Twenty Years in the Access Technology Business for Dolphin
Next year, Dolphin Computer Access Ltd, a subsidiary of the Dolphin Group of companies, will celebrate twenty years in the field of access technology designed for people with low or no vision. Today, as was true in the early years of the company, Dolphin strictly adheres to a single key principle, namely to develop robust software solutions which are capable of making mainstream off-the-shelf IT accessible to its target audience. However, as a progressive company working to stay in the forefront of technology and making that technology work effectively for its customers, Dolphin is a very different kettle of fish from the company it was when it began life in 1986. Dolphin currently employs over fifty staff and has offices in Sweden and the USA, in addition to its UK base, out of which have come software products which have over time earned the company a worldwide reputation in its field.
In the past, Dolphin has not been without its critics, due primarily to the apparent lag behind other Windows access products that its own solutions appeared to exhibit. However, what the critics neglected to take into account when publicly airing their views, was the fact that in order to get anywhere near to achieving its self-set demanding goal of producing robust access to mainstream IT environments, Dolphin needed to have in place strict planning and design strategies for software development, which needed to encompass a phased introduction of new features to their access product range based upon a firm foundation. With a philosophy of producing solutions that open up mainstream IT environments, Dolphin continues to reinvest heavily in all areas of research and development. As I write this article, Dolphin customers are enjoying access to their Windows-based computers with at least as effective accuracy as is offered by competitors. It can reasonably be argued in fact that there are distinct advantages to the Dolphin solution over other products because of the way in which Dolphin attacks non-standard interfaces by means of map files. These map files contain a smorgasbord of features which can be employed when making some difficult interfaces accessible. It is a fact that more and more users of Windows access technology are now running two screen readers, one of which commonly is Dolphin's, in order to give themselves the widest range of access to off-the-shelf applications.
Over the years, as access technology has undergone very rapid development, one particular phenomenon has become associated with Dolphin whenever the company announces a new addition to its product range via a press release. The subject of the announcement immediately becomes the focus of public discussion on both newsgroups and e-mail lists. Both supporters and critics of Dolphin products alike draw together their troops and offer opinions on the content of the newly announced technology. Sadly, many of these opinions have in the past portrayed at very least a poor understanding of what is being announced, not to mention the ramifications that the new technology might have for both Dolphin's existing and future customer base.
Consider, for instance, the events which took place following Dolphin's announcement of their new and unique concept of map files as a means of customising their Windows screen reader to work correctly with non-standard interfaces of bespoke applications. A number of prominent individuals were instantly critical of the approach, claiming that it would not work and was too difficult for a blind person to use. Several years on, there is a growing number of Dolphin customers, many of whom have no useful vision, who are regularly making very non-standard interfaces work correctly by designing their own map files. Indeed, it is fair to say that there are graphical interfaces in the world today which are accessible via a Dolphin map but which thus far have not been completely "cracked" by techniques employed by other access products. Incidentally, some of the ardent critics of the concepts used in map files at the time were almost certainly simply reacting to the fact that they would be unable to make money by writing and selling map files to the Dolphin community, simply because Dolphin itself from the outset has actively encouraged its customers to get to grips with mapping for themselves and will provide instant guidance to any individual who is trying to map an application. Furthermore, Dolphin actually has a dedicated team whose job it is to map applications and distribute them to their customers via an automatic Internet update tool as part of the excellent and free of charge technical support on offer.
Recently, Dolphin has once again been in the news by making two new product announcements. The first announced the arrival of the Dolphin Pen; the second hailed the forthcoming Pocket Hal screen reader designed for use with a standard commercial Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). Once again, the Internet started to carry discussion on the concepts behind these new products as soon as the product information became public knowledge, and this seemed to offer a most opportune time for us to look at these products and indeed more generally at the work currently going on in Dolphin today. Accordingly, I paid a visit to the Dolphin offices in Worcester to see for myself exactly what all the current talk is about.
So what is the Dolphin Pen and what are the issues associated with its use? The Dolphin Pen is simply a USB memory stick, resembling a conventional pen in appearance. Your choice of Dolphin screen access software is installed on the pen by Dolphin, and the pen is plugged directly into a USB port of a conventional Windows workstation. This approach has two key advantages for the user.
The access product can be legally run on any workstation without having to pre-install it first. This means that as more organisations use desk-sharing, the pen user can work on any machine and not be confined to a dedicated one. Furthermore, this concept opens up job opportunities in IT support, since the pen user can move to a machine for which a reported fault needs to be addressed. Finally, any machine, such as those found in local libraries and places of education can be used by blind and partially-sighted users provided that the organisation is willing to make its machines "Dolphin Pen" compliant.
The access product remains copy-protected yet still usable on any compliant machine, since the pen effectively behaves akin to a USB protection dongle.
