I am trying to decide today whether Rob Sinclair is a hero or a villain to the assistive technology community. (Picture from IEEE Spectrum, which credits Houghton Mifflin.)
I am inclined toward the former view, but hear the other side before deciding.
IEEE Spectrum has a profile of Sinclair the hero this month. He is the head of the accessible technology group at Microsoft. In that job he has added many good things to Microsoft Vista, the new version of Windows introduced late last year. These include "enhanced screen magnification, voice control, and dictation, plus improved compatibility with third-party assistive technology products."
All good things.
Perhaps the most important contribution Sinclair has made is the Microsoft User Interface Automation model. The idea is to let any application talk to any assistive technology through a set of APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces. Best of all, Sinclair wants to expand the use of MUIA, making an industry standard so it can be used with Macs and Linux systems.
So what's the problem?
A proprietary standard is just that, proprietary. In the past Microsoft has always used its innovations as a wedge to keep other products out of the market. Its use of assistive technology in fighting Massachusetts' adoption of the Open Document Format stands out in this regard.
Microsoft has used the disabled community. Its minor, proprietary enhancements to Windows, and their adoption by leading vendors, has turned disabled people into Microsoft lobbyists, and thus stifled the move to open standards that would benefit everyone.
More recently Microsoft has played a more subtle game. Rather than seeking direct commercial advantage, it has sought to have its technologies adopted as part of an "open" standard. But they remain proprietary. Thus, while open source could access these innovations, users would always have to pay for them. And once they're standards, that tax becomes eternal.
It is for this reason that I'm of two minds concerning Rob Sinclair. On the one hand Rob Sinclair and Microsoft have produced innovation, and that is the first requirement. On the other hand this innovation has been used to lock users in to a proprietary environment, both now and in the future. Not just disabled users either.
So we report. You decide.