Each Year I Spend A little Less Time At BETT

For the best part of a decade the coming of a new year meant only one thing work wise: the BETT trade show for education technology.

It was by far the most significant marketing event in the company’s year and you could be guaranteed to find all of the major players in assistive technologies gathered at the show. It marked an opportunity to catch up with industry colleagues, have meetings with people that you had been meaning to have since last BETT and a chance to gossip and size up the competition. Not only that but you would also be able to find all sorts of exciting gadgets and interesting ideas for making education more engaging and fun.

Or at least it used to be like that. Certainly during the last couple of years of working at iansyst Ltd we were questioning the value of spending such a large slice of our yearly budget on this one show. Building stands and coordinating marketing materials, personnel and the attendant travel and hotels all costs significant amounts of money. It is very difficult to track whether or not the investment in such trade shows is really worthwhile. But the Assistive Technology industry keeps coming back year after year.

This January was the second time that I had attended BETT as a visitor and not as an exhibitor. I had made two short visits the previous January to catch up with former colleagues and has a nose around to see what was new. The relief of not having to man the stand was palpable, I could freely wander around and do my business as I chose.

However this year I spent a total of 2 1/2 hours at the biggest education technology show in the world. In fact I probably spent half an hour too long.

Why is that?

Aside from catching up with colleagues there was very little innovation on show. Yes there were new versions of most of the familiar assistive technology software, yes Microsoft and all the big technology players had flashy stands and Google was notable for the increased presence but there was very little of interest.

Most of my colleagues were too flustered or tired to be able to have a sensible conversation, and finding somewhere comfortable to have that conversation was nigh on impossible. The real innovation is elsewhere, if you want to understand what really ignites interest in young learners and what the really important technology trends are you should not be going to BETT.

Why not check out events that really focus on innovation and engagement in the technologies that will be shaping our lives in the coming decades? Next year I have resolved not to go to BETT and spend the time at more focused events like Learning without Frontiers and the fantastic mobile conference run every November by Tomi Ahonen and Ajit Joakar.

The BETT show like the CES show in America has seen its glory days in years gone by, whilst these shows are still very large they are growing less significant year by year. CES used to be the most important trade show in the electronics world every year, it has been supplanted by Mobile World Congress. Everything is mobile, everything is personal and these old shows don’t reflect that.

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Mobile Money It’s not Just Tomi Ahonen Who Says it’s Perfect

Last week I went to a fantastic conference on mobile run by the University of Oxford.

Co-hosts for the day were Ajit Jaokar and Tomi Ahonen.

There were tonnes of great speakers including Peter Paul Koch who runs Quirks Mode – talking about the importance of having good relations with webdevelopers.

Not only did we hear about all sorts of fantastic mobile apps, smart cities of the near future and how we might use white-space spectrum to enable smart devices but one of the recurring themes was how your mobile phone will soon replace your wallet.

Mobile money is not just convenient for you it is potentially very exciting for banks, marketers and all sorts of other entrepreneurial people.  Currently there is a mad dash to see who will own this space with Google Wallet being one of the prime contenders.

Connecting your identity with your wallet and knowing your location will allow companies to accurately target you with personalised offers that really will consign Groupon to the spam bin. Dave Birch went even further to say that beyond Mobile Money identity is the next commodity.

Highlight of the day and was Tomi enthusing about his favourite subject. Here is the video sorry there is only 9 1/2 minutes but that was all i could take in one go on my phone.

The Mobile Platform Race – Info-graphic

I came across this info-graphic and since Blue Via were happy to share could not resist putting it on my blog.

The Mobile Platform Race

Obviously the last couple of weeks have been momentous in the mobile industry with Google’s purchase of Motorola Mobility and HP’s announcement that they are abandoning Web OS and in fact the hardware business altogether.

Times are changing rapidly in mobile. Whilst we may not feel entirely comfortable with the concentration of power in the industry into the hands of a few Mega Corporations it was always going to end this way with a handful of platforms reaching the end of the race.

From a consumer point of view this is both a good and bad thing, there is a less wide ranging choice as the number of platforms narrows and some may argue that this stifles innovation.

However I welcome the idea of a period of greater stability when we know which platforms are worth developing on.  This should actually make it easier and safer to develop innovative products and services so long as the Mega Corporations that control the platforms don’t get too greedy and lock stuff down and over tax the innovators for selling apps in their stores.

