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.

Hi,

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.

//JL

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