When I first met Richard Stallman, he described his philosophy as “information anarchism” and explained his vision for a future of free software in which individuals and corporations voluntarily donate money to support the programmers bringing them free, libre and open source technologies. Stallman’s dream has been the NVDA reality for many years now. NVDA comes from an entirely unregulated system of voluntary donations and has allowed Mick Curren and Jamie Teh to deliver one of the best screen readers ever built to a community yearning for its independence, freedom from Freedom Scientific and its high priced competitors if you will.
Last week, my good friends and business partners, Christopher “Q” Toth and Tyler Spivey took the anarchy to another level, they found that this community would donate its hard earned dollars to an entirely independent effort. The power centers for screen reading had been based in St. Petersburg, Fort Wayne, Orlando/Minnesota and in the UK. Q and Tyler have acted in a manner that shows that some true authority can be derived directly from end users, they stepped up, took on the leadership of a single task (building NVDA Remote Access) and the community took notice, donated the dollars the boys had set as a goal and, soon, all of us will have a really cool free addition to an awesome free screen reader.
The NVDA RA team had an amazing week during the fundraising push. What everyone involved agrees is that we’re witnessing history; what we can’t entirely figure out is whether or not the NVDA RA campaign was a fluke, a one-off or if, indeed, we are experiencing an actual paradigm shift and a reassignment of leadership from a small number of gatekeepers to a profoundly more democratic and anarchistic model for the future. Thus, on a personal level, I know that I had made some major misassumptions in my evaluation of the effort prior to the campaigns launch as, quite frankly, I didn’t expect to see so many of the big dollar donations coming from blind individuals. I hadn’t the confidence in our community to be willing to invest as heavily and as quickly in their own future as they did last week. Hence, the rest of this article will contain internal contradictions, some likely incorrect assumptions and will likely meander into and out of notions without making any strict conclusions. What happened last week with NVDA Remote Access may be a fluke, a one-off and may never be replicated again. I hope that this isn’t the case, I hope NVDA RA set a precedent and established a model that people in this community who find a leadership vacuum can use to do many more projects this way in the future. As NVDA RA represents exactly one data point, people who care about statistics (like me) have no actual data from which we can draw conclusions but I think we can make some inferences about the future from this single event.
Thus, what follows are my thoughts on the events we witnessed last week. You may have vastly different ideas on the matter and, please, post them in the comments section as I’m trying to learn as much as I can from this event and I suspect others will be interested in your notions as well. On this happening, I’m not an expert, I’m just a guy who watched the thing unfold and was exhilarated by its success.
In the original version of this article, I stated that JAWS Tandem, a feature similar to NVDA Remote Access came at an extra cost to its users. A commenter pointed out that this was not true and, after a quick Google search, I saw on the Freedom Scientific web site that, indeed, JAWS Tandem comes at no extra cost to people who buy a JAWS license. I apologize for this mistake and have corrected it in the text that follows. Thanks for the diligence Mr. Commenter!
I also had written that “less than half” of the NVDA RA contributions came from English speaking nations. I was working from memory of a conversation on TeamTalk and was just reminded that the English speaking world contributed closer to 65% of the contributions and only 40% had come from US.
I had mentioned that Mick Curren and Jamie Teh, the guys who created NVDA, were both college drop-outs. Jamie sent me a tweet this morning and a commenter pointed out that this is true for Mick but not for Jamie. Sorry about that.
Freedom From Freedom?
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, And, nothing ain’t worth nothing if it ain’t free,” Kris Kristofferson.
The NVDA screen reader is free software. This means that it can be used, redistributed and enjoyed in any way possible for no cost. It also means that the source code is available to anyone interested in using it for any reason allowable under the GPL 2 license. JAWS, the screen reader from Freedom Scientific comes with a price tag over $1000. I believe, based in comments posted in the article I wrote on this blog announcing NVDA RA and some of the chatter on Twitter surrounding the Indie Go-Go campaign, that some of the people who donated to the NVDA RA campaign were motivated to contribute in order to afford themselves and the rest of the community a level of freedom from Freedom and its high prices.
JAWS and NVDA are similar but not identical beasts. Some blind users who need access to a handful of specific technologies (Citrix for instance) have no choice but to continue using JAWS as NVDA, at this point in history, has no support for such. Conversely, there are a lot of screen reader users, especially those in technology related professions, who have no choice but to use NVDA as JAWS and its high priced competitors have largely ignored many of the tools they need to do their work.
