This past week, I attended and presented at a conference for Adaptive Technologists. This is my official geek-tech title. I work with people, primarily students, with disabilities, providing technical solutions to their accessibility needs. This is the premier conference for geeks like me, and I spend the entire week networking with others who do what I do. Usually our keynote speaker is someone from the disability services community — a counselor at a school, or head of a deaf institute or something along those lines.
This year, we had Dr. T.V. Raman, Research Scientist, from Google, Inc. The title of his keynote was Cloud Computing — Access Opportunity and Challenge. Dr. Raman spoke extensively about how cloud computing was the goal for the future, and that anyone who wasn’t headed toward that goal was going to be left behind. He also spent considerable time talking about how cloud computing could be the answer to the accessibility needs of our disabled population, in a way current software providers were not. Dr. Raman, blind since the age of 14, believes that accessibility should be, and will be built into future applications. Instead of a blind user having to purchase specialized (and expensive) software to work across all platforms and applications, the platforms and apps themselves will house the accessibility functions within them. This means that no special device or extra software will be required by anyone to use any application on any platform.
For a non-disabled person, it may not be clear what an advantage such innovation would be. Right now, a blind user is best equipped to do everything a sighted person can do only with their own laptop/computer/iPhone loaded with specialized (often expensive) software that allows them to “read” what they need to read. Imagine then, if the operating system, or the app being used, included adaptive technology built-in? That would mean that blind user could use anyone’s computer, anyone’s smart phone, and do what they needed to do. Imagine the freedom that this would bring. Expand that for low-vision users, for deaf users (built-in closed captioning on all multi-media), mobility impaired users, and virtually any other impairment, and you’ve got a whole new audience ready to use your apps.
And this was Dr. Raman’s message, the future he was seeing. He didn’t mention specifically a Google operating system at the time, but most of us have seen this as a potential future for a long time. Today we are told that a Google Chrome operating system will be released in late 2010. Featuring a much friendlier interface than most Linux installs, plus a decreased memory footprint and the expanded use of cloud computing, this has the potential to bust wide open access for a chunk of our population that is currently limited for many reasons. Accessibility software like Jaws for Windows or Zoomtext can cost a thousand dollars a pop; imagine getting that functionality built into the operating system or application being used.
Dr. Raman’s assertion that cloud computing is our future is pretty spot-on. Many of us are using cloud computing in substantial ways already, either through the use of Google Docs, through cloud storage like quanp and Dropbox, and organization systems like Microsoft OneNote. Why are we using them? Because they aren’t platform-dependent, and they are readily available to us as long as we have an Internet connection on the device we are using.
The Google Chrome operating system promises to be a huge leap towards cloud computing as a standard practice, something neither Apple nor Microsoft have truly embraced with any sort of gusto. It took the brains at Google to take this idea and make it real. They already made a huge leap with the release of the Android software for smartphones, and now for netbooks. The times, they are a’changing, and Google seems to be ahead of the curve. We’ve been asking for this for years; our mobile society no longer wants to be tethered to hardware, to desks, even to offices. And if the old standards no longer apply, then we must embrace new ones.
Dr. Raman was a dynamic and fascinating speaker. Many of his presentations and interviews are available online; simple searches should find them. I encourage everyone to take a listen (or read) what he has to say.