- Can an accessible solution be provided?
- If so, can the time needed to do this be warranted?
- Can an accessible solution be provided in the interim?
- Can work in this space produce more accessible solutions?
- Can the cost of an accessible solution targeted at open standards and open source solutions benefit the user?
On November 5th I attended an ODF summit sponsored by IBM and Sun at the IBM Learning center in Armonk. The event was clearly about history, preserving state sovereignty, and putting a roadmap together for an accessible solution. My presence here helps to answer these questions.
1. The answer to this is of course yes. IBM is in fact doing that now for Workplace.
2. To answer this question it is important to understand the motivation behind Peter Quinn's move to take the state from proprietary to open formats and from proprietary to open source. In other words how did the state get to where they are today. This was captured in his "Open Format Freedom Fighters Forum" keynote. The state has a $24.4B dollar budget: 90,000 employees and contractors, with an annual IT spend of $700M. In 2003 it's challenges were massive legacy applications, limited maintenance, lots of heterogeneity, few sustainable processes, and the need to preserve history in a format that is accessible by all. This created a "perfect storm" analogy that seldom comes around.
The state's path to open standards and open source is an effort to bring some "common sense" to the commonwealth where they can build solutions that everyone else can have. The CIO office wanted to share code across state boundaries but the lawyers prevented it. They also wanted to preserve history in their documents. Much of the states documents are in proprietary document formats. Newer proprietary formats are not always backward compatible. Over time the loss of state history becomes a serious concern. Peter gave the open standards analogy of a toilet for which I will try to summarize:
Today you buy a toilet and no matter how many features it has you may install it in your house without a lot of worry. The reason is that all houses have a standard drain pipe, standard wax seal, and standard water hook ups. Now if you follow the "Gates model" you go out and buy the new Microsoft toilet that requires a special sized drain pipe when you build your home. Twenty years later the toilet breaks and you need to go buy a new one. You find one you like and you bring it home for installation and discover that the new toilet does not fit the drain. You find that in order to install it you need to buy the special "Balmer adapter." This assumes someone is still selling the adapter. The state's concern is best captured in a recent David Berlind article. Simon Phipps (Sun) summarized it in one of his witty one-liners: "ODF is about avoiding corporate Alzheimer's."
The concerns of the state go far beyond saving money on licensing costs for proprietary solutions. Preserving history and bringing sanity to the state are more than valid reasons for the state's moving toward an open document format. To do this, the state should take the time to produce an accessible solution. It was clear that Peter Quinn wanted to make that happen.
3. An interim solution can be defined; in fact they have an accessible solution now. The state should execute on a parallel track to work with industry to build an accessible solution.
4. There is definitely an opportunity to build a more accessible solution. The existing office products are considered accessible because assistive technology vendors support them. However, just because a company claims they have accessibility support does not always mean they have a usable solution. At IBM the accessibility and usability of PowerPoint documents is a real problem. We have an opportunity for the industry to build more accessible document formats and think solidly about how they can be delivered interoperably with assistive technologies to improve their usability. We have an opportunity to garner user involvement up front and use that to impact the design of the accessibility support. We can also do this on more than one operating system. Members of OASIS at the meeting agreed to form a subcommittee to address the accessibility of ODF.
5. Today blind users of IT will go out and purchase a screen reader. The cost of that screen reader can run up to $1400. Some assistive technologies are customizable and others are not. If solutions were open source it gives an opportunity for users and industry to enhances the assistive technology solution without waiting for the latest update. Furthermore, users would not be required to purchase such solutions. The use of open standards for interoperability allows for commonality of the infrastructure. This is a real problem on Windows where platform evolution has resulted in a plethora of proprietary APIs, used for accessibility, and is arguably one of the reasons for the high prices of Windows assistive technologies. Comprehensive open standards for accessibility, like those being developed for Gnome, reduce the cost of ensuring an interoperable solution as ell as the time to market for an assistive technology. When I worked on Screen Reader/2 it took us 3-4 years to build a screen reader. At this time, no comprehensive accessibility API existed. When we developed the Self Voicing Kit for Java it took us 6 months to build a working solution and with a greater level of accessibility. This was because we had developed a single, engineered, accessibility API.
Despite the obvious benefits for moving to open formats, Peter has an uphill battle. The senate oversight committee wants to remove control of how IT is specified away from the state's IT department. Peter Quinn had 3 bullets to describe this in his pitch:
- creates total gridloc
- defies logic
This debate most assuredly will rage on. Meanwhile, members at the ODF Summit are forging plans to meet the state's ITD accessibility goals. Some of these members include IBM and Sun with extensive accessibility skills and resources.