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Speech of Bill Gates from Microsoft at the Microsoft accessibility day in February 1998


At the Microsoft accessibility summit last week, Bill Gates, the corporate president, made public commitments to accessible products and services in an unprecedented speech, a transcript of which follows, including a question and answer session at the end.

Remarks by Bill Gates
Microsoft Corporation
Accessibility Day
February 19,1998
Redmond, WA

MR. GATES: Well, good morning. And thanks for coming to
Microsoft. We've got a very unusual mix of people here today, and I think it's going to be a fantastic get-together. Of course, the advocates for accessibility, representatives from government, the independent companies that have done a lot to build on top of our products and make PC accessibility happen as well as it has today, and we've got pioneers here like Gregg Vanderheiden, Judy Heumann who have been leaders in driving these innovation solutions. And then, very importantly, we've got the Microsoft employees who are involved in making sure that across our broad product line we give this the priority it deserves.

Our vision when we started the company was a computer on every desk and in every home. And in this setting, I think the word to emphasize there is "every." The PC can be a tool for everyone. And the opportunity with innovative hardware and software to make this essentially the greatest accessibility aid ever is something that is very, very exciting to us. There's no doubt that we have a lot more to do in this area, but just think about the Internet and all the information that's out there. When we've got very high quality voice synthesis built into the PC, and easy ways of doing navigation, all of that Internet information will be available to everyone.

Our customers, very broadly, care about these accessibility issues. Its been a big issue for governments at the state level, at the federal level, but also large corporations want to reach out and give all their employees the opportunity to take advantage of these technologies. I think there's no doubt that legislation and regulations are going to be looking at these areas. We want to make sure we get out there with solutions way, way before that happens. We want to make sure we're a model of how all this should be done.

There's a lot of creativity and cleverness that can go into architecting these solutions. In some areas, like allowing the keyboard to be redefined I think we have exercised that creativity. The most difficult areas have to do with the visually-impaired as we moved from the character mode to the graphical interface. That was a transition where we didn't pay enough attention to what this would mean for people who are visually-impaired, and that's something that we're really having to go back and put a lot more resources in to address that. We have made a lot of progress. We've adopted a formal policy about ourproducts and services. We've developed a framework for the new technology.This is the active accessibility capability as well as the standards forcaptioning and audio descriptions. The product documents, now we're making them available in a format that's free, and that everybody can get at those in the different forms. And we really are starting to build the key accessibility features into Windows. So there's definitely been some highlights. We're going to use Windows' logo to help drive these features not only in our products, but also into our partners products.

In terms of low lights, I'll just mention two. The first is not putting enough resources into this area soon enough. And so a little bit being in a catch-up mode relative to Windows and graphical interface products, and then most recently where we actually took a step backwards, where we had Internet Explorer ship with less accessibility than in the previous version. And even though we were able to very rapidly turnaround and in 30 days ship version 4.01 that solved those problems, it definitely sent the wrong message, internally and externally. And so we've got to make sure that we're not going backwards. In fact, quite the opposite, that as we're getting major releases out, we're taking big steps forward.

And so every team now, when they specify their product, they've got to address accessibility. That's of greatest importance for our high volume products, in particular products like Windows and Microsoft Office. We've created an initiative which is called Accessibility 2000 that talks about how we're going to get from where we are now to the point where really across the board we can say that we're doing a fantastic job.

Part of this is very straightforward. It's to establish a checklist for our product groups, and make sure that as I'm sitting down and doing product reviews with these groups, it's definitely one of the things that gets touched on. We've had experience with things like this in the past. International support, supporting all of the world's languages was something that people didn't pay enough attention to in the early days. And over a period of years, with a lot of creativity, with a lot of focus, now virtually all of the products we ship, ship in a form that makes them ready for global use. Ready for Japanese, Korean, even Arabic, which has been the toughest there. And so the same principles that we used to get those architectures in place and to make sure that each of the products gave it the appropriate priority, we'll be applying that now in this accessibility area. We feel that the Windows logo can also help us take some of these checklists and spread them out to other developers.

Let me talk real quickly about some specific products. We think Windows 98 is a step forward. It's got the accessibility settings wizard, it's got the screen magnifier. NT 5 has the on-screen keyboard. Perhaps the most exciting things we're doing right now are in the Office product area. We put in a framework with Office 9 to support Active Accessibility. Some of those thing were done only half way, so now we've got a lot of feedback. And in the release that we're building now, which doesn't have a formal name, internally it's referred to as Office 9.x to give us maximum flexibility.

