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Microsoft Looks To Extend Accessibility Push

Last month Microsoft helped form an industry association focused on helping developers make hardware and software more accessible. On Thursday, Microsoft announced more tangible steps to help that effort along.

The Accessibility Interoperability Alliance (AIA), formed in December, includes such Microsoft rivals as Adobe, Novell and Oracle. Specifically, Microsoft said it would grant a royalty-free license for any Microsoft patents necessary to implement required portions of the AIA's UI (User Interface) Automation Specification still in development.

"We decided to donate the API we developed to make it open source and allow the AIA to take and port it to any platform they wanted to, Windows, Linux or Mac, to get consistency and accessibility," Norm Hodne, Microsoft's Windows accessibility lead, told InternetNews.com. Hodne said Microsoft is already leveraging its alliance with Novell to get the UI Automation Spec over to the Linux platform.

"We think it's important this technology gets out there and companies don't see assistive technology as a competitive thing they have to control or do better than another company," said Hodne.

Among the AIA's near-term goals is to develop a set of keyboard shortcuts that are consistent to users of assistive technology products in any Web browser. The AIA is also working with companies that make assistive technology, some of whom are members, to improve the interoperability between different software platforms and their products. The idea is to make it possible for applications to work with any, or at least a far broader range, of assistive technology than is possible today.

Hodne said Microsoft commissioned a Forrester study a few years ago that showed 57 percent of working adults in the U.S. could benefit from some form of assistive technology whether it was a magnifier for extremely near-sighted users to alternative means of input for users with arthritis.

"As the workforce grows older, these kind of advances are going to be increasingly more important," said Hodne.

Eventually, Hodne sees the AIA's paying off in other ways, such as a kind of test bed for new applications and input. "We want to get to the point where users can pick how they want to operate their PC and easily change from say a mouse to speech input to a keyboard or a stylus. Farther down the road he thinks a system's UI will be smart enough to adapt to users and expose new functionality once they've shown they've mastered basic functions.

Along with Microsoft and many other tech companies, IBM has long been involved in supporting assistive technologies. Last March IBM announced an initiative to give teachers wider access to learning material about assistive technologies. IBM is building a worldwide repository of materials it said would enable student developers to make software more accessible to those with disabilities and the aging population.