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My Thoughts on Altruism Versus Commercialism in the Assistive Technology Industry

May 30, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I’m just taking a quick few minutes to pen my (probably oversimplistic) thoughts on the need of companies doing business in the blindness assistive technology industry to balance the benefits and consequences of their actions to the blind community (altruism) versus their need to turn a sufficient profit to make doing business worthwhile to their investors.

  • It is my belief that the initial reasons for creating businesses in this field are altruistic. The people involved in starting the business really want to see blind people succeed using the new company’s technology. There are many reasons for this desire. For instance, maybe one of the company’s founders has a spouse, child or other close relative who happens to be blind or visually impaired. It may also be the case that the company is founded by one or more blind persons who feel they can do better than the current state-of-the-art or a category of assistive technology is needed which currently does not exist. In either case, the initial reasons for getting started are usually grounded in a desire to help the blind.
  • Being businesses, it ultimately becomes important for the company to justify its existence to its creditors, investors, government agencies and especially its blind and visually impaired customers. Doing this means providing a product or service that customers will buy at a price that allows the company to pay its debts, satisfy its investors, pay its employees, continue development and support of existing products and do the R&D required to introduce new products. I recognize that accomplishing all of these important tasks is an incredibly tight balancing line.
  • Who are the customers of our blindness assistive technology industry players? Are they blind and visually impaired consumers? Are they large government agencies, such as Vocational Rehabilitation, that may be required by law to purchase assistive technology? What are the requirements of these different customers? Does the customer need assistive technology that meets their needs to gain access to the world, does the lowest bidder get the nod, is there a contract in place that requires purchase of only certain technologies regardless of the consumers needs or desires? These questions have a huge impact on the actions of the AT companies. Companies that acquire the bulk of their business directly from blind consumers are going to tend to offer payment plans, keep prices low, operate in an extremely efficient, lean manner and provide the highest levels of customer service and support. For these smaller players, blind and visually impaired people are their bread and butter. The positive and negative things blind people say about them on blogs, mailing lists, consumer organization conventions and other forums will tend to have a direct and immediate impact on their behavior toward those customers. Unfortunately, companies who do the bulk of their business with government agencies, large private sector companies or anyone other than blind consumers may tend to develop a different focus. This will naturally involve meeting the agency, company or organizations stated requirements, which will be represented by rather dry factors like price and technical specifications. When these large, high-dollar customers leave out the blind consumer in their own decision-making processes, their purchasing decisions from our blindness AT companies may cause those companies to switch their focus and priorities away from the blind consumer, perhaps without even recognizing that this has happened.
  • Why do smaller companies often tend to be more innovative than the larger players? The smaller companies like Serotek do not have the same level of name recognition within the community of the large high-dollar government agencies and other organizations that purchase the bulk of assistive technology products. Instead, their bread and butter are the blind and visually impaired consumers themselves. As blind people, we have certain accessibility needs, which we would like to have met by one or more of the players in the industry. Different people have different needs. That’s why there is a choice of products. Reasonable people who care about what happens to the blind and visually impaired know intuitively that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for anyone. So, by nature, the smaller companies who deal more directly with us are going to inherently take more direct actions to meet our stated needs and desires. I think this is just basic business sense between companies and their customers. Unfortunately, this process becomes seriously warped when the customers are anyone other than the people who directly need or want assistive technology products. It seems, over the years, that as an assistive technology company matures and gains that name recognition within the community of its high-dollar customers, the needs and desires of the people for whom the products are designed in the first place go to the wayside, replaced by and large with the legal and dry technical requirements stated by people who are not blind and whom usually have no idea how the technology is used out here in the real world.