Less fragmentation is also a good thing for interoperability which is highly important if we are to achieve greater inclusion for the people unable to access technology and information currently.

Inclusivity Requires A Paradigm Shift

1 Billion plus people is not a niche market.

According to the World Health Organisation:

One in seven of the world’s population has some kind of disability.

Niche Market

A billion is obviously an extremely large number of individuals, that have needs to be met.

In the Western world the populations are ageing, improvements in healthcare are helping people live longer – this means that the number of people who require assistance coping with age related conditions is only going to grow.

There are likely to be ever increasing numbers of people with poor vision, hearing loss, limited mobility and cognitive difficulties and we need to ensure that they are not excluded.

This is what is sometimes referred to as a Megatrend. Megatrends are great forces in societal development that will affect all areas – state, market and civil society – for many years to come.

Another Megatrend is the rapid growth and increased mobility of populations.

This will put a strain on all kinds of resources but from an inclusion point of view there is great deal of cross over with the needs of the disability community.

Economic migrants and refugees from war and famine will often face language barriers to inclusion in their new countries.

Couple this with the need to educate and raise literacy levels in the general population as a whole and you have a problem that is just too big for governments to ignore.

Population-Explosion

Why then is there a belief that it is something that is small scale?

Perhaps the answer to this is because we are not focusing on the commonality of needs and trying to address each individual problem separately:

For example we frequently deal separately with the needs of people with dyslexia to the needs of people with poor literacy or those who face a language barrier when accessing technology and information, and separately again when addressing the needs of people with limited or no vision.

Whilst the way that these groups will interact with technology will be different the underlying technologies that are useful to them are often quite similar.

We have allowed special interest groups who are no doubt well-intentioned, to distort and fragment our understanding of the problem and where we often have a case where only those that shout loudest get their needs served.

Some disability advocacy groups are better organised and better funded than others:

Organisations such as the Action On Hearing Loss (formerly the RNID), NFB (National Federation of the Blind) in the US and RNIB have been very effective at lobbying and raising awareness – other organisations that represent the needs of people with Cognitive Difficulties such as Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, ADD, Aspergers etc. have historically been far less effective.

We have in effect created our own artificial niches.

This has created confusion and led to companies and governments addressing some issues to the detriment of others:

An example of this is VoiceOver on the iPhone, I think that what Apple has done for people with vision impairments is fantastic; they have embedded accessibility for blind people deep into the operating system.

  • But this is not something we can really call inclusive.
  • One group of people is no less deserving than another of these tools.

As a person with dyslexia I don’t use Voice Over on the iPhone because it turns off most of the stuff I want; including the normal touch screen interface with standard gestures.

It would not have taken much for Apple to give users greater control over the accessibility features rather than dictating preferences.

By giving the user greater configurability they would have immediately made their phones accessible to a much wider group of people who are currently excluded.

Why are more big companies not queuing up to get a slice of this huge market?

One reason may be the fact that this issues appear complex and they are not sure where to start. 
It is easier for them to focus on doing the stuff that they know and understand.

Another has to be fragmentation and the niche behaviour of the accessibility industry.

A fragmented market is not an attractive one to the big players, when we present and represent the needs of each disability separately we are making it less likely that business will address the issue.

I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about Accessibility and Assistive Technology and this has prompted me to have lengthy conversations with a number of good people like Gregg Vanderheiden at the Trace Center, Jonathan Hassell former Head of Accessibility for the BBC and Sandi Wassmer of Copious who recently shared her Ten Principles of Inclusive Web Design.

These conversations highlighted one key point for me:

We cannot afford to try and solve these problems one at a time.

Technology is moving faster than ever.

The pace of development and intensity of competition has led to fragmentation.

The way we consume information is changing, the growth of smartphones is explosive we should not confine our efforts to the desktop computer:

  • We are moving rapidly towards an “internet of things” where many kinds of devices are connected and consume and generate information.
  • There are over a Billion computers in the world but 5 Billion people own a mobile phone.
  • Yet for the most part mobiles are horribly inaccessible in themselves and accessing information on the web via a mobile is clunky at best.
  • Addressing inclusion one website at a time or one application at a time is a thankless task and ultimately a losing game.