Two principle objections to this technology have been raised. First, for best results, the Dolphin Pen does require that Dolphin's Display Chain Management (DCM) compliant graphic interceptor be installed on each workstation on which the Dolphin Pen will be used. Some contend that the IT department of a corporate environment such as a company, public library or place of education will raise objection to allowing this to be installed. Second, many organisations implement a policy of denying access to all ports, including USB, on workstations for the ordinary user so as to prevent the deliberate or sometimes unintentional introduction of harmful software. Let us consider these two issues in turn.
First, it is true that the installation of the Dolphin graphic interceptor does still effectively introduce a change to the generic workstation build. But having downloaded the interceptor (which is incidentally completely free of charge) from Dolphin's website, I have been able to prove to my complete satisfaction that its introduction has no adverse effect on the general operation of the workstation. Therefore, an organisation wishing to deploy the Dolphin Pen can, in my opinion, incorporate the interceptor into its standard workstation build at no additional risk.
Second, there are, of course, good reasons why an organisation may decide to prevent users from being able to access the ports of a workstation. However, on a Windows domain for which users each have a roaming profile, it is possible to allow only specific users to have access to ports, controlled by the user's profile. Thus a potential Dolphin Pen user may have USB access enabled for their profile, while the mainstream user does not. This does imply that an element of trust has to be adopted by the IT department, but I would suggest that we all at times have to exercise an element of risk management as part of our working life.
But by far the most interesting development which I was able to get my hands on during the visit was Dolphin's Pocket Hal screen reader. In 1996, Dolphin stated that their aim was to be able to incorporate a full working implementation of their screen reader into a commercial PDA. At the time, I was firmly convinced that they were asking the impossible of themselves, due primarily to the limitations imposed both by PDA architecture and general system resources available. My doubts had been further compounded as I had watched mainstream PDA technology advance over the ensuing ten years, particularly as I noticed the increasing use of touch screens as the method by which sighted users communicate with today's devices. My fears were soon dispelled, but to understand why, we need to look briefly at some basic PDA concepts.
In general, the conventional PDA uses the Windows CE operating system as its heart. Currently, two approaches to making this technology available for low vision users are to be found. The first approach takes the core CE system as its base and develops a dedicated software suite which offers the functionality of a conventional PDA to the user via braille and/or speech. The second approach is again to take the CE platform and to incorporate a significantly slimmed down version of a popular screen reader into it. The first approach has the advantage of providing a very simple and easy-to-use interface to the applications for the user. The second has the advantage that it allows the user to use off-the-shelf products such as Pocket Word, Pocket Excel and Pocket Outlook, but generally does not work out of the box with the entire CE environment. So what, you may ask, is unique about Pocket Hal?
Very simply, Pocket Hal is entirely the same product as its desktop sibling but it can run on most CE compatible PDA's. Even the notion of map files associated with applications carries over into Pocket Hal, meaning that the entire PDA environment can be made accessible, including applications of the future. Dolphin has developed its own keyboard driver which allows external Bluetooth keyboards and braille displays to communicate with the PDA, thus alleviating the need to use the touch screen. When I first heard of this breakthrough, my feeling was one of concern. Would it mean that in order to have braille and speech access, together with keyboard control of my PDA, I would need to be accompanied on my journeys by a lorry carrying the necessary external peripherals? I had already become disillusioned by the need to carry a certain popular dedicated PDA around in a rucksack! The simple answer was no! If, like me, you often wish to use braille, all that is required is simply to use a handheld device such as an EasyLink display from Optelec while you drive your PDA which is safely tucked away in your pocket! Alternatively, if you wish to use a conventional keyboard you can simply use a pocket-sized folding Bluetooth QWERTY keyboard, the choice is yours! The implications of this advancement in mobile access technology are enormous for Dolphin's target audience. There is a rapidly growing trend for mobile phone technology to merge with that of the PDA, producing what is being called the Smart Phone. As this technology becomes the norm, Dolphin will be well placed to offer full access to it for its customers using Pocket Hal.
No article about the work of Dolphin would be complete without making mention of the work that the company has been doing in the field of electronic books. The Digital Audio Information System (Daisy) format for books needs no introduction to readers of this publication. Dolphin's EaseReader player for Daisy books, together with its EasePublisher for easy preparation of books in Daisy format are in widespread use in many countries. Indeed, these products are now being deployed in mainstream education as it becomes evident that multimedia books can help the sighted person to study and read in addition to helping low vision users. With an estimated 20% of eleven-year-olds in the UK now falling below the expected reading level for their age, Dolphin's book solutions are beginning to make small inroads into reversing this worrying trend.
In conclusion, even the most fervent cynic cannot justifiably say that no good work is going on behind those Dolphin doors. That Dolphin has long ago passed through its period of struggling to convince the world of its capability I have no doubt at all. In fact, it could even be suggested that the company would now be entitled to have the last laugh over its critics. Entitled it may be, but what we are far more likely to see is new emerging products from Dolphin which will continue to keep in step with a rapidly changing world of technology.