  • Why do the larger companies seem to take actions that are viewed as attempts to eliminate the smaller players? Well, obviously, this is a huge, muddy question, but I think it ultimately comes down to money. As a company grows, it needs more resources. Product sales drive the need to hire more employees, acquire larger facilities, gather more investment, take advantage of loans and other credit opportunities and do all the things a business must do in order to meet the customers’ demand for more product. As technology advances, products must be maintained and new products must be devised to meet the evolving needs of customers. While all this goes on, the company must constantly strive to support all its existing customers. Just as it seems to be with individuals, the acquisition of more and more wealth results in the spending of more and more money to expand that success. Things move along rather nicely in most cases so long as the assistive technology company’s customers remain largely from the blind and visually impaired consumer base. But government agencies and other large players have a great deal more money to throw around than the typical blind consumer. The more money a customer is able or willing to spend on something, the more willing the provider is going to be to do all they can to meet that customer’s needs. This is just another one of those unchangeable business constants. Those with the gold ultimately make the rules, whether we like it or not. It isn’t going to be changing anytime in the near or even distant future. This has a lot of implications. Innovation costs money and other resources and “necessity is the mother of all invention”. It seems like the larger players in our industry are innovating only when it is deemed necessary by their high-dollar customers, rather than by blind and visually impaired consumers who may need innovative technologies in order to educate themselves, obtain or retain their employment, live their daily lives, etc. For instance, why does it seem that one company appears to have fallen behind the curve with respect to Windows Vista and now seems to be struggling to catch up to other players in some areas? Most large businesses and government agencies wait at least a year before implementing a new operating system. Did this company feel they had more time before they had to innovate, in order to spare the expenditure of resources until it came time to meet the needs of their high-dollar customers? Did it jump because it was surprised when some of those large customers said they were moving to Vista sooner than expected? Did the smaller players decide to innovate faster and take Vista more seriously because some of their blind customers said they needed access to that operating system to keep their jobs or just because they wanted to buy a new computer that no longer offers support for Windows XP? Was all of this just too much? Did they decide to start filing lawsuits, make threats and do other underhanded things to some of the blind community consumer activists and smaller players in the field to allow them some time to catch up and hold onto that coveted big business?
  • Why litigate rather than innovate? Why is there a lawsuit over an aledged trademark violation that has been happening for almost seven years? I’ll say just this much on this direct subject. There are a lot of questions coming from all over the blind community as to Freedom Scientific’s supposed motives for filing this lawsuit. I’ll just state what I believe to be a foregone conclusion should Freedom Scientific win all it requests in the case. If the case goes to trial and Freedom Scientific wins, then Serotek will no longer be a going concern. It is that simple. Whether intended or not, an important player will have been unceremoniously deleted from the field. It is just that simple, boys and girls!
  • Why do we as a blind community have so little impact on not only the mainstream world around us but also the assistive technology industry? I’m afraid the reasons for that are simple as well. We have at least a 70 percent unemployment rate. While a lot of discrimination and misunderstanding do exist on the part of employers, I strongly believe that much of the problem is simply that most blind and visually impaired people make the choice to take their Social Security checks, public housing and other government-provided welfare benefits and sit home. They aren’t getting an education, volunteering or even trying to acquire gainful employment. I played the TLC song “No Scrub” on my show on ACB Radio Interactive the other night for a reason! If most of us are just subsisting, then we don’t have enough money to spend in order to significantly impact the business decisions made by our assistive technology companies, let alone insist that mainstream technology companies make their products and services more accessible to us.
  • Why does it seem the two largest blindness consumer organizations in the United States are hesitant to weigh in on the Freedom Scientific Versus Serotek case? I’m afraid I must come to the conclusion that this organizational paralysis simply has just about everything to do with the fact that Freedom Scientific donates sizable sums of money to these organizations, whose leadership can’t be blamed for not wanting to bite the hand that feeds them.