The proliferation of data is enormous and will continue to accelerate:

  • There has been an explosion of User Generated Content.
  • More and more stuff is published by amateurs who are not web designers and have no knowledge of code or how to create accessible content.
  • Citizen journalism, social media and blogging are all adding to the weight of data out there and the trend is for this to accelerate as more and more people post stuff online from their mobiles.
  • Up until now great deal of focus has been placed on making websites conform with W3C’s WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines).
  • This approach is having some qualified success for the online presence of Governments (National & Local), big companies and service providers.
  • But it is leaving the rest of the web untouched and inaccessible.

It seems to me that the key to ensuring greater inclusion is to make the Apps, compilers, social media tools, content management systems, and blogging tools produce more accessible content for the people who are using them without them having to think about it.

Let’s be realistic;

The average blogger or social media user has nothing against people with disabilities.

But their needs don’t spring to mind when they are posting something about the party they just went to or the football match they are watching.

To be honest I think that it is unreasonable to expect them to.

This is why initiatives like Fix the Web are commendable but in my opinion doomed to limited success at best.

Addressing web accessibility one website at a time is akin to recalling every car in the world and retrofitting an electric motor.

It is not going to happen.

Access to Assistive Technologies is key to inclusion.

But only 15% of those who need them have these tools!

So what are the main issues?

Affordability:

The mainstream AT products are too expensive putting them out of the reach of those that need them most:

  • People on low incomes, excluded from work because of their disability, or unable to find funding.
  • People in poorer countries where grant support is not available or scarce at best.

In the western world the provision of AT has been subsidised by governments – this is great for the citizens who get what they need to access information and have a fair chance of leading a meaningful life being able to participate in education and work.

However, it has also had the effect of protecting AT vendors from market forces that have driven down the price of technology in the mainstream.

The argument has always been that Assistive Technology is a niche market with small customer bases and high production costs, that the challenges faced in producing AT are somehow harder than the challenges faced by other companies developing new technology and that this justifies the prices charged for products like JAWS, Read & Write, Dragon or Kurzweil.

Certainly my previous experience of being involved in developing AT software was a mixed bag.

Some of the development work was tricky, but I doubt it was harder than for others.

One of the barriers to setting an affordable price to the consumer was the cost of licensing components such as the OCR and Text To Speech.

Because the product we were developing was AT the vendors charged us between seven and thirty times the price that they charged for the same components when they were included in games or other mainstream consumer software using the niche market, low volume argument.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you price a product designed to address the needs of people who are often in the poorer segment of society in the hundreds of pounds you are pretty much sure only to sell a handful.

Lack of innovation and interoperability.

The market is changing and AT vendors need to up their game.

Despite the high cost of much Assistive Technology, there has not been much in the way of innovation in the well-known AT products for a long time.

Yes each new version brings another feature that can be used to justify the update but there has been nothing groundbreaking for years now and many of these feature are just serving to make the software more cumbersome.

I really believe that given the high cost of AT that the vendors ought to do more to make their products flexible enough to work with emerging mainstream technologies.  They should not just cry foul and blame everyone else.  Both the developers of new technology platforms and AT vendors need to be working to make their products work with each other out of the box as far as possible.

For example I do not agree with the approach taken by Freedom Scientific which I have encountered when reporting incompatibilities with JAWS and other software:

The stock response seems to be “get one of our partners to script it for you”.

This approach means that the work to make JAWS work with other programs is expensive, disjointed and does not get included in the application itself to benefit other users.

This has parallels with the problems we experience with web accessibility.

AT is all to often platform dependant.

Mobile technology is driving innovation – companies like Google and Apple have made it relatively easy for people to develop applications for their mobile operating systems, even Microsoft is doing it.

Furthermore these companies have given small developers a route to market that they did not have before, via their Appstores.

This has led to the launch of a raft of reasonably priced Assistive Technologies on mobile platforms.

Currently these products are not of the complexity or breadth of some of the AT available on a PC or Mac but the pace of development is fast.

Very few AT vendors are doing stuff on mobile and this is to my mind a big mistake.

Freeware and Open Source AT?

There is a growing amount of Assistive Technology available these days that is available for free or at low-cost and much of it is open source and developed collaboratively.

A great example of this is the free screen reader NVDA.

