Recently, Aaron Leventhal wrote a tremendous article called "Firefox: an open source accessibility success story." I strongly encourage readers to take a look at the story as it gives you some insight as to how a lot of passion and a little support from a large corporation can help transform an industry with open source.
A few years ago, David Boloker convinced me to leave IBM research to join IBM's Emerging Technology team in Software Group and establish ground breaking accessibility infrastructures to enable these new technologies to be adopted. To do this, I needed crack, passionate, accessibility veterans like Aaron to make this happen in order to allow these technologies to be used by people with a broad range of disabilities. Before bringing in Aaron, our goal was to make accessible rich internet applications a reality. This was well before AJAX added the excitement to "Web 2.0" applications. In order to address the accessibility of these applications I needed a strategy that encompassed browsers, open standards, documentation, industry awareness, component reuse, assistive technologies, and tooling. Going the IE route was not going to happen. Microsoft was focused more on XAML than web-related activities and they appeared to be investing little in IE at the time. The obvious choice was Mozilla and open source which would also leverage IBM's browser team. Mozilla also offered cross-platform opportunities.
I had known Aaron since his days at Raised Dot Computing and of his passionate work on Mozilla. Aaron was working at AOL at the time who had recently worked out a deal to adopt IE as their browser which left the Mozilla accessibility work unfinished. Aaron also owned the accessibility modules for the Mozilla foundation. After a period of time I was able to get Aaron on board.
Aaron's first task was to establish a Mozilla browser as an accessible alternative to IE on Windows and weave the rich Internet application accessibility support, I had initiated in the W3C, to prove the standards worked. What Aaron needed was assistive technology support and we were able to establish that through work with GW Micro and then later with Freedom Scientific. I can't count the number of hours that Aaron put in but it reminded me of the days IBM developers worked on OS/2 around the clock. In October 2005 IBM announced Firefox as an accessible browser which supported rich internet applications. This hit when the excitement about Firefox was huge and what happened next is largely due to AAron's passion for accessibility and the IBM announcement.
Aaron managed to gather NFB support for Firefox as an accessible browser. Aaron worked with Frank Hecker at the Mozilla Foundation to establish an accessibility grant program. Aaron also helped establish the first VPAT for a browser which clearly stated its compliance to U.S. Federal regulations. IE's compliance is buried in the compliance of the Windows desktop and other browsers just don't state compliance. The article states numerous open source projects around the Firefox browser created by this grants program. As a result of this work, Firefox is clearly being established as the most accessible browser. It has shown how open source development can be used to solve the most critical accessibility problems. It has also allowed IBM to consider many more open source initiatives in the accessibility space such as we are doing on Linux.[Read More]