As you can obviously see by now, this article has become something of a stream of consciousness on my part concerning my thoughts on the assistive technology industry for the blind and visually impaired. I do believe I have one idea that could start us on a path to a rebirth of the blindness assistive technology industry in a way that would meet the needs of all the small and large companies as well as blind and visually impaired consumers. This is going to be controversial, but here it comes anyway. Have I ever shied away from controversy on this blog or otherwise in the blind community? The idea is simply this: Two thirds of the senior management of all companies doing business in the blindness assistive technology industry should meet the definition of legal blindness and of course should be otherwise qualified to hold their positions. These management teams should also equitably represent the full spectrum of legal blindness from highly partially sighted to totally blind. It is my long held belief that only competent blind and visually impaired people from our community can correctly assess our needs and take positive actions that really benefit the blind and visually impaired. As always, your comments are highly encouraged.

Example of the Need for Flexible Remote Access Solutions for the Blind

May 24, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I would urge you all to read this brief example illustrating the proliferation of remote access solutions like GoToAssist in the consulting and technical support occupations. Blind people in these careers must be able to deliver the direct, immediate service facilitated by remote access solutions, which enable the technician to gain secure access to the customer’s computer. At this time, only Serotek’s Remote Incident Manager solution provides an equivalent level of accessibility for the blind. In most cases, use of this solution in leu of an existing service for sighted technicians, such as Citrix GoToAssist, should be considered a “reasonable accomodation” for the purposes of gaining or retaining employment.

Categories: Serotek

Objectivity versus Opinion, or the Difference Between Journalism and Evangelism

May 19, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

When I was in high school, I had a teacher’s aid named Gloria. Gloria came to the United States a long time ago from Burma. She’s a Karen, a member of an ethnic group that has been fighting for independence for more than 58 years. The Karen are officially represented by an organization known as the Karen National Union. Unfortunately, according to the news reported on the Karen’s web site, it would seem their struggle is not currently meeting with much success.

So, by now, I’m sure you are all asking yourselves, “why in the world is Darrell prattling on about some obscure ethnic struggle for independence”? Don’t worry. I’m just setting up the stage for the rest of the discussion. It will become more relevant in very short order.

The Karens are not impartial when it comes to their independence. They believe it should be granted, that it is their right to fight for it, and some are willing to give their very lives for the cause. Others believe it is better to cooperate with existing governments in the region. They are branded by the independence fighters as traitors who have sold out their people. One part of the Karen National Union’s operations involves their web site, where news relating to their struggle is distributed for all to read. When you visit their web site, it quickly becomes obvious that they have a clear agenda. There are no statements of balance or impartiality.

The Blind Access Journal is a similar web site, though the struggle is obviously quite different. In our case, the struggle is for the blind community to be granted equal accessibility, alternative transportation options and all opportunities otherwise granted the sighted on the basis of their being physically able to see. Similar to the Karens, we also have an agenda. Though not stated as a political platform or similar document, any reasonable reader could be expected to understand that the Blind Access Journal, and, thus, its publisher, Darrell Shandrow, is an advocate or evangelist for accessibility. This means, by nature, that I am not objective. I am not going to act as though discrimination, inaccessibility or lapses of accountability in the products and services provided to us are at all acceptable by any stretch of the imagination. I am not only going to report such issues, but also work strenuously to have them rectified in a manner that benefits the blind community. My very close friend and colleague, Jeff Bishop, states the differences between opinion and balanced journalism quite clearly with respect to blogging about issues in the blindness assistive technology field.

As part of my evangelism, the most recent assistive technology issue about which I have been writing is the trademark infringement lawsuit filed by Freedom Scientific against Serotek. It should be quite clear to everyone that I have strong feelings concerning what was done and the potential ramifications not only for a small player in the field, but for the entire blind community. Being the undisputed leader in the market, Freedom Scientific has the ability to significantly benefit or severely harm the ability of all blind and visually impaired people to use technology as a vehicle to equally participate in society. By taking this action, I unequivocally believe that Freedom Scientific may set into motion a series of events that could result in the loss of innovative new technologies we need to develop and grow in the blind community right now. The company holds sway over the entire blind community, be it individuals, organizations or dealers of assistive technology products. This is unavoidable, given Freedom Scientific’s overwhelming market share. Unfortunately, when that influence is put to negative ends, the results can be absolutely disastrous not only for companies, but also for real people and their families. For example, the RAM and RIM products now offered by Serotek represent a huge potential to push open many doors to employment previously closed by the need for remote access to computers owned by sighted people. If Freedom Scientific does end up litterally suing Serotek out of business, the results could mean real consequences for real people in the blind community up to and including the inability to acquire new jobs or even the loss of existing employment!

