Recently, we received a Blog comment from a reader who was concerned about what he perceives to be the excessive cost of the technology we produce at Freedom Scientific. We were grateful to the customer for engaging with us. Rather than bury our response in a comment to an existing post, we want by way of this new post to describe some of the challenges, opportunities and programs we’ve implemented in this regard.
Most programs mentioned in this post are for customers in the United States, but many distributors from around the world take initiatives to put the best assistive technology in the hands of more people. If you’re outside the United States, contact your distributor and talk with them.
When evaluating the cost of something, it helps to understand a little about what’s involved in making it.
Turning a concept in someone’s head into a commercial product people can use is an extremely costly and time-consuming process.
Inevitably, there are hits as well as misses. An idea that a company is certain will be the next big thing might hit a road block that can’t be overcome, meaning the project is shelved. There’s a significant cost to that.
When a company finally arrives at that celebratory moment when they can start selling a product, they must recover the significant cost of making the product before they can even make a dollar.
Once a product is out, it must be well-supported. When you order one for work or school, you want it shipped promptly. You expect to be able to call someone on the phone for qualified help. If a product that you depend on to get the job done requires servicing, you want it back ASAP. All the people who make those things possible also must be paid.
These things are true for all commercial manufacturers. But here’s the thing. If you’ve designed a product for the mainstream market, the cost of development can be spread out over perhaps millions of units. For the kind of products we make, that’s not possible. The cost of manufacture must be spread out across fewer units. Inevitably, that raises the price of what we must charge to stay viable.
That said, as part of our research and development work, we always investigate ways to manufacture products more cost-effectively. For example, in just over a decade, Freedom Scientific has made two separate 40% cuts to the cost of refreshable Braille displays. That’s a direct result of research and development work we’ve done that convinced us we were able to ship a quality product using a manufacturing process that cost us less. We passed those savings onto our customers, which forced other manufacturers to respond to stay viable. When you also factor inflation into the equation, we’ve made Braille substantially more affordable, but we know there’s more to do.
There are similar factors on the software side. Our Research and Development team has invented many of the techniques now taken for granted and used by screen readers on multiple platforms. Software engineers, quality assurance personnel, and others involved in our software need to put food on the table.
We’ve made great strides over the years, that’s for sure. But there is much more to be done, and with a 30-year track record of providing products that make it possible for blind people to obtain and retain employment, the work goes on.
The Value we add
One of the positive benefits of the progress we’ve made is that we have managed to put screen reading on the radar of mainstream manufacturers. We’re pleased about this. Windows, for example, comes with WordPad, and a free, basic antivirus solution. You might use WordPad from time-to-time if you’re writing something basic, but if you’re a serious writer, you’ll subscribe to Office 365. We celebrate that our partners at Microsoft have Narrator on every PC providing some out-of-box accessibility for everyone, while JAWS continues to offer a premium, supremely customizable and powerful experience.
Once the need for a third-party solution is established, system administrators in commercial, academic, and government organizations have an obligation to keep their installations running smoothly and securely. They need assurance that they are installing a product whose code can’t be tampered with and is well-tested and maintained. System administrators may not be assistive technology experts, so they need commercial-level support that is just a phone call away if there are issues.
That’s the kind of commercial-level support we take pride in offering.
What matters most, in the end, is the difference we make to the people who use our products. We’ve built JAWS for Windows these last 22 years in close consultation with many of our users around the world. We believe, and they continue to tell us, that the value we add is significant. Making a screen reader that works with many well-behaved applications is now much easier than it ever was, thanks to our decades of advocacy to Microsoft for official, well-documented solutions for accessing the operating system. But we also tackle the hard stuff. Only JAWS is your ticket to work in those situations where you need access to difficult applications, or you need truly powerful screen reading beyond basic announcement and review in a wide variety of applications.
Further, if you’re a professional using a screen reader, you need quality technical support, documentation, and a guarantee that the product is likely to be viable in the long-term. It’s your livelihood on the line, after all, and we take that responsibility seriously.
We’re honored that many providers of rehabilitation services for the blind worldwide choose JAWS. The feedback we receive indicates that they do so because they know that if you’re a JAWS user, you’re more likely to be able to obtain or retain work, due to its rich feature-set. In the United States, the vocational rehabilitation system is outcomes-driven, and the outcomes are clear for competent JAWS users.
