Elizabeth Montalbano and Andy Updegrove write about IBM’s donation of iAccessible2 to the Free Standards Group, which is being formally announced today (see the IBM and FSG press releases). In addition to IBM, the project is backed by Sun, Oracle, SAP and other major vendors.
This is a big deal in and of itself, of course, because it will make applications based on ODF, AJAX, and other emerging open standards more accessible to visually impaired users. But it’s also an important milestone for the FSG, so I thought I should say a few words about that here from my own little pulpit.
The first clue is that iAccessible2 is an accessibility API for Windows. Windows? Yes, the FSG is primarily a Linux organization (our main project is, of course, the Linux Standard Base), so why on earth are we now involved in building APIs for Windows?
First of all, we’ll be moving this project forward as an extension to our existing accessibility projects—which, given the way the FSG is structured, flow into the LSB as they are adopted by the Linux distributions (who, as I’ve already mentioned here, are active participants in the LSB project, so we’re not just hoping the distros adopt our work, we’re proactively trying to drive consensus on these key issues). So, this definitely impacts our Linux work by bringing accessibility features to Linux that not only equal those of Windows but exceed them (iAccessible2 itself came about because Microsoft Active Accessibility has notable shortcomings).
But it’s more than that. Another way to look at this is that the LSB APIs will be taking on a distinctly more cross platform flavor, particularly in the “around the edges” cases such as this. Again, that begs the question: Why is cross platform support important for a Linux organization? That one’s simple. APIs are for application developers. Application developers target multiple platforms. The less Linux specific work an application developer has to do to support Linux, the more cost effective a Linux version will be, the more likely it is to get done. It’s all about more Linux apps.
There’s another dimension to it as well. There are a certain class of features that the vast majority of developers don’t think much about because that vast majority doesn’t need them. There’s no itch to scratch, as it were. Accessibility is a great example of such a feature: I have no idea what it’s like to be blind, nor do most people. If we can provide a set of open, cross platform APIs that allow application developers to easily add such features to their products, more standards based products will support them.
As Massachusetts and ODF brings into sharp focus, these “around the edges” cases developers don’t think much about can turn out to be very important indeed.