Whilst this is a good thing there is risk attached to this approach – by relying on volunteers or being funded by charitable contributions the products risk being outstripped by the pace of technology development and becoming out of date, losing compatibility and interoperability.

I am not arguing that AT producers should make no money; everyone in business has a right to expect to be allowed earn money for their work.

I am arguing that by abandoning the niche mentality, dropping prices significantly and addressing the needs of the larger market they will help more people and make more money.

Desirability:

Sometimes an Assistive Technology will by the very nature of what it does need to look and feel different from mainstream technology but often it does not have to.

A colleague of mine who is blind told me about visiting a trade fair for the visually impaired where he was looking to find a new watch.

He left disappointed and empty-handed because in his words he was “looking for something a little less blind”.

I am fed up of seeing software that looks like it was written for Windows 95 and that costs the earth.

We can and should do better – anyone who tells you otherwise is either lazy or lying.

The same applies to Assistive hardware and gadgets.

Even if it was free I would not want to use lots of the AT on offer today unless I had to because it flags up the fact that I am different.

Who wants to cart about the IntelReader which looks like it has been made by Fischer Price when you could use the K-reader, Beyo Reader, or CapturaTalk on a modern mobile phone?

Be honest which would you rather use?

This?

Intel Reader - It's huge

Or something like this?

Capturatalk on a Standard SmartPhone

This?

Plextalk Daisy Player

Or something like this?

Apple's Ipad 2

Certainly when I speak to people I know who use Assistive Technology they want to use consumer products like everyone else.  I know that Sandi Wassmer was delighted by the fact that her iPad 2 which she uses with Apple’s inbuilt accessibility tools was the subject of gadget envy.

If we are to achieve inclusion the solution needs to be in the mainstream

We need to engage with the people developing tomorrows technology right now.

Believe that we can use mainstream technologies to meet a far greater number of our inclusion needs.

We need to demonstrate that building inclusivity into their devices, platforms and software is a necessary part of their product development cycle.

That by doing so they are opening themselves up to a bigger and more profitable market than they already have.

Manufacturers need to provide a mechanism or framework to give greater configurability to their end users and make it easy for AT developers to make their products work with mainstream products.

To date only a handful of hardware device manufacturers have developed products that have accessibility features built-in  – software is further ahead in this respect.

Middleware may hold some of the answers.

I am looking at a number of solutions that hold out the hope of making mainstream consumer devices work in a way that makes them far more inclusive.

Perhaps the most exciting thing that I have come across recently is the GPII (Global Public Inclusive Architecture), the brain child of Gregg Vanderheiden.

It is a hugely ambitious undertaking that is fraught with the risk of failure but given the currently broken state of inclusion I think it is well worth pursuing.

I will be getting involved and encourage anyone else that wants to make a more inclusive future to do so too.

Here’s a summary from the GPII Website

GPII is a software and service enhancement to our broadband infrastructure designed to:

  • allow users to invoke and use the access features they need anywhere, anytime, on any device
  • provide users with simple flexible ways (“wizards”) to determine which access solutions work best for them
  • lower the cost to develop new types of assistive technology and new built-in “extended usability” features by
  • providing rich development tools
  • allowing developers, researchers, and consumers to work together to create better solutions with less duplication of effort
  • providing common core modules and services that can be used to build both commercial AT and built-in access features
  • reduce the delay in affordable access to new mainstream technologies as they are released
  • increase the number and variety of developers and invigorating the field by
    • lowering the entry costs for new assistive technology developers
    • providing a low-cost mechanism for moving new ideas from research to the market
  • increase the number and types of different access solutions, providing a better match for more types of users
  • provide better solutions for low incidence disabilities and combinations of disabilities not served well today (e.g., cognitive impairments, deaf-blindness)
  • improve the interoperability between mainstream and assistive technologies
  • increase the market penetration for all assistive technologies by increasing awareness and extending opportunities to try and select products and services
  • provide a mechanism to create ‘ubiquitous’ accessibility to match the evolving ubiquitous technologies
  • lower the cost to governments, businesses, employers, and others who need to provide access to all they serve
  • make it easier (less expensive and more realistic) for libraries and other public access points to serve all patrons
  • provide these rich, robust tools to citizens of developing countries, affordably

If you have a spare 8 minutes why not watch the video.

The Mobile App Phenomenon

It’s not the number of apps that matter.

Apps are important to the smartphone user experience and choice of device but they are not the be all and end all.

