Why Pay for a Screen Reader?
One of the most popular buzzwords in recent years is open source. There is an enormous movement to create open source versions of popular programs with the goal of saving the consumer, government, or employers money.
In the world of screen readers, this situation is no different with the introduction of several alternatives, depending on your operating system of choice. While these options have come a long way in providing access to those who could otherwise not afford it, we still believe there are plenty of reasons to shell out that hard-earned cash for a commercial screen access product. Here are a few.
Stability. The major screen readers on the market today have been around for a long time. Both Jaws and Window-Eyes are born out of DOS predecessors developed in the late 80s and early 90s. With 20 years of development, extended public beta cycles, and full-time programmers on their side, these companies are able to more efficiently address the most pressing access needs in a timely fashion. Although they are improving, most open source alternatives are green and will throw errors at you from time to time. Are the major players perfect? Certainly not. We would have expected that this wealth of experience would allow for a simultaneous release of access for Vista when Microsoft released the operating system, but alas, only GW Micro and Serotek rose to that occasion.
Documentation. Product manuals, recorded tutorials, knowledge bases, mailing lists, and much more can be found on the major screen reader websites. Furthermore, third parties have created many tutorials, textbooks, and podcasts giving the end-user even more options for learning. While open source projects like NVDA have a willing group of people to help you in a time of crisis, it's nice to have a wealth of resources available when it's three in the morning and you can't remember the hotkey to read the progress bar indicator.
Company Contacts. It's important to note that much of the interface that NVDA, Thunder, and other free solutions are built on is a result of years of discussions, requests, and prodding from the likes of GW Micro and Freedom Scientific. MSAA, the Java Access Bridge, and many other initiatives were created to allow screen readers to access information, much of which wasn't accessible several years ago. The effort that would have been required to create a workable open source project ten or even five years ago would probably not have been feasible to say the least.
Speech. If you want your screen reader to sound good, you generally have to pay for this functionality. Larger companies are able to leverage their user base and buying power to buy affordable licenses for technologies such as Eloquence and Realspeak. This is part of what you are paying for when you buy a product. Your options in open source solutions are generally limited. Even adding Neospeech voices for a free reader will cost you a few bucks.
Some of you may be reading this and concluding that we're open source haters. That couldn't be farther from the truth. NVDA is installed on every computer we own, and it makes for a great back up screen reader. Whenever my primary screen reader of choice decides to take a temporary unannounced break, pressing the NVDA hotkey starts my machine talking again and allows me to return things to normal. But considering the time, development costs, synthesizers, and array of support options available with the major players, it's still worth it in our opinion to include the latest and greatest screen reader in our budget.