Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Windows 10: Advisories from screen reader developers and final thoughts

Update (July 29): The official build number is 10240 (1 kilobyte times 10). Also, NV Access and Freedom scientific issued statements on Windows 10 - JAWS and MAGic are compatible as of latest updates, while NVDA 2015.3 includes fixes for Windows 10.

Update (July 13): AI Squared has published more information on Windows 10 support and says Window-Eyes 9.2 or later will be compatible with Windows 10. NV Access has merged Microsoft Edge support into latest next (alpha) snapshots for testing purposes.


In the last article, I talked about history of recent Windows releases, updates on accessibility and upgrade paths. In this article, I'll take you on a behind the scenes tour of activities screen reader developers are doing to support Windows 10, as well as my thoughts on when to upgrade and some predictions.

Windows 10: Still not fully accessible

When we look at progress of accessibility of Windows 10, we see some remarkable improvements. From inability to navigate Start menu items to searching for anything via search box, we've come a long way.

However, just like any man-made structure, Windows 10 has flaws and has room for improvements. The biggest stumbling block is Microsoft Edge, the new web browser from Microsoft which embraces modern standards. However, because it is built on top of a newer rendering engine, coupled with extensive use of UIA, screen reader developers found themselves spending major part of their development time on supporting Edge and controls based on the new engine.

Another issue is accessibility of universal apps. While some apps such as Calendar is usable, others such as certain parts of Insider Hub isn't. Coupled with extensive use of UIA, 100 percent support for universal apps may not materialize for a while.

Windows 10 and screen readers: what's new, what's available and what needs to be done

For some screen reader developers, their greatest fear is when new Windows versions are released. Not only they have to support older Windows versions, they have to deal with newer technologies introduced in the just released version. Blind computer users using screen readers tasted this when Windows 8 was released. With the removal of older display technologies, screen reader vendors found themselves coding alternate ways of accessing screen content to mixed success. This will be more prominent when more universal apps are released once Windows 10 goes live on July 29th.

Because of the display driver fiasco thanks to Windows 8 and due to potential accessibility issues with Microsoft Edge and other technologies, coupled with introduction of Windows Insider program, screen reader users and vendors such as Freedom Scientific, AI Squared, NV Access and others showed keen interest in Windows 10 from early on. For example, users of JAWS 16 installed JAWS on computers or virtual machines running Windows 10 Previews, while some NVDA contributors wrote code to support Windows 10 features such as announcing search suggestions from Cortana and so on. But despite early adoption and mitigation, Windows 10 is far from fully accessible.

As of July 2015, various screen reader vendors published advisories on Windows 10 for users, or set up sites to explain more about Windows 10 support from their screen readers. For instance, Freedom scientific released a build of JAWS 16 that'll at least run on Windows 10, AI Squared announced Window-Eyes 9.0 and onwards will support Windows 10, and NVDA 2015.2 recognizes Windows 10 and NvDA 2015.3 will add support for additional Windows 10 features, according to NV Access. In regards to Microsoft Edge, current screen reader releases does not support it, but vendors promised support for it in a future release.

When to upgrade

Some users may stay up all night on July 28th in order to be the first ones to upgrade to Windows 10. Although this is fine for some, majority of users don't have to upgrade this year. In fact, they have until July 2016 to upgrade to Windows 10 without paying a single penny.

For screen reader users, it is better to wait until screen reader vendors declare support for Windows 10 from their screen readers before upgrading. This can be as early as August when screen readers would be updated to support Windows 10, at least to provide basic support for it. However, it might be best to upgrade early to mid-2016 (before July) when screen reader developers announce advisories on support for Microsoft Edge. This means you might want to wait for JAWS 17 or later, Window-Eyes 9.2 or later, NVDA 2015.3 or later or whatever version of your screen reader supports Windows 10.

Note that the above advisories are for Windows 10 PC editions (Home, Pro, Enterprise, Education). Due to underlying philosophy and API differences, Windows 10 Mobile series will not run third-party screen readers unless this changes in the future.

