Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Happy New Year...Best of 2007

Happy belated New Year!

With the holiday break, travel, and a long-running cold affecting the writing and publication of Access Ability for the last several weeks, I am now back and can now declare that I wish you a happy new year.

To mark the New Year, I will offer what most sites do at the end of the year—a look back at 2007. In this, I will also discuss what I thought were the most useful and breakthrough products.

First, I want to offer a heartfelt thank you to all of the Access Ability readers. I placed a counter on the site in January 2007 and since that time; the site has received nearly 10,000 visitors. Yes, I do look at my traffic referrals and understand that many readers come by way of search returns for specific information. However, I also know that I have some regular readers in several states and in countries outside of the US, and appreciate each of you. I am also encouraged and enthused by the comments and email I have received. With that in mind, I promise to work diligently in 2008 to continue what has been built here at Access Ability.

Now, here are my recommendations for the best products of 2007.

Best accessible hardware: Olympus DS50 digital recorder

The line of the Olympus DS 30, 40, and 50 digital recorders hit the marketplace early last year with a flurry of press releases, which were soon followed by various blog posts touting the out-of-the-box accessibility of the devices. Many people raved about these accessible, digital recorders and, as I soon found out, the praise was well deserved.

I waited a few weeks before wading into this purchase, carefully reading the reviews that were coming out. Once I made that plunge, though, I was left asking only one question—Why did I wait so long?

I’m impressed with the ease of operation of this lightweight recorder. There are audible tones to acknowledge the various buttons being depressed and audio feedback of the several menu items. It works superbly in different recording settings and is easy to upload the files to the computer. This device has impressed me like no other in several years. The fact that it is an off-the-shelf product that is accessible by design, and not some specialty blind product, is a particularly encouraging sign that manufacturers are taking notice that accessibility is achievable and doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

The unit comes with some proprietary software to transfer the files, which I found to be the most inaccessible part of the experience. First, you have to find the serial number and enter it to allow the software to run. Then, the software was unstable on my computer, often crashing before I could use it. It is much easier to just attach the included USB cable and transfer the files to the computer using Windows Explorer.

Still, this is the most enjoyable piece of technology I’ve purchased in many years. The product definitely lives up to the promised accessibility and all of the features work as advertised.

If interested, there are a couple of very useful tutorial podcasts on the
Blind Cool Tech
Web site that can teach blind users the various functions of this remarkable product. These tutorials include a recent addition that shows how to set the clock and calendar independently, a feature that many thought would definitely require a sighted person to perform.

Best accessible software application: Goldwave Audio Editor.

I know, I know…
isn’t a new product, but I discovered it this year, so it makes my 2007 list. I began playing around with the demo of this powerful, yet affordable audio editing program last spring. I remember that I had just submitted a lengthy digital recording to the Disability 411 podcast and I remember feeling like I should have been able to do more on the editing side before I sent it in. Beth welcomed the guest submission and also reassured me that she would do the time-consuming editing work. However, that feeling of having only done a so-so job prompted me to look around at an accessible audio editing application.

On the
Blind Geek Zone
web site, I found a well-produced and straightforward audio tutorial on how to use Goldwave with JAWS. Rick even included a self-extracting JAWS script to make it work with JAWS keystroke commands. Within a few days, I felt like a semi-professional music editor. With more time and practice using this software under my belt today, I feel very accomplished at the abilities I’ve developed with this application.

Goldwave comes in a fully functioning demo mode, allowing the user to execute 3,000 commands before expiring. (If you don’t already know, that’s a lot of audio editing!) I never used all of these allotted commands in the demo mode. I was so impressed after using the program for only a few days that I gladly shelled out the $45 registration fee to get the full version. Since that time, I’ve used the program countless times.

With the ability to precisely edit audio files to minute detail, and the fact that it is completely accessible to blind computer users makes me marvel at the quality of this program. It only takes a little time to learn the basics for editing with Goldwave and this makes it rank high in my book.

Best assistive technology innovation: System Access To Go screen reader.

A couple of years ago, I loved the fact that JAWS could be run from a USB flash drive. This gave the power of a screen reader to go, which, in theory, could run on any computer. The only trick was that there was one particular file that had to be installed on the computer. To get the network administrators to allow the blind computer user to place this unrecognized file on their protected system was often a challenge, thus limiting the portability that JAWS was attempting to innovate.

Then, in 2007,
introduced the true portability of computer access with System Access To Go. This breakthrough software allows a blind computer user the ability to go to any internet-connected computer and with a few keystrokes, to begin to use the software. The product was introduced to the public with an open beta period, during which anybody could sign up for a free account to test drive the screen reader. Serotek continues to demonstrate the insight of its target users by offering month-to-month service or the option to purchase on a 48-month payment plan.

Not only did Serotek make assistive technology truly user-based, instead of computer-based, but they have also done so at prices that show that assistive technology doesn’t have to break the budget of people who are often on fixed incomes. The screen reader giants such as Freedom Scientific, the maker of JAWS, would be wise to be wary of this company and its abilities.

Hats off to Mike Calvo and Matt Campbell for pulling off this innovation, whose ripple effects I believe will be felt in the assistive technology world for some time to come. Additionally, I have a strong feeling that Mike and Matt will continue to bring about further innovation in the assistive technology field.

Okay, that’s my list for 2007. I know there were other innovations and updates to existing products, but these three are the ones I actually experienced and was the most impressed with.

Now, let’s bring on 2008!


Second Chance to Live said...

Hi Ron,
Great job on the above reviews. You are a tremendous blessing to the visually impaired community. Congradulation on the success of Access Ability. I know you are dedicated to producing a quality product for your readers. Thank you for your hardwork and dedication. I am proud to be your friend.

Have a great day!

Craig J. Phillips MRC, BA
Second Chance to Live

Ron Graham said...

Thank you, Craig.

I appreciate your thoughts and feedback, but most of all, your friendship. Knowing you is another of those unexpected blessings that have come about as a result of writing Access Ability.

I have put my heart, effort, and lots of time into this blog and am glad that others find it of interest. It is from that interest that I find the motivation to continue writing the blog.
Here’s to a great 2008 for all of us!