(Laughter)

MR. GATES: But, X, I think I know what it is, but I'm certain what it should be, but it's a fairly near-term release that we'll be coming up with. It's got greatly improved support for the Accessibility 1.0, and we're looking at exactly how we go to the next major version of that and define what we'll call Accessibility 2.0.

Internet Explorer, as I said, we took a step backwards there, but with 4.01, we've got the improved keyboard navigation. We've got the support for Active Accessibility. With Visual Basic, we want to make it so anybody using that tool can build accessible applications as well as developers be able to use that tool. And so now, we've put in native support for Active Accessibility.

Now, the accessibility area is something where, in a sense, you're never done. There are always good ideas out there from users and advocacy groups about how you can take the next step. And so, a big part of what we're adding, and I have to give Greg [Lowney] a lot of credit for really championing this and pioneering it, is to increase the resources we have that have a strong dialogue between ourselves and yourself. The Advisory Council is an important part of that. Product review boards are another important part of that. The total commitment in resources here will basically triple the number of people we have on Greg's accessibility team. And that is both in the areas of communications and in the development area. We found that we really need a mix to get these things to work well. We need people in specific product groups who are involved in these activities. We also need a group where we centralize all the expertise, and make sure that they're speaking out, and that they can send me electronic mail at any time.

To run that group, we've created this new position, Director of Accessibility, and he is the advocate inside Microsoft. Greg Lowney is going to take on that role, and that's based on his really believing in this cause a great deal, and having a lot of experience in this. It was 10 years ago while working as a program manager on Windows that he became the first Microsoft person to really start to get us thinking about this.

So, in summary, I want to make it clear to everyone here that accessibility is important to Microsoft. We feel that the PC is going to be a great tool. Some of the things we're doing in research with speech recognition, speech synthesis, they are just going to take this to a whole new level. In fact, in one of the areas where we've got some demonstrations, you'll see some of those early technologies. But even though future technologies are a big part of that, this is a here and now issue. It's something that we've got to do more on.

We will improve our product for accessibility. This
organizational step is a very meaningful one and sends a strong message. In order to do this well, we do need your ongoing feedback. And the PC industry is a community. Some of these issues aren't just going to be Microsoft. They're going to be things that we need to get other software developers and hardware developers to do. And so we need to work at how we draw in those other participants to make sure that we get a total solution.

And I think the basic message here is the one that's really at the core of what Microsoft believes in, and that's this idea that PCs will benefit everyone.

Thank you.

(Applause)

Q&A

MR. GATES: I have some time now for whatever questions or comments people want to make about what we're doing or what we should be doing.

QUESTION: I [Paul Schroeder, American Foundation for the Blind] want to say respectfully, that I thank you for moving from what you were purported to have once said about accessibility being like a charity, moving to where accessibility is really part of the core decision. And I guess the question I have is, there's a lot of good stuff in what you've said, but how do we have a sense of top level commitment to accessibility being part of technology when market pressures are pushing you to roll out something, such as Internet Explorer, before the accessibility features were developed, to have the accessibility built in. It strikes me that that, obviously in a very competitive industry, is likely to happen again on several products, where that kind of pressure is brought to bear, and the accessibilities may not be ready.

MR. GATES: Well, the ideal, and this will become more and more the case over time, is to get the architecture such that accessibility essentially falls out of the way you design products. The way you create graphical interfaces today, there's a lot of unstructured code. And so what we face as we go back into these products and say, you know, how do you make this product accessible is, you literally have to look at all those different pieces of user interface code. And you've got to find the people who understand those and go in and do special things to those.

By using advanced HTML-type technologies, where the user interface would be described in a more abstract way, the kind of annotations that are necessary, where you can take things that are on the screen are very graphical, and yet need a description that can be read out, that will just necessarily be part of constructing that UI design.

So the first thing, and it can't be the only thing because it will take many years to get to full fruition, the first thing is doing user interfaces of these products in a much more abstract way. So that when people think what is the marginal effort to do this, it's very, very low. Until we get to that, we'll have to use some other approaches. We'll have to have an event like this one, with the key product people here, talking about it, as a priority. We'll have to make sure that we've got the dialogue going on, so that even during the beta test of those products, we understand what is the situation.