WebAIM published marketshare statistics that showed that, on Windows, JAWS was holding a share around 55% with NVDA coming in around 22%. This data was gathered in a self selecting survey so is less than scientific. The WebAIM survey was also only done in English so it’s likely that few people from non-English speaking locales participated. The other night, as Q and I went over the tracking information from the NVDA RA Indie Go-Go campaign, one surprise was that only about 65%of the money contributed came from English speaking countries. It’s possible, therefore, that NVDA may actually have a larger share when viewed on a global basis. As the market data comes from a self selecting survey, it’s also possible that JAWS, because of its popularity in corporate and government installations, may also be underrepresented as users may not have gone to the WebAIM site to fill in the survey form while at work. If one looks at all five years that WebAIM has published this information, though, they will see that the trend lines show that NVDA is the only Windows screen reader that has shown growth in marketshare in each of the years described in the data.
Any regular reader of this blog will know that I’ve railed against the lack of competition in screen reading many times. With NVDA approaching a quarter of all Windows screen reader installations, Freedom Scientific is, for the first time since 1998 when JAWS and Window-Eyes were tied with an approximately 35% share, actually feeling some heat.
Will FS respond to this new found competition, possibly based in the fact that NVDA costs nothing and FS gets more than a thousand bucks for JAWS with a price cut? Probably not. I haven’t worked at FS for more than a decade but, back then, we discussed the possibility of a free or no cost screen reader coming onto the market and how we might respond. Our strategy then and likely now was that, if we felt competitive pressure from a low or no cost solution, we would raise the price of JAWS. As I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago, there are technologies that one can only access using JAWS and the FS strategy was to make sure we kept our profits high by “eating the rich.” I don’t know if FS will respond this way ten and a half years later but, as NVDA RA adds a feature to NVDA that one needed to buy JAWS to get, , they may need to find a way to replace the dollars on their bottom line and may, in fact, respond by increasing the price of JAWS.
The Leadership Vacuum
Roughly ten years ago, Mick Curren and Jamie Teh, two very young blind individuals came up with the idea that they could build a competitive Windows screen reader on their own. Most old timers around the access technology game actually laughed out loud. A couple of kids in Australia might take a stab at the problem, they might make a toy screen reader, they’ll get the stuff the API delivers properly maybe but little else. Over time, though, Mick and Jamie proved to the world that, following Richard Stallman’s dream process of accepting only voluntary contributions, a couple of smart individuals could, in fact, build a screen reader that can compete with JAWS and crush Window-Eyes, SystemAccess and the Dolphin products in the marketshare wars. Mick and Jamie and the people and companies who contributed to the effort showed true leadership while most of the traditional gatekeepers, both formal and otherwise, ignored the question of whether or not it would be better if our community had a free solution as an alternative to the costly proprietary screen readers.
My questions are, “Why did two individuals need to lead the free screen reader project? Where were NFB, AFB, ACB and the other so called advocacy organizations and why have they been so silent on this matter? Why don’t the traditional leaders understand that it is immoral, unethical and possibly illegal in some locales to ask blind people to pay a penny more than our sighted peers to use the same technology?”
I contend that the traditional leaders in the blindness and technology community dropped the ball many years ago and, for reasons of their own, chose to act like ostriches, stick their heads into the sand and pretend this issue didn’t exist. They are not real leaders, people like Mick and Jamie are the real leadership in our community.
If we cannot depend on the traditional advocacy organizations to provide leadership and if old timers like me continue to stand on the sidelines, if FS continues to allow JAWS to decay and the other commercial screen readers continue to be poorly funded, who are the leaders in our community? In the NVDA case, it was two guys, with NVDA Remote Access, it was, once again, two guys, Christopher Toth and Tyler Spivey. The leadership vacuum regarding technology and blindness was so intense that these guys, when they saw a need for a free solution, got sucked into a leadership role.
NVDA is a huge and complex piece of software that, to date, has taken something like ten years to develop. NVDA Remote Access, however, is a relatively straight forward programming task, it’s not innovative in any way (it’s pretty similar to JAWS Tandem, the similar feature in Window-Eyes and RIM from Serotek) so it contains no problems that haven’t already been solved by someone else previously. NVDA RA is unique in that it will be available to end users at no cost and its source code will be available to anyone with Python programming skills to extend, improve and hack on forever. Almost anyone with some coding and fundraising skills could have elected to do this project at any time in the past few years; Q and Tyler wanted the feature so they grabbed the reigns and took the leadership role when everyone else refused to do so. It’s possible that you, the folks who read this blog, can also step up and become a leader in this field, you too can be a leader who makes a big contribution.
The other change in the leadership we might be witnessing is that the community itself, as in the theoretical anarchism Stallman describes, is taking control of its own destiny by voting with their dollars. With NVDA and NVDA RA,, hundreds of blind individuals chose to buy for themselves the leadership they want. In this example, every donor, whether they gave $5 or $250, took on part of the leadership role by deciding what technology we use by taking charge of a portion of the funding model. I wish that the traditional leaders (NFB and the like) had realized the importance of a free solution, alas, in a democratic uprising, the community, led by Mick and Jamie, Q and Tyler, did the leading in a distributed manner.
