Accessibility in Windows 7  

Posted by Mohammad Talha in ,

This post is from Michael Bernstein, a development lead on the User Interface Platform team where he focuses on accessibility. Accessibility is the term we apply to the APIs and features that enable Windows to be used, to be accessible, by as many people as possible so that, regardless of physical or cognitive abilities, everyone has the ability to access the functions of Windows. To enable this, Windows includes both built-in accessibility utilities as well as APIs used by third party assistive technology aids and by application developers to make sure their software is also accessible. This is a topic that is extremely important to Microsoft and one that is a key tenet in the engineering of Windows 7. Microsoft also has a corporate-wide group dedicated to making sure that PCs are easier to see, hear, and use. You can read more about Microsoft’s accessibility initiatives on -Steven

Hi, I’m the development lead for Accessibility and Speech Recognition experiences in Windows 7, and I wanted to write about how we thought about Accessibility in Windows 7.

We wanted to make Windows 7 the most accessible operating system that Microsoft has ever produced. It became clear as we planned this release, however, that the notion of Accessibility is not as simple as it may appear. It is tempting to think about Accessibility like Security: either you have a known failure, or your system is believed to be secure/accessible. This definition turns out to be limited, though. How do you deal with the fact that the needs of customers who are blind are very different from the needs of customers who are deaf? The needs of customers who are blind are even different from those of customers with reduced vision: a magnification tool is useless for one group and crucial for the other. And what do we make of cases where something is technically accessible but practically frustrating, like a common user scenario that takes 36 keystrokes to execute? Clearly, Accessibility wasn’t going to boil down to a simple yes/no question. It is really more like a particular kind of usability, but usability for a specific set of audiences with individual needs.

Since the questions we were asking were complex, the answers ended up being complex, too. We chose a four-part strategy to improve Accessibility in Windows 7.

I. Build a firm foundation with UI Automation

In Windows Vista, Microsoft delivered a new core component for Accessibility called UI Automation. UI Automation enables a user’s assistive technology (AT) to programmatically drive the UI of an application, and allows applications to expose their accessible functionality in a richer way than was possible in previous versions of Windows. More questions can be asked about a piece of UI, and that UI can be manipulated in richer ways. UI Automation also introduced the idea of Control Patterns: any given piece of UI can decide how it should be controlled. Buttons expose the Invoke pattern, indicating that they can be pushed; Combo Boxes exposeExpandCollapse, indicating that they can be opened and closed. We let different controls be different, instead of trying to force them all into the same mold. All this was introduced in Windows Vista and adoption is still ongoing.

In Windows 7, we invested in improving the performance of the UI Automation system and created a new, native-code API for UI Automation to make sure that it can be used effectively by a wide range of assistive technology software. Now applications written in C++, as well as those written using the .NET Framework, can take advantage of UI Automation.

We also did a bunch of work to make sure that the UI Automation system was integrated even more closely with the legacy Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) system and developed new bridging techniques between the best of the new and the old technologies. UI Automation Clients can read Accessibility information from MSAA applications, and vice versa, to ensure maximum Accessibility regardless of which accessibility API an application used originally. Since the UI Automation and MSAA systems cooperate closely in many scenarios, we decided to name the combination of the two, calling it the Windows Automation API. This architecture forms the foundation for the rest of our Accessibility effort, and we’re pleased to have this Accessibility foundation Windows 7.

II. Improve our included Accessibility utilities

We also improved the Accessibility utilities that we include in the box with Windows. Microsoft works closely with many different AT software companies who deliver software to make Windows more accessible to customers with disabilities, but we also include a set of utilities to make sure that our customers’ early experiences are accessible, even before installing any other software. We decided to enhance two of those utilities in Windows 7: the On-Screen Keyboard and the Magnifier.

The most noticeable change to the On-Screen Keyboard is the improved look and feel, but there are also more subtle enhancements. The appearance of this utility had not changed since Windows XP; our customers were also asking for it to be resizable. We addressed both of these by working closely with Tablet developers to share a common code base between the Tablet Soft Keyboard and the On-Screen Keyboard. Both keyboards now have an attractive appearance that is in tune with Windows 7 and both are now resizable. The keyboards still are distinct, though, because customers use them differently: Tablet users may want to switch dynamically between handwriting and typing, whereas On-Screen Keyboard users may need modes where they can hover or scan to keys, if they have disabilities that prevent them from clicking. Along these lines, we also added basic text prediction to help customers with disabilities enter text more quickly. If you have ever tried typing with an on-screen keyboard, you can appreciate how significantly text prediction can improve text entry speed... (on full story)

III. Make it easier to build Accessible software

Windows APIs cannot provide Accessibility all by themselves; it is vital for Windows-based applications to do their part in providing Accessibility data for AT programs to use. For example, a screen reader may sound excellent, but if it can’t read your favorite web browser, what good is that? Assistive tools like screen readers and magnifiers are clients of the Accessibility system, while the applications that you want to use, like web browsers and word processors, are providers. It takes both to make the whole experience accessible--you need both a high-quality client and a well-written provider to have a good Accessible experience. There are more providers in the software ecosystem, so it is hard for us to work one-on-one with every provider to make sure they are well-written... (on full story)

IV. Plan for Accessibility from Day 1

To make sure that Windows features themselves were good providers, we borrowed an idea from the Software Development Lifecycle, risk assessment. Before a line of code was written, each planned Windows 7 feature was rated on its Accessibility risk. Features that use more basic, off-the-shelf common controls are usually more accessible because Windows provides built-in providers for off-the-shelf components; features that do fancy, custom drawing have more work to do. This planning process made each team aware of how much accessibility risk it was taking on, so that they could plan appropriately. Once the features were all rated, the list was sorted by risk so that our team could reach out to teams with high-risk features and make sure that they had the resources and tools they needed to make their feature properly accessible. We also ensured that they received more hands-on testing and validation. As a result, most Windows features are more accessible than they have been in previous releases, making for a better overall customer experience... (full story)

The news is coming in thick and fast from PDC08. Microsoft have just announced that Windows Azure, a new cloud computing service, will be launched at the same time as Windows 7. Windows Azure will allow data and applications to exist online in the ‘Cloud’, rather than locally on a PC.

Moving Microsoft’s cash cows, Windows and Office, onto the internet is a big move for Microsoft and will allow it to enter an arena already occupied by companies like Google. By tying it to the launch of Windows 7, Microsoft clearly intend to use Windows 7 to try and entice customers to use Microsoft’s other products and services, rather than those of their customers.

One of the touted benefits of Azure is zero downtime for applications, as applications can be patched without shutting down other running applications. I hope this will lead to new functionality being added to Windows applications more frequently, rather than the current 2 year product cycle. It will also do away with the need to constantly run Windows Update and reboot local machines, as more updates will be done automatically.

Key components of the Azure Services Platform include the following:

  • Windows Azure for service hosting and management, low-level scalable storage, computation and networking
  • Microsoft SQL Services for a wide range of database services and reporting
  • Microsoft .NET Services which are service-based implementations of familiar .NET Framework concepts such as workflow and access control
  • Live Services for a consistent way for users to store, share and synchronize documents, photos, files and information across their PCs, phones, PC applications and Web sites
  • Microsoft SharePoint Services and Microsoft Dynamics CRM Services for business content, collaboration and rapid solution development in the cloud
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