IBM project aims to help blind use ODF applications

An IBM open-source project helps ODF communicate with assistive computer technologies for the blind

When Massachusetts' government decided to use Open Document Format (ODF) as the default document file format throughout its agencies, a key concern was that ODF would not allow the visually impaired to use assistive computer technologies.

On Wednesday, IBM said it has helped solve that problem by developing technology that will allow applications based on ODF to better communicate with products used by the blind to access visual information on computer screens.

Through Project Missouri, IBM developed application programming interfaces, (APIs) collectively called iAccessible2. These APIs will make it easy for visuals in applications based on ODF and other Web technologies to be interpreted by screen readers that reproduce that information verbally, IBM said.

IBM spokesman Ari Fishkind said that in the past it has been hard for screen-reading technology to keep up with the advent of cutting-edge development and file formats such as ODF, AJAX (asynchronous Javascript and XML) and DHTML (dynamic hypertext markup language). The latter two technologies allow increasingly complex visuals to be rendered in Web browsers, and those are difficult to translate for screen readers, he said.

iAccessible2 not only will help ODF communicate better with screen readers that assist blind computer users, but it will also allow charts, pictures and other visuals based on AJAX and DHTML to be discerned by the visually impaired through those readers. "It's like a universal decoder ring," he said of iAccessible2. The technology is based on interfaces IBM originally developed with Sun Microsystems to make programs on Java and Linux platforms accessible to the blind.

IBM has donated its work in Project Missouri -- so named because Missouri is called the "Show Me" state -- to the Free Standards Group, a nonprofit group that promotes open-source software. That organization will work on the technology and maintain it as an open standard so anyone can use it, IBM said. Other companies working on the development of iAccessible2 include Sun, Oracle and SAP.

Mozilla also intends to integrate iAccessible2 into its open-source Firefox Web browser, Fishkind added.

ODF has been approved as an international standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and is currently in competition with Microsoft's Open XML file format to become the industry's default file format for documents. Open XML is the basis of Microsoft's proprietary Office 2007 productivity suite that also recently was approved by the ISO as a standard.

Companies such as IBM, Sun and others are promoting the use of ODF against Microsoft's technology, while others will support both ODF and Open XML just to be on the safe side, in case both are widely adopted.

The rivalry between ODF and Open XML heated up last year when Massachusetts put forth a proposal to change its default file format to ODF for all of its state agencies, which would mean they would have to stop using Microsoft Office. This eventually led Microsoft to submit Open XML as a standard as ODF was already going through that process. Increasingly, government agencies are moving their IT platforms to technologies that are considered standard throughout the industry, forgoing some technologies that are seen as proprietary.

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