Predictions on Windows 10 and final impressions and thoughts

One of Microsoft's goals is to have a base of one billion Windows 10 users. Given that Windows 7 will be around until 2020 and Microsoft's track record on accessibility, I expect this goal to not be met for a while.

In regards to overall accessibility, Microsoft is finally coming to terms with power of collaboration: listening to feedback from consumers, working with developers and giving its best at attempts to improve accessibility. Certainly there are rooms for improvement, but we cannot forget the effort that users and developers put in to shaping Windows 10.

If I'm to give a grade to Windows 10, it would be a B- (B minus). If not for continued collaboration with screen reader developers and users, Windows 10 would have been a modern day Windows Vista with a grade of C- (C minus) to C. Windows 10 could have earned at least a B+ (B plus) if Microsoft provided better accessibility implementations in Microsoft Edge, or even a solid A if Narrator was substantially improved or comes up during clean install from start to finish. Time will tell if Windows 10 will become a threshold of improved accessibility.

Thanks. For those upgrading to Windows 10, good luck.


Windows 10: How did we get here, accessibility progress report and editions and upgrade paths


As someone who is excited about trying new things and experienced with life cycle of a software product (from conception to development to release), I sometimes get nervous when waiting for release of a much anticipated product that I rely on. This is more evident if it is something I consider essential, such as iOS, screen readers, Windows and so on. In particular, as the supposed "most comprehensive version of Windows" is just three weeks away, I'm even more nervous about Windows 10, particularly dealing with accessibility. At the same time, I'm happy to report that Microsoft did one thing right: listen to feedback from over five million souls who have joined this nine-month cruise, particularly considering current level of accessibility and cooperation between Microsoft and screen reader developers.

As I continue to research ways of supporting Windows 10 features in NVDA and prepare to upgrade to JAWS 17, I'd like to present status of Windows 10 accessibility as of build 10162. Along the way, I'd like to present comparison between earlier and current builds, as well as to talk about some new features you may expect from Windows 10, particularly in newer builds. Lastly, I'll conclude with WinTen editions and upgrade paths. My thoughts on when to upgrade and a status report on screen readers and predictions will be documented in the next article. So sit back and enjoy a brief tour of Windows 10's life cycle and accessibility so far.

Windows 10: Building on successes and failures of past eight years

Before we talk about Windows 10, it is important to talk about how we got here in the first place, and what a good place to start than a day that Microsoft released a version of Windows that brought widespread disappointment:

Let's turn our clock back eight years to January 30, 2007. For the past six years, Microsoft has been working on a revolutionary operating system that claims will win over hearts of billions of people. This operating system, codenamed "Longhorn", opened up new possibilities, including ability to search for anything from start Menu, tabbed browsing in Internet Explorer and reorganized Control Panel and more. For a select few, Microsoft said, "we'll provide exclusive features such as themes, games and more".

Two years later, Microsoft found itself asking, "what have we done?" The reason: Windows Vista was virtually a flop, and Microsoft was scrambling to come up with a new version of Windows in hopes of restoring its reputation, and also allow consumers to adopt to newer technologies and paradigms. Learning from their mistakes, Microsoft did come up with a version of Windows that not only improved its reputation somewhat, but now powers six out of ten computers worldwide (according to recent sources). We call this Windows 7.

Fast forward three years. With the East Coast of the United States scrambling to recover from effects of Hurricane Sandy, a company from the West Coast proclaimed a new era of computing has begun. Combining the touchscreen interface and PC hardware, this company claimed that their new software will revolutionize how we think about computing for years to come. But the product they have shipped that day proved to be too ambitious at that time, and it took them a year to correct their mistakes and come up with a product that was accepted by consumers. And this is the product we see now on PC's, tablets, hybrids and so on: Windows 8.1.

Fast forward to September 2014. Many online articles claimed that Microsoft will talk about so-called Windows 9 on September 30th. They were partially correct then: Microsoft did announce a new version of Windows, but it was named Windows 10. At the same time, Microsoft invited early adopters to serve as beta testers, and recent statistics published by Microsoft indicate more than five million souls have responded to call from Microsoft to "arm for Windows 10". With millions of Insiders on their side, Microsoft boldly claimed that Windows 10 will be the last major version of Windows (this doesn't mean there won't be new minor versions), the most comprehensive Windows (partially really) and let apps run on any device (partially true). And now with three weeks to go before Windows 10 makes it appearance on PC's, tablets, smartphones and other devices, Microsoft is stepping up to ask consumers to upgrade for free for a while (until July 29, 2016).

