Serotek has just announced that it will no longer charge its customers for a software maintenance agreement (SMA) in order to keep their products updated. This development is, of course, good for consumers in that it eliminates a nagging cost of owning assistive technology. It can, unfortunately, also be bad for us. At this point, you may be asking how on Earth can the removal of an SMA be a negative? The answer is, alas, remarkably simple. Without ongoing revenue, what is the ultimate motivation for a company to constantly enhance its product to cope with a dynamic, ever-changing environment full of inaccessible technology?
As a blind person who has worked in the mainstream technology industry for over 13 years and is now completing his college degree, I need a screen reader that is both capable and reliable. When new technology is developed, I need my screen reader to support it as soon as possible. It is absolutely critical that my screen reader not stop working or cause other problems that halt or limit my productivity. If other assistive technology companies follow suit by eliminating or reducing their SMA fees, I am concerned that we will be left even further behind than we are right now. Let’s just make sure we are wisely considering questions besides the all-too-often asked “how much does it cost?” We had all better be careful for that which we wish, as we might just get it and suffer some unintended negative consequences.
You don’t have to worry about any of the “major” AT companies changing their SMA policies any time soon, they haven’t done so since SaToGo was made free a year ago and it will stay that way for a long time to come.
Also, screen reader improvement has definitely lessened over the past few years, any move by Serotek won’t make the situation any worse.
I completely understand your concern and think it’s valid. At the same time though Code Factory thus far hasn’t been charging for SMAS and they have still been able to sustain and develop there screen nreading product line. I know this won’t necessarily be the case with MGeo because of the fees for maps that Sendero incurs. One would hope that Serotek has thought long and hard about how they will be able to do this and still sustain a high quality product. I could be completely off base though.
The motivation comes with attracting new people to purchase the software. Also, to keep their Internet experience compelling enough to get people to keep paying for it, they’ll have to keep their screen reader current. In effect, an up-to-date screen-reader becomes an essential bi-product of their overall operation.
I’m a very happy Jaws user and have version 9.0 at the moment. I don’t have the funds to pay for an upgrade and this situation will only get worse as time goes on. To an unemployed consumer like Serotek particularly targets, it would certainly give me a lot of peace of mind to know that I’d always have an up-to-date screen-reader once I paid for it. When you get right down to it, a lot of the functionality of Jaws is just not used much in an average home user situation. Being a fan of some games like Smugglers3 and Nethack which demand extensive use of the jaws cursor, I value some aspects of Jaws which other people with more basic interests wouldn’t miss. I’ve done some dabbling with SAtoGo and am very impressed with it overall. If economic push comes to shove, I would make the switch with few regrettes.
I think that in Serotek’s case this is the right move to make. They still have their subscription feas which give access to the SA Mobile Network— and their offering seems compelling enough to draw a fairly large crossection of theri customers to remain part of the network. I’ve known Mike for severl years now and I believe that he will continue to uphold his beliefs about accessibility. Your points regarding what might happen if other AT venders follow suit are well-received and valid– but as Mike pointed out, competition might breed some innovation, and I see that as being a good thing.
Personally, I don’t find their products worthy of the price they’re charging, but I think thataccess tech is wildly over priced to begin with. (This also coming from someone who has worked in the industry for a long while.) The environment of access tech is changing, too. Under Mac OS X, we now have a fully capable solution at no additional cost whatsoever. For the majority of blind users, there really are no compelling reasons to cling to Windows and the screen readers there, except the myths and falsehoods that continue to be perpetuated by a few who stand to lose from the shift. For those who are forced to stay in the Windows world, either the cost of the technology will continue to fall, or Microsoft will start providing a screen reader with Windows. Mac users pay nothing for their screen reading and magnification solutions, and we’re now well ahead of Windows users in many areas, because Mac software is accessible by default, requiring much less tinkering and support. Even Linux distros, like Ubuntu, are becoming increasingly capable, and hence beginning to render Windows unnecessary. And, before someone drags out the old “You need Windows for the business world” argument again, that is a stale argument that is also untrue. Many businesses are moving to Mac and Linux now, because the lines of compatibility have blurred. File formats are compatible across multiple systems now, and that statement no longer holds as much water as it once did.
I can definitely see both sides of this discussion (argument seems like too strong of a word right now thankfully). As a student, I definitely agree that we need up to date technology that will play well with the technology used in the classroom and workplace. I still struggle with blackboard sometimes, for example and I sometimes miss out while trying to navigate sites like Facebook, Fastweb and a few others related to school, careers and social networking. I definitely want to see the A.T. upgraded and continuing to be relevant because my learning, recreation and employment are going to depend on it.
That said, I am not sure that we will win with paying for upgrades, especially when these upgrades are sometimes more costly than thosee of other software used by sighted students. I know of several students who have decided to use out-dated screen readers because they can’t afford the upgrades. So even though there are upgrades, these students aren’t benefiting from them.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am definitely concerned that we keep looking for the best solutions. I don’t want to see stagnation, but I also don’t want to see a continued perpetuation of two classes of people who are blind, those who have the updates and those who don’t. That will keep us relying on the blindness agencies for those updates until we can get jobs, unless we’re lucky enough to have some way of funding our own SMA’s.
Just some food for thought from someone thinking like a social work student…
re: Stifles Innovation
If there were a need for an SMA to create innovation, open sourcesoftware and other software development models wouldn’t be thriving.
In the case of Serotek, it’s certainly not harmed them, as they have always been an innovator. They were first on to the 64bit platform. They are the most current screen reader when it comes t navigating the web. Providing access to many sites that the shark and other screen readers don’t. They are the first to offer a really portable solution for blind users. They are also building up a community in the SAM net of people to help with tech support and knowledge transfer which for sure will reduce their support costs. All around , the low cost for a SMA they usd to have and now the lack of SMA mdoesn’t seem to be hurting them.
The big 3 didn’t add any new features or abilities to their screen readers. The shark for example, in version 8 or 9, despite having my SMA money (or the money of many other SMAs) had very lttle in the way of new features or support. They added features to v10 to compete directly with Serotek. Most of what’s new in version 10 of the shark are features that had alredy been in system access for years. So I would argue that competition creates innovation and not SMAs.