If you’ve consumed any media in the last couple of years you will have been bombarded by the message that “there’s an app for that!”.

Apple App Store Logo

Analysts and tech commentators like Robert Scoble are fixated by the App Phenomenon. Market valuations are predicated on how many apps a mobile platform has in it’s app store (sorry Apple not a Trademark – the judge rightly decided that it was a generic term). People are making value judgements based on numbers of apps alone.

android app store logo

To my mind this is not long term sustainable and does not reflect the reality of how many people use their mobile devices. Quality is important.

The tech community often operates in a bubble people feed off each other and are attracted to like minded individuals.

Whilst I enjoy twitter and love reading Engadget, techcrunch, scoblizer, mashable etc they are distorting people’s views of reality.

Robert Scoble and Mike Arrington are freaks!

Wow that sounds harsh!

What I mean is these guys are statistical anomalies, they do not resemble the normal consumer / user of technology. They adopt stuff before early because its their job to do so. They also often get free access to apps and gadgets because tech companies know that they love new stuff and will broadcast to the world if they feel like they are on the inside.

I am not condemning them for what they do, part of me would love Robert Scoble’s job:

Play with new toys, meet the toy-makers, surf the net, tweet a hell of a lot, post pics and generally brag about it in a likeable way.

But it’s a long way removed from the day to day lives of the vast majority of the people who buy smart phones and consume software and technology.

I would love to know how many of the “uber-cool” apps that appear in Scobleizer’s time line will be on his devices and used regularly in 6, 12 or 18 months from now.  My guess is that it will be a small percentage and those will be the ones with real value.

Real Life Technology Use

Think for a moment about your computer; there will be a load of stuff you can do with it but you probably don’t.

If you’ve had it a while most likely you’ll have filled it with stuff you’ve downloaded and programs you don’t use any more, slowly bringing it to it’s knees and reducing that whizzy feeling you had when you first used it.

No Bloatware logo courtesy of dl design

If you are disciplined enough you might give your computer an occasional spring clean and suddenly unburdened by the weight of bloat ware your computer runs sweetly again for a bit.

Why am I blathering on about computers when I should be talking about mobile? Well there is something to be taken from how we use the computer that points to weaknesses in the more is better apps argument.

I would be so bold as to say that “better is better”:

  • Giving customers what they need and will use is better.
  • Providing a compelling user interface that is a pleasure to use is better.
  • People liked the original iPhone not because of apps but because it was sleek, sexy and good to use.
  • Providing functions and features that genuinely make people’s lives better like voice over on IOS is better.
  • Secure push email (in it’s day) was better.
  • Turn by turn free navigation built into the OS is better…

Yes there will always be apps that meet a need that I will want and install on my phone, they may indeed inform my choice as to which phone I buy but it is not the overriding factor.

RIM as an example.

Blackberry Curve handset

Once the leading light of mobile the Black berry offered functionality that was not available elsewhere: Instant access to secure email and messaging where ever you are.  Business loved it and for a while they cleaned up.  But it did not take long for other to replicate the features.

The company is being slated at the moment and a tonne of money has been wiped off it’s market cap.

People point to a small number of apps in their store but the problem at RIM is deeper than that – the apps are expensive and poorly executed and most importantly of all the overall user experience has fallen behind pretty much every other mobile OS.

QNX may possibly provide a fix with the improved UX and android apps that but only time will tell and RIM will need to improve their hardware too.

Carrier Support is Key

Tommi Ahonen has been blogging about the carrier boycott of Nokia recently and how it is destroying their market share.  Most consumers buy their phones on contract and so carrier support is essential.  You can have a great package like Palm did with the Pre but without the backing of the Tel-cos it bombed.

There are a number of core functions that a user will want and that cannot live without that will play a large role in phone choice; as will price form factor and the over all experience.

It’s the total package that counts

That will be the clincher.

Do you really want to turn your phone into a smaller version of your PC with loads of rubbish that slows you down?

Overweight Android

To my mind: less but better is more.

The actual number of killer applications will be relatively small and most likely available cross platform (if not now then soon). Companies that only develop for iPhone are excluding the vast majority of potential consumers as Tomi Ahonen is fond of pointing out.

The day to day user experience is more important and at some point in the not too distant future people will wake up and stop swallowing the hype.