Earlier today I asked someone, who must currently remaine nameless, a simple question about the reasons for the Freedom Scientific versus Serotek lawsuit. The resulting conversation involved their expressing concerns about the quality of my “journalism” and the possibility of that person contacting people who might decide to curtail my participation in certain activities I currently enjoy and which, I hope, benefit the blind community. It is for this reason that I must make one thing extremely clear: I am NOT a balanced, impartial “journalist”. I am, instead, an accessibility ADVOCATE or EVANGELIST who is promoting equal participation on the part of the blind and visually impaired in the world around us. Though I have not and never will intentionally mislead anyone, I do not feel obligated nor possess the necessary resources to fully research everything I write on this blog. I am also not required to present everything in a “balanced” or “objective” manner. For that matter, even the paid “journalists” don’t always get this right, and that is their job. Just read and compare mainstream media sources like the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or the Weekly Standard, or watch CNN and Fox News for an hour each to understand my point. This is not the “fair and balanced” Fox News Channel!

I hope this post has helped all of you clearly understand the fact that I am not a professional “journalist”, I am not always going to be objective and that I do most certainly have an agenda to look out for all of you, my brothers and sisters in the blind community! Your e-mails and comments are quite welcome and encouraged!

Today’s KDD: Jaws Attacks; Take the Byte out of Crime

May 19, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Thanks to Karen for this wonderfully creative, poetic contribution.

On Thursday May 17, we received some disturbing News,
Freedom Scientific, they did choose,
To Sue Serotek, they want to devour,
Found out this at a late hour,
This made me angry, yes indeed,
If you have not already, do read,
The lawsuit that was filed, and the accusations made, more to this than
meets the eye,
Not sure why?
Suing for Trademark infringement,
Much time and resources spent,
One can only speculate and hypothesize,
That they feel threatened by a company of smaller size,
Whom is making tremendous progress in the field of blindness,
And Freedom Scientific, this, they could not digest ,
Could not stand the heat,
Worried , they can not stand on their own two feet,
So, Brutaly attacked their competition pushing them under,
Rather, then learn from their own mistakes and blunders,
Makes one wonder,
What their reasons are for filing this Suit?,
For giving Serotek the boot?
Why, does FS Byte?
This is not right,
Why are they drawing blood?
Slinging them through the mudd?
Eleminating them as a valuable player , wanting them to sink,
Not sure why, what do you think?
What is your take on this story ?, I was shocked,
The blind Community, this should rock,
Hits Matt and Mike to the core,
After being bitten by Jaws, they struggle to swim to shore,
Serotek,is missing a paddle,
Now, they are fighting a battle,
Swimming upstream,
Together, will stay the team,
And continue to give Freedom for all
Through Freedom Box and Ram and Rim,
Things, now, look grim,
However, with these products as well as System Access, as a third
screenreader tool,
They will continue to stay in the school ,
And despite, taking a dive,
Back On the surface , they will arrive,
And hang in there, with GW Micro, , the Guys Aaron and Doug,
They wil not pull the plug,
Hang in there, do have hope,
Some of us in the community, will throw you a rope,
Do not want to see you sink, capsize,
Yet, to continue to develop products along with Window eyes,
Hope the sharks die,
Fail does, Jaws for Windows ,
Freedom Scientific, stay on your Toes,
You may not be as stable,
Not as able,
Watch out, Broken my be your fin,
This, you may not win,
And though, you play with the Whales,
The other fish,may not bail,
And, all of us, in the community ,need to read our mail,
read blogs and listen to podcasts,
Freedom Scientific, you may be a thing of the past,
And, though, Serotek right now, you may not be in the leed,
FS, bate, we are not going to feed,
To enable you to stay strong,
What, your doing is very wrong.
Nothing wrong with healthy competition, Yet, another,just don't sue,
Hoping your opponent will toss in the towel, and say, they are
Assuming, they will have enough?
They are tough,
And will give you a runfor your money,
What, your doing it is not at all funny!
Those of us,whom are blind, need to be united and work together,
Help Serotek through this stormy weather,
Ahead, there will be rough seas,
Look out, they could bring you to your knees,
There will be strong wind, rain and Thunder,
You could go under,
You never know,
How this lawsuit will go
You could regret, the Lawsuit you did file,
Some of us will go the extra mile,
On your feet, you may not land,
I know, what I say, holds no wait, does not mean a thing,
And noone may care,
this KDD I do bring,
Yet my view on this, wanted it to be known.
My thoughts I do share,
Concerned about the state of Affairs,
In this industry ,
All who cannot see,
Do all that you can,
If you are a Fan,
And Believe in Serotek,
Don't allow them to stick out their necks,
See what you can do,
To assist them through,
Support we do need to send,
A hand, lend,
Get the word out, maybe Flyers?
They are under the wire,
Serotek will be fine,
And, we do need to take the byte out of crime,
Your help we do need,
Go reed,
Get more information, at Blind access journal and the Desert Skies,
They show the size of this issue, so, go to their site,
Both shine the light,
They forward a link, it, they did save,
After reading the Lawsuit, rant and Rave,
Let's do what we can, what do you say?
Let the smaller fish play.