In the case of Internet Explorer 4.0, we had kidded ourselves, thinking that a piece of code would just get done. And it wasn't a piece of code we weren't paying enough attention to. And so product groups, you know, have a lot of factors to make decisions. They went ahead and did that shipment, feeling they could come back around and make that new shipment. And the 30 days, you know, isn't really the problem, it's just the statement that that makes. I think we will avoid any of that type of regression in the future.

I think the right thing happened around that. It became, certainly inside Microsoft, I don't know if outside Microsoft, but it became very visible here. And we can measure these things by the thousands of emails that go around on a particular topic. And we've got the new five point plan, that is there to do that. These additional resources, these are people who care a lot about this, and they're going to escalate those issues. And, you know, it's all part of an ongoing dialogue.

I think if you look at our history, we have gotten better and better, in terms of accessibility. And you're going to see a strong trend line there. And it's great to have some milestones, where we say, okay, in '98 what are we going to get done, in '99 what are we going to get done. And this is all part of the cooperative effort with the people who do the add-on products.

QUESTION: Roger Wall , the National Easter Seals Society. I've got a million questions, but I'll just put forward one. We hear a lot from the field from our therapists and practitioners, and from physicians, that people with disabilities that we serve, and the elderly, could stay in their homes longer, without being institutionalized if their homes were smarter. And I'm just curious -- I know there are certainly third party groups that are working on accessibility, home control appliances, and control-types of software. I'm wondering if Microsoft is involved in that at all, or if you have plans?

MR. GATES: Just help clarify for me, when they say making the home smarter, what kind of thing are they talking about? Are they talking about alerting if the person is not well, or being able to move the person around?

QUESTION: Yes, a whole range of those types of activities, from alerting the person, reminding them of certain things, some of those technologies are out there now. But, I'm not sure how effectively they've been funded.

MR. GATES: Well, the -- we're very excited about the increased use of PCs in the home environment. One thing that hasn't happened yet is you haven't had the PC interacting with other devices, whether it's TV sets, or security systems. We now want to build into the PC a wireless capability, and there's a lot of debate in the industry about the specific technology, infrared or RF.

One of the great things you could do very easily with that, is remote medical monitoring. That is, you go from a device that's on the person, it sends a wireless signal to the PC, that's connected through the Internet to the care provider. And you just have a standard where every 15 minutes it reports that everything is okay. If you don't get that positive
acknowledgement, then you assume that something broke down, hopefully, it's the PC. But, you know that there is something that needs attention there. So that idea of doing medical monitoring should fall out of some bold initiatives the industry is going to take, around home networking and home control.

And so we should make sure that as we're getting into that, that we're talking to the people who build those kinds of devices and make sure they're very easy to set up and use. The elderly are getting involved in using PCs. There are some organizations very focused on that. And I think the idea of the Internet, where you can get pictures from your grand kids, and send mail, it is a very empowering thing. And so I do think not only can it let people stay in homes longer, where they may prefer to be. It can also allow them to do more -- a lot more while they're there.

QUESTION: Thank you. I'm Charlie Parker [Charlie Crawford] from Massachusetts. There's any number of other computer companies and software companies which are still fairly far behind, in terms of what they're doing to ensure that when a person tries to go to work, that they can use the software. And because Microsoft enjoys a certain position of prominence in the community of computing, what kind of leverage do you think you can exercise, and are prepared to exercise, to get those other companies to shape up?

MR. GATES: Well, I think the first initiatives to communicate with companies on this basis should be in a low key fashion. If we understand the report card of how you viewed different companies, that would be helpful. For anybody who develops for Windows, we have a close relationship with them. We have a group called the Developers Relations Group, which is a huge investment for us. And so we do a lot of interchange with them. We can get them to come to active accessibility events. And we can say to them, look you're crazy not to just do this stuff first, before, in a very visible way, you're shamed into doing it. And, I don't know who the list of those companies are.

In some categories, like Office, Microsoft is strong enough that I think we can meet sort of your basic productivity tools needs. Microsoft, by doing a very good job on that, can meet those needs. Now, maybe in some other categories, like design software, publishing software, where Microsoft isn't a strong product, the software from us isn't going to help the person on that job. And so rather than just taking a broad approach of sending this accessibility nudge into all our developers, which we're already doing, if you could tell us 5 or 10 that we need to be fairly pointed in that dialogue, and share our experience, we would be glad to do that, starting out with the low key approach, and then if necessary, you understand how, the message can be given more and more volume and impact.

Okay. I'm afraid I'm out of time. But, it's been great to be here, and we're excited about working with all of you to do a much better job in this important area.

Thank you.