The Burden of Standards

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Has Apple really taken a tumble from hot to not? Maybe it's the absence of game-changing devices, the long stretch between product releases, or the waning influence of the late Steve Jobs. Regardless, the distinct drop in Apple shares points to a current reality where iDevices find themselves catching up to the market rather than controlling it, which prompts the question: What does this mean for the blind consumer that made Apple the new gold standard for accessibility?

First let's put the Apple decline in perspective. So far Apple has sold 31.2 million iPhones in 2013, 5 million more than in 2012. Even though financial analysts worried about flat third-quarter earnings, $35.3 billion in sales is hardly dismal. One could argue that the Silicon giant has not hit its full stride in emerging markets like China and Latin America, so it would be grossly premature to declare doom when Apple continues to generate revenue on a massive scale. In 2013 Apple is not going to become the next Blackberry.

But, nothing lasts forever.

When asked, most screen reader users would say they continue to use JAWS or Window Eyes because of the familiar environment. That is human nature and not unlike the armchair some of us continue to use despite the wear and tear that made it a prime candidate for disposal ten years ago. We like our old chair because despite new overstuffed designs that are supposed to do wonders for our relaxation, something about the new models just doesn't feel as comfortable.

Our old armchair set a standard for other chairs just like old screen readers set a new benchmark to judge alternative options. Never mind the rips that make the old chair an eyesore. After all, we are content to forgive the holes in JAWS and Window Eyes that make some Office applications more usable than others. Perhaps our armchair could use a bit of a fabric cleansing, but why complain about the stale state of the comfortable armchair when the equally comfortable screen readers have now been stagnant for several years?

Along came Apple with what we may as well call a new furniture set. (Forgive the lame analogy.) Some of us took a chance on a new armchair if for no other reason than it was not necessary to buy a cushion to be able to sit in it. Few Apple fan boys will admit that we continue to buy Mac notebooks not for the growing sophistication of Voiceover but for the simple convenience of walking out of a store with a functional product like everyone else.

And so we find ourselves with a new standard in computer accessibility. Yes, the MacBooks cost more than the PC counterparts. No, the accessibility has not moved far from its plateau, but yes, a lot of us will continue buying MacBooks because they represent a new mark of independence.

But are we truly independent if we cling to the OSX platform as fiercely as some of us still cling to the old Windows screen readers? Microsoft has very little incentive to invest in Narrator if the reviews always turn into comparative analyses of Narrator versus JAWS. The same is true of Voiceover advances in OSX, and why is it even necessary to limit discussions to Mac and Windows when Linux has seen its own evolution? NVDA and the Serotek product line continue making great strides but inevitably hit a glass ceiling imposed by the very audience for whom the products were developed. Alternative screen reader options are deemed inferior if the keystrokes aren't what we're used to or if the menus are different or if the learning curve is not impressively steep.

The danger to setting standards is that we forget to behave like everyday consumers. We forget that in the general public people move in and out of brands with an eye to personal satisfaction rather than company loyalty. Yes, the everyday consumer can be a creature of habit and may not be so easily persuaded to leave their Android in favor of an iPhone, but the undecided consumer may also ditch both and find harmony with a Windows device. The difference is that the everyday consumer chooses that comfort. They do not become dependent on it.

It is true that accessibility inefficiencies sometimes prevent us from fully experimenting with the latest software. Yet, we have far more choices today than we did when our access to the world was contingent on one or two expensive players. Advocates have fought, and continue to fight, to break the stranglehold of the traditional monopoly. It's time we start chasing the individual solutions born from shattering the old block.

Technological advances are as diverse as the consumer preferences that drive product sales. Windows 8.1 may not rival OSX Mavericks. Apple may or may not come out with a groundbreaking new iPhone this fall, and iOS and Android may both surrender to Firefox OS. Anything is possible, and we continue to move closer to the day when we can enjoy all products the same day they’re released.

If Apple's earnings teach us anything, it is that a mainstream company's success will not be contingent on whether or not our small community keeps buying from it. Go out and freely discover all the technology at your disposal and help us enrich the common knowledgebase in our highly interactive community. After all, the only technological standard that should matter is whether a hardware or software can do what you need it to do when you need it done.

Follow Joe on Twitter.

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