Today may be a pretty historic day when it concerns innovation and partnerships. Window-eyes might not be a household name among screen readers, but it’s discontinuation means that many especially within the international blind community may be impacted. For anyone who has used the offer whereby a free copy of Window-eyes could be used with Office licenses, you will now be running an unsupported screen reader, and we know how quickly Microsoft has been changing their framework with newer, more modern Windows 10 releases. I am for one doubtful that Window-eyes users will ever experience the new audio ducking behavior changes which will be coming in releases such as NVDA 2017.2. Alas, updates will come no more.
Of course, there is no grand exit for anything. Just a simple FAQ page and transition table. VFO did not say they will release Window-eyes as a free screen reader entirely, with perhaps a patched wetool.dll file that has a license, or a way to request licenses for free for those needing it. In fact, for anyone wishing to reinstall their license, there will probably be no official ways of recovering it once the Window-eyes servers go offline which handled such requests. This may have future headache ramifications for some. Although you could argue that free users should use NVDA across Europe and “screw Window eyes because it was one of the worst screen readers ever anyway!” This day, then, marks how easily 22 years of programming work can be stopped and “thrown out the window.”
Of course, I started by using Window-eyes 2.1 on Windows For Workgroups, so I may be a little bias. Those were different times. I was using a Brailab PC connected via a parallel port, with a dictionary file that translated the interface to Hungarian. There were no software-based text to speech engines in Hungary back then, so emulating a DecTalk PC was the only option.
For existing product users, the pricing to upgrade is not super expensive, and free if you are running the latest 9.5.4 copy. 8.x users won’t pay more than $200 (and that’s a pro migration,) and mirrors the price of what one SMA count may be with JAWS, so it makes sense completely. The only users who can continue using Window-eyes for free are office ones, though it sounds as though even that partnership is winding down among Microsoft and VFO; VFO has committed to supporting the free license option for office users in the future, with a warning about the changes which could break it as software evolves. There is also mention of a “home-use” program, which we had confusions with originally, so will clarify here for everyone. Freedom Scientific’s site describes this program as something for organizations to use with their clients. It will offer a copy of JAWS home for users of Office and this home-use program at only $125, which is the price of one SMA for a home user, and at least 1/8 the cost of the original $900 pricepoint.
At least for my comfort, I will now know that running Window-eyes 2.1 will always be possible in a virtual machine, with Windows 3.1 and an emulated Braille & Speak driver which relies on Espeak in reality. It’s an option, and most likely for decades, running an outdated copy of Windows (for as long as it works at least) and will keep this piece of Assistive Technology alive. I think many expected this, as since 2016 even the fixes and development on the product were winding down, and once AI Squared, who originally purchased GW Micro a few years back sold their brand to VFO, the future prospects of multiple commercial screen readers were shot as well.
Looking ahead though, it’s clear that the screen reading competition will dwindle as usage collects around one or two common ones. This is a pattern which virtually every tech market has undergone, as it matures around its users. In reality, room for a 4th screen reader was becoming tighter and tighter, and with the VFO merger, maintaining them became more costly with the user base. Window-eyes, it was great to know you. Even though you had crappy browse mode for a long time (which became better and more context aware in 9.5,) you also provided people such as myself to use international speech synthesizers and opened up the world of English Windows to them. These users still have Dolphin as an option, so perhaps that’s another road to take, if it can meet your needs. You gave hope to international users and some us-based one by letting them pay their license for years through your flexible loaning and leasing programs. For these, VFO has published tutorials and migration podcasts explaining keyboard command differences. The parity between JAWS and Window-eyes on this is far less than, say, JAWS and Magic, but may ease the pain slightly for some. There is no other path scenarios, such as going from Window-eyes to NVDA, though it’s possible that many will choose this option if it suits their needs. Future Webaim surveys should look quite interesting.
In some ways, Window-eyes gave an option only Serotek challenged at the time; The option for you to buy your screen reader piece by piece and get a new license each month to continue using it as a full copy. Consider this to be the Window-eyes memorial. How would an Epitaph for Window-eyes read?
“Here lies Window-eyes,
After it was bought, met its demise.
Gave customers flexibility,
Unfortunately, no software is immune to mortality.”