If you’re reading this article, you might be the next leader in this space. I encourage as many people as possible to step up and take the bull by the balls and run with a project. It’s obvious that we cannot wait for any of the leaders from history so, do something, lead!
My Role In NVDA RA
Since announcing the NVDA Remote Access campaign on this blog last Tuesday, I’ve received a number of inquiries asking me what my role has been in the project. Some people have privately suggested to me that they thought I am leading the project from behind the scenes, something that could not be further from the truth. I am not, in any way, a puppet master pulling the strings from behind a curtain. In fact, my role has been fairly minimal in this effort. Others have suggested that this is a 3 Mouse Technology effort, an easy mistake as Q, Tyler and I are all involved in 3MT and we’re all named on the Indie Go-Go as team members. In fact, NVDA RA is a project unattached to any organization, it’s a private project being done by the two guys writing the code.
NVDA RA was born as an idea when Q and Tyler were chatting on TeamTalk and realized that they wanted to have this feature in NVDA. They banged out a prototype and Q then took over the project. I was struggling with a health problem when this all started, I was not present for the conversations nor did I do anything at all to help its development. Q spent the time and did the work to get the NVDA RA story to as many people as he could, he managed every step of the process and he’s the true leader on this effort.
I have helped in a few ways. I wrote a few drafts of the statement you might have read on the Indie Go-Go page but the final text was done by Joe Orozco, a friend of the project. I’ve provided some free advice which was probably worth less than the guys paid for it and it was my idea to ask the silken voiced Ricky Enger to record a demo. I helped push out the campaign here on the blog and I made a lot of noise for a few days on Twitter trying to drive my followers to the campaign page but I’m following Q’s direction on all of this.
The fact is, I’m an old guard access technology guy. I hadn’t the imagination to even believe that a crowdsourced effort would gain so much traction and actually meet its goal. I was surprised by the campaign’s success and how rapidly it met its numbers. I’d be a terrible leader on this project as I simply wasn’t creative enough to think this would be possible and, if one cannot even imagine the possibilities, they absolutely cannot be a leader.
Free Software And Security
As I wrote back in January, we’ve seen a couple of very public security breaches in the proprietary access technology world recently. NVDA and NVDA RA are free (as in freedom) software, a company or individual concerned with potential security defects can, only with NVDA and its components, perform a security audit on the source code and be as confident as their expertise will allow that the software contains no security defects. Plain and simply, this is entirely impossible with JAWS, Window-Eyes, the Serotek or Dolphin products to have the same level of confidence as, without the source code, users must trust the publishers to sell them software that they cannot audit independently. For all intents and purposes, the more people who can look at the source code, the more likely it is that bugs of all kinds will be found and fixed, a feature of NVDA that simply doesn’t exist in any other screen reader.
It’s true that few individuals will have the skills to perform their own security audit. I certainly can’t perform this kind of work, I don’t know Python and security isn’t my speciality. I do, however, feel much more confident while using NVDA, though, as others expert in security can do such a review and, in a corporate setting, a company with a high level of security requirements can afford to hire professional security auditors to review the source code.
Is Crowdsourcing A Model For The Future?
As I say at the top of this article, I don’t know. NVDA has been crowdsourced from day one and has been a tremendous success. NVDA RA hit its fundraising goals in less than two days. Freedom Scientific is feeling marketshare pressure for the first time in a decade and other proprietary screen readers are falling in popularity. Is this model a plan for the future? All I can say is that we’ll see.
Mick and Jamie, Q and Tyler are now the true leaders in access technology. They became so because they made personal decisions to take on important projects and did so out of pocket when they started their efforts. They saw holes in the system and they filled them. The people and companies who have contributed to these efforts are also leaders as they have decided where the dollars should go. NVDA is information anarchy at work and its winning the hearts and minds of the community in a way that none of we old time so-called experts could have predicted.
I think we can also conclude that there is a severe problem with the traditional leadership in this community. As a result, we need to, as individuals, step forward and take control, you may be the next big shot in this field, all you need is an idea and the time to do some hard work. You needn’t be a programmer to lead a technology project, it certainly is helpful but, if you’ve got a good idea and can raise enough money, you can hire any number of developers to make your dream into a reality.
It’s also time we start holding the identified leaders to a much higher standard. NFB, ACB and the others have been notably absent on these issues and complete nitwits claiming to be accessibility experts get tons of YouTube views while providing information that is worse than useless as its entirely without actual knowledge of the technology involved. We all need to become harsh critics and, while I’m sure we’ll be writing for years to come, we need more people than just Marco Zehe and I doing serious criticism. Stop worrying if you may hurt the feelings of programmers who deliver crappy accessibility, stop worrying if FS may not like you if you speak up, do the right thing, speak critically, speak frequently and speak loudly as, otherwise, by not doing so you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.