We believe that a rehabilitation agency investing in JAWS for a client is an investment that will be returned through a blind person being able to contribute as an employed tax payer.
We’re also proud of the agreements we’ve negotiated in Colombia and Spain, resulting in every blind person in those countries being given access to JAWS for free. We continue to explore negotiating such agreements in other countries and states.
Software Maintenance Agreements
Sometimes, agencies will purchase a license for JAWS, and perhaps the first software maintenance agreement, but will decline to purchase additional SMA renewals. This means that if a customer who isn’t working wants to stay current with one of our software products that offers an SMA, it might be necessary for them to charge the cost to a credit card. We know that requires some careful thought if you’re on a fixed income.
Using JAWS as an example, when you buy an SMA, you’re getting much more than two major versions of JAWS. We release updates regularly throughout the year, available to everyone who has purchased the current major version.
Windows is changing frequently now, with major updates being released every six months. With its expanded commitment to accessibility, Microsoft also continues to make changes to Office on a regular basis. An SMA ensures you get quality support for these changes, as well as new screen reading functionality such as our support for cameras and scanners in JAWS 2018.
In the United States, the SMA for JAWS Home costs $120 for two years. This equates to a little over $1 per week, a little less than 20 cents a day, to keep your screen reader current and have access to technical support and training resources when needed. That’s far less than a Netflix or Spotify subscription.
Home Use Program
If you’re employed at a company, agency, school or non-profit where the organization has a current multi-user license of JAWS or ZoomText, you are eligible for the Home Use Program. If your qualifying organization hasn’t yet enrolled in the Home Use program, encourage the person who looks after JAWS in the organization to give us a call. We’d love to set you up.
When the Home Use program is active, all employees or students are eligible to purchase a license for JAWS Home Edition for their own personal use at home, for just $125. An SMA is also discounted to $100 for two years of upgrades. That license is yours to keep, irrespective of whether you remain associated with the organization enrolled in the program.
ZoomText costs even less. Discount pricing is also available for OpenBook, and our new Fusion product, which includes JAWS screen reading and ZoomText magnification. Additionally, Home Use participants are eligible for a 20% discount off all VFO hardware.
We also extended the Home Use program to the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind. This means that all registered attendees at their national conventions in recent years have been entitled to a license for JAWS Home for just $125, with similar discounts on other products.
Windows is the operating system used by most workplaces. We believe that if students are equipped with skills in technology powerful enough to support them in employment, they’re more job-ready, and they’ll have one less thing to worry about at that busy time when they’re coming to grips with a new job. We’ve partnered with The American Printing House for the Blind to create a single student edition subscription.
This is an annual subscription-based program for K through 12 students, available through quota funds. When a student has this subscription, they have access to JAWS, ZoomText, Fusion and MAGic. They can install any or all of this software on as many PCs as they need, including at home.
We believe this model is important in the context of a student’s IEP and other evaluations. It may be that the student has sufficient vision to use screen magnification initially, so they start with ZoomText. Then, the prognosis may make it advantageous for a student to transition to speech. The subscription for the student allows them to install Fusion at no additional charge, providing them with access to JAWS. Or they may remove magnification entirely, and install JAWS on its own.
After four annual subscriptions, the licenses for all this software belongs to the student, even when they finish their education. We provide students with an SMA for all the products at no charge up until grade 12, then it is up to the student to maintain the licenses.
We have agreements in place with an increasing number of colleges, such as the 24 colleges in New York referred to as City University New York (CUNY). These agreements allow any student or faculty member who needs it to get JAWS for free, and use it on any PC they access, at school and at home. We’ll be continuing to expand this program.
We’re not done yet
As I hope you can see, we’ve given this issue a lot of thought. We’re no good to you if we stop being the thriving, sustainable company we are today. But we’re proud of our products, and we want to put them in the hands of as many people as we can.
The initiatives I’ve outlined above have made a positive difference, but we know there are still people that our current programs haven’t reached yet. We have some bold new plans in store for 2018 that we hope will build on what we’ve started.
2018 is going to be a big year.
Finally, if you’ve let your SMA lapse for a while and are concerned that the cost to get current again would be too prohibitive, please do give us a call. We’d be happy to work with you to get you equipped to face the new challenges and opportunities tomorrow’s technologies will bring. Making our products more widely available, while remaining a sustainable business that can pay our talented team, means we look forward to being with you on the journey.