Categories: JAWS, Serotek

Freedom Scientific Suing Serotek, Claim Trademark Infringement

May 17, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

We have just learned that Freedom Scientific filed suit against Serotek on May 14 claiming trademark infringement for use of the term “FreedomBox”. This development raises several potentially interesting, if speculative, questions:

  • FreedomBox has existed as a product of Serotek Corporation for seven years. Why is Freedom Scientific making this move after all that time has passed?
  • This lawsuit was filed one day before the Wafra acquisition was made public. Is there any relationship between the two events?
  • Serotek’s products are evolving in some rather innovative ways, covering some of the same territory as products manufactured by Freedom Scientific. Now that Serotek’s recognition and standing is rapidly increasing within the assistive technology industry and the blind community, does this lawsuit represent an anti-competitive move on Freedom Scientific’s part to attempt to delete a player from the field?
  • The name “FreedomBox” and the name “Freedom Scientific” have only the word “freedom” in common. There are many other company’s with names including the word “freedom” including Freedom Communications, Inc. and Freedom Technologies Corporation. Given these and probably many other facts, how does Freedom Scientific have a case? The movie Jaws was made in 1975, long before either Henter-Joyce or Freedom Scientific existed. Should Steven Spielberg sue Freedom Scientific for trademark infringement over the name “Jaws”?
  • Why has Freedom Scientific demanded a jury instead of simply allowing a judge to handle this matter expeditiously?

We at the Blind Access Journal are deeply concerned about the possible ramifications of this development, even if Freedom Scientific does not win their case. We are continuing to research this story with our sources in the assistive technology and legal fields and will report frequently as new details become known. Please feel free to post a comment or e-mail us at any time about this or any other item.

Categories: Serotek

Serotek Announces Remote Incident Manager (RIM) Pricing

May 17, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

This is fantastic news! Serotek’s CEO, Mike Calvo, has just announced the pricing for Remote Incident Manager. This technology promises to totally revolutionize the business, employment and educational opportunities for any blind person requiring anytime, anywhere mobile and remote access to computers running modern Windows operating systems. Pricing for Remote Incident Manager will be $99 per month. This requires a Key to Freedom equipped with System Access Mobile at a price of $499 and an annual $60 update plan. The pricing plan, scheduled for official public release on May 18, easily competes with similar offerings in the mainstream market and will place this technology into the hands of assistive technology specialists, consultants, help desk technicians and others who require the ability to remotely administer computers owned by sighted people who do not already have assistive technology installed. For answers to your questions, or to place an order, please contact Serotek. Let’s all get behind Serotek as a blind community and support this critical technology.

Categories: Serotek