of the free Window-Eyes for Users of Microsoft Office version, such as myself, are an exception and would not be entitled to upgrade to JAWS at a discount price.
This news was both sad and, for many, hardly unexpected. After AI Squared became a part of VFO Group, Jonathan Mosen interviewed David Wu on Freedom Scientific’s FSCast podcast. Mr. Wu was formerly CEO of AI Squared and is now VP of Software Business at VFO. While Mr. Wu tried to keep the tone very positive and upbeat, reading between the lines made it clear to me that JAWS and Zoomtext were VFO’s more popular products and Mr. Wu seemed a bit less reassuring when discussing MAGic or Window-Eyes, although these are clearly my own impressions of the FSCast interview from June of 2016. Maybe he didn’t mean to present that impression but that’s what I came away with when I heard the podcast. Perhaps it’s true that JAWS is the world’s most popular screen reader. I’ve been a user of JAWS since version 1.0 shipped on several floppy disks, along with Eric Damery and Ted Henter providing tutorials on cassette tapes, and I’ve seen the program evolve into a powerful and capable screen reader. JAWS 18 is most definitely one of the most feature-rich screen readers you could install onto your Windows computer and its popularity is certainly well-deserved. However, one of the things which I value is consumer choice. While I regularly use Microsoft Office 365 to perform the majority of my word processing tasks I am grateful that we have worthy alternatives, such as the free LibreOffice, to allow users to perform similar tasks using quality software. While I respect the feature set of Microsoft Outlook I prefer to use Mozilla Thunderbird for sending, reading and sorting email while I’m at home.
The same is true for screen readers. I’ve already expressed my admiration for JAWS and feel that it’s an amazing access package. However, for financial reasons I use NVDA as my screen reader of choice and occasionally have used the free version of Window-Eyes for users of Microsoft Office. Consumer choice is an important thing when it comes to access. One screen reader may meet the needs of an individual more than another, for a variety of reasons. Sadly, VFO buying AI Squared has taken one of these choices away from us, which I feel is a tremendous loss.
I’ve been a trainer and, to some extent, a user of Window-Eyes since the late 1990s. It offered some very unique features and capabilities which, in some ways, weren’t always available in other screen readers and I’d like to take some time to celebrate the unique features Window-Eyes brought to the table.
First, let’s consider the way we browse the Web using our preferred browser of choice. Nowadays, screen readers are able to reformat complex Web pages and render them in the same way that a word processor opens a document, allowing the user to navigate the Web page using standard arrow key navigation. This is now a given and something we’ve come to expect when using a screen reader on the Web. This capability exists with JAWS, NVDA and in VoiceOver on the Mac. However, it was Window-Eyes which was one of the first screen readers to offer this feature, a year or so before JAWS implemented it, if memory serves. True, in those early days it took a long time for some Web pages to load and so the feature wasn’t always a joy to use. Admittedly, when JAWS implemented the feature they did it much better in those days, with Web pages loading very quickly. Over the years, Window-Eyes improved by also loading pages much faster but the point is that Window-Eyes may have been one of the first screen readers to have pioneered that feature which we all take for granted now. As an update, I have changed the wording to this section as I was reminded of a feature known as Web Pilot, found in Artic’s Winvision, which may well have been the first screen reader to have offered this capability.
Window-Eyes was also the first screen reader to support Mozilla Firefox, something which we now enjoy with JAWS as well as NVDA. Back in the day, if you were a screen reader user and you wanted to browse the Web you had to use Internet Explorer. Other browsers, at least in Windows, just weren’t an option. I believe that Window-Eyes was the first screen reader to give us access to Mozilla Firefox.
Window-Eyes is probably the only screen reader with the capability of launching with speech, when possible, in safe mode. This is a feature I have yet to encounter in other screen readers.
If your system’s volume was muted or at a low level, Window-Eyes could be configured to load, forcing the volume to be unmuted and raising the volume level. This solves the problem where someone accidentally or intentionally muted your speakers, causing a minor nightmare when you tried to load your screen reader and receive no speech output. These are capabilities I’d love to see in other screen readers, such as NVDA and JAWS.
One of my favorite Window-Eyes features is actually something which was probably in the earliest versions and was also found in the Vocal-Eyes screen reader for DOS. The feature to which I’m referring was known as cursor keys. It differed from the other hotkeys in that, with hotkeys, the function you assign to a key bypassed that key’s original function. In other words, if you assign the hotkey ctrl+L to read the current line under the caret or cursor the line would be spoken when the key was pressed. However, if you pressed that hotkey while in Word to left justify your text the key wouldn’t function, instead reading the current line (unless you used the Bypass key first.) However, the cursor keys feature was unique in that the original function of the key you chose to define would not be lost. Therefore, if you wanted the Home key to speak the current character you could assign that function to the Home key, without interfering with the key’s original function. When the key was pressed, the key would move the cursor to the beginning of the line as designed, followed by the function or functions you assigned to that key. This allowed for some amazing flexibility which is not even available with JAWS, unless you’re willing to learn scripting.
Speaking of scripting, I’ll end my Window-Eyes memories with a discussion of that program’s most amazing feature, utilized in a way not found in other screen readers.
Starting with version 7.0, Window-Eyes added the ability for its users to write customized scripts in order to add additional functionality to the screen reader. Many people may be quick to remind me that JAWS has had this feature since the very beginning, first with giving users the ability to write macros and, starting with JFW version 3.0, calling them scripts. While this is true, there are some differences in the way this capability was being offered.
First, GW Micro allowed its users, as well as their staff, to upload scripts to a central repository on their Web site known as Script Central. Later, they made the brilliant decision to do a bit of rebranding and scripts, which sound scary and challenging, became apps, which sound like a lot of fun. Let’s face it; nobody knows anything about what a script is but anybody with a smartphone or tablet is an expert on apps. With this change, Script Central became App Central and Window-Eyes had its very own, user-friendly app store. Apps were quite plentiful, grouped into categories and users could add their own comments on the various apps which they liked. Window-Eyes even came with an app which allowed for easy navigation to this specialized app store. Apps could then easily be downloaded and installed, using similar screens which you would encounter when installing any piece of software. You could navigate through the Window-Eyes Apps menu to examine the list of apps you had installed and could easily remove apps you no longer wanted. Apps could even alert you when they had updates and those updates could easily be installed. The concept was positively ingenious. I never understood why JAWS, with its powerful scripting language, never offered a similar repository. In the screen reader’s early days Henter-Joyce did offer some scripts on its Web site but this is no longer the case. If you want to locate scripts for your copy of JAWS you must locate them on third-party Web sites.
To be quite honest, Window-Eyes was far from perfect. In spite of its innovative features there were times when I felt I was using a not quite ready for prime-time beta, rather than a final release. Of course, no software is without its bugs but, to me, it always felt as though Window-Eyes had more than its share of them and I sometimes found it to be frustrating to use.
In spite of this I still feel that the assistive technology landscape has been greatly diminished at having one less screen reader for users to work with. It is a regrettable consequence of AI Squared becoming a part of VFO Group and I am sorry for all users of Window-Eyes who are now forced to switch to a new screen reader.
In closing, I would first like to ask VFO to respectfully consider donating the Window-Eyes source code to the community for further development. If you feel that you no longer wish to develop the screen reader please consider releasing it to the community as there are many Window-Eyes users who don’t want to see the demise of their favorite screen reader.
Finally, I would like to thank the developers of GW Micro, both for their work with Vocal-Eyes for DOS as well as with Window-Eyes. You have made an important and memorable contribution to users of blindness assistive technology. I sincerely thank you for providing us with a unique, easy to use and customizable screen reader.