Thursday, December 17

Reflections since 2000

Greetings. This is usually the time of year when I put up my year end reflections. This time though, I thought I’d do something a little different. Since we’re coming to the end of the first decade of the 2,000’s, I thought I’d do a review of some of the changes in technology between 2000 and 2009. Perhaps we can use some of these as a gage for what will come in the next 10 years. I’m sure I’m going to miss some things here so forgive me in advance.

Screen readers: The last 10 years has seen more screen readers being developed for blind users, and ones that can run on a portable USB flash/thumb/pin drive, to ones that can run from a simple website. You no longer have to be tied to an actual computer to use a screen reader. Now, when I go to my parent’s house, I can bring up a web based screen reader and have instant access to their computer, rather than waiting for them to purchase an expensive screen reader and leave it on their system for the few times that I might visit them during the year.

Notetakers: Before the year 2000, there were a few note taking devices on the blindness market, but mainly from one company. In 2000, the BrailleNote was introduced and in 2003 the PAC Mate was brought into being. Fast forward a few years and we have a range of different note taking devices in various forms and with similar abilities, some with and some without Braille displays; some using Qwerty (computer style) and some using Perkins (Braille style) keyboards; and some that have specific functions and other that have more general functions. In other words, the blind user now has lots more choice. Some newer notetakers even have built in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth access, which makes getting connected to the web in order to browse websites or send/receive email lots easier. Add to that the mainstream laptops and mini-laptops, known as netbooks, that have become very popular in the last couple of years. In the beginning of this year alone perhaps 1 person I worked with had a netbook. Now though, aside from me there’s an additional 5 or 6 other people I know that have and use netbooks for greater portability. This particular portion of the tech industry, the netbooks and notetakers, will be interesting to watch over the next 2-5 years to see how they shake out.

Book reading: Before year 2000, blind people read books on their computers, in Braille, or on tape. Now though there are a number of different options, including for lack of a better phrase, the portable book reader, such as the Victor Reader Stream and Booksense, among several others. In fact, after the Stream came out in 2007 and it was seen how popular such a device was, several more devices have come out with the ability to read books, listen to music, play audio books, read different types of files (such as Word documents, text, HTML, and others), and do other things. To be fair, there were a couple of devices around that could read those types of files and other material, but they were old and out dated. In fact, one of them, the Book Port, was initially promised to have new life, but the update project for it was shelved after about 6 months in 2008 I believe. At any rate, information and entertainment has really grown in leaps and bounds as far as portability.

I can’t talk about books and portability without mentioning the work of the national Library Service (NLS). In 2000, they started their Web Braille program, where the user could download a growing collection of books and magazines in Braille formatted files. In 2007, they began officially testing a similar download service for their many audio books. That collection began with around 7,000 books, and now numbers around 16,500 books, and is growing nearly every week. Thanks to funding from Congress, the digital talking book is here and here to stay!

Cell phones: Here’s an area that’s affected everyone, blind or not. However, until around 2002, the blind did not have ready access to such devices. Sure, you could dial a number, but that quickly lost some luster when compared with all the things that your friends and colleagues could do on their phones, such as text message, take pictures, manage contacts and calendar appointments, view call logs, and much more. Then, in 2002, the Talks screen reader was created and announced that it would work with a couple of Nokia phone models. Though it’s taken a few years to get rolling, now true phone accessibility is becoming more of a forethought rather than an afterthought with many manufacturers. With some providers such as Verizon, there are even some phones that you can buy off the shelf that have built in accessibility that are increasingly allowing greater access. Perhaps not at the level of Talks, but we’re getting there. Of course I can’t talk about phone access without mentioning Apple and the work that they’ve been doing with making phones more accessible, and phones with touch screens o less. Say what you want about a touch screen accessible phone, the fact that this is now an option for the blind user, and that having a screen reader on such a phone, is a great sign of things to come. Talk about built in accessibility.

The WWW: Okay, so that’ a broad category, but just think about how many different web services have gained usage in the broader population over the past 10 years or so, such as: blogs, podcasts, social networking sites, more personalized e-commerce and shopping, staying connected, ability to use web services via your cell phone, such as texting a site for the weather or current stock quotes, among many other uses; streaming audio and video; and much, much more. Let’s not forget the growing popularity of a certain website start up that flew under the radar for a few years and quickly went from unknown to people trying to copy what they were doing and draw their users. And further, the site even added various applications that helped to change the way we work and play, such as email, shopping and bargain comparison, working with documents, spreadsheets, presentations, keeping up calendar appointments and contacts, tracking stocks and other finances, and much more. Yes, I’m speaking of Google and their many services. Google has transformed from a noun to a verb, as in, “Google it,” when someone needs to look something up. Currently, Google is even working on their own cell phone and portable netbook. That’s probably one of the big things that I’m excited about and will be closely following, to see how this whole Google Chrome operating system fills out and if it will be accessible. I suppose that might say something: am I excited about the new offering from Microsoft in Windows Seven? No, the thing that excites me is what their competitors are doing, and I’m not the only one.

Even though it's not tech related so much, technology has been affected by the next two items: the terrorist attacks of 2001, and the economic boom and eventual bust. One phrase seems appropriate here, which I've told students and friends regarding money: it's not how much money you have, but how you manage the money you have. Hopefully we can take that phrase and apply it as we go forward. Sure there will be tough times ahead, perhaps even tougher than what we're going through now in the recession/recovery. But if we can manage our money, then these times won't seem so tough when they do come. That's been my personal experience this year in the current economically tight times.

Hopefully we can take what we’ve learned from the first 10 years of the 21st century and apply it to the next 10 years. I think as we go forward, month by month and year by year, our lives will even more interlock with the web and the possibility that we’re going to be a web-based society is not too far off. Will we be to the point of talking to our kitchen appliances and having them automatically order things from the grocery store to refill current refrigerator stock? Who knows, anything’s possible.

On a personal level, this last 10 years has seen me wrap up my college career, get an unexpected job in working part time and doing something that I was meant to do and not what I thought I was going to do, find a full time job just weeks after being let go from the part time one, and really building my teaching ability and the different areas I would grow in, and even getting another Seeing Eye dog, which is something that I never thought I’d do. Not to mention starting a personal website which has grown to attract more than 7400 unique visitors, and maintaining the professional website for the White Cane Day Austin celebration. So it’s been a great year and a great last 10 years. Here’s to 10 more!

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