Windows 10: A progress report

I'm sure some readers might ask, "what's the progress report on Windows 10, particularly with accessibility?" I'm happy to report that, compared to initial builds, the latest builds are more stable and accessible. Back in October 2014, build 9841 was considered a reworked Windows 8.1, hence users used to Windows 8.1 had no difficulty using that build. Subsequent builds added new features and broke some, particularly when navigating Start menu/screen hybrid, difficulty with moving apps from one desktop to another and continued problems with Microsoft Edge (Internet Explorer will still be there). Because I have covered major features new to Windows 10 in earlier blog posts, I'll talk about what's changed since I posted the older posts.

Moving apps to virtual desktops

One of the most complained aspects of Windows 10 was inability for blind users to move apps to different desktops via Taskview. Previously, the list of desktops shown from context menu wasn't accessible at all. This has been corrected in build 10158 and later. To move apps between desktops, open Taskview (Windows+TAB), select the app, open context menu, select Move to and choose the desktop you want the app to move to.

Narrator updates

One new thing in Windows 10 Narrator is command reassignments. Apart from this, Narrator uses Microsoft David.

Cortana command

In older Windows 10 builds, you had several options for launching Cortana: Start menu, universal search box, Search key (Windows+Q), and in later builds, speech recognition (Windows+C). In build 10158 and later, Windows+C officially becomes the keyboard command to launch Cortana in voice dictation mode.

Microsoft Edge

As I'll mention in part 2, this new browser isn't fully accessible. Currently screen reader vendors are working on Edge support.

Universal apps

Some of them, such as Calendar and Windows Feedback are accessible, while others may need improvement (universal apps use UIA or User Interface Automation).

Windows 10 editions and upgrade paths

Windows 10 targets three device categories: PC's, mobile devices, and appliances and gadgets. They share the same basic technologies, differentiated via user interface, runtime and audience.

The version that comes closest to the kernel, or heart of Windows 10 isn't Windows 10 Home. It is actually Windows 10 IoT (Internet of Things) Core. This version is Windows 10 kernel and specialized technologies to be used on appliances such as home automation systems, Internet of Things such as chips in fridges and toasters and so on.

Next up is Windows 10 Home and Mobile. Although they are powered by two different architectures (some Mobile devices will be powered by X86 chips), they have similar interfaces and features (Home comes with desktop interface, whereas devices running Mobile must be connected to an external display for desktop interface to appear). Although they do have similar interfaces, the underlying philosophy and certain technologies are different.

Building on top of Windows 10 Home, Windows 10 Pro adds business-oriented features, which includes ability to delay Windows Updates for a while, joining domains and so on. Windows 10 Pro is also required in order to run Hyper-V based virtual machines and to secure one's PC with BitLocker.

On top of the pyramids for PC's and mobile devices are Windows 10 Enterprise/Education and Mobile Enterprise, respectively. These versions are suited for large organizations, and in case of Windows 10 Enterprise, allows one to create a bootable USB drive version of Windows 10. Apart from targeting students and faculty and inability to opt into long term servicing (LTS) updates, Windows 10 Education is same as Windows 10 Enterprise.

The upgrade paths are as follows:
* For users using Windows XP and Vista: Upgrade to Windows 7 or 8.1 first before upgrading, or perform clean install.
* Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Windows 8.1: Windows 10 Home.
* Windows 7 Professional, Ultimate, Windows 8.1 Pro: Windows 10 Pro.
* Windows 7 Enterprise, Windows 8.1 Enterprise: Windows 10 Enterprise.
* For some Windows Phone 8.1 devices: Windows 10 Mobile.

In the next article, I'll talk about status of screen reader support and when would be the good time to upgrade along with screen reader requirements.