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Before we begin with the article, an update. Within a day of the announcement, Freedom Scientific came out with an episode of its FSCast podcast in an effort to help answer some questions that the public may have about the acquisition. I highly recommend that interested people listen to the podcast to see if any questions you may have are answered by it.

It was an announcement that surprised many people, including several who tend to be in the know; VFO Group, a huge player in the field of access technology, is acquiring Ai Squared, one of their biggest competitors.

One of the companies under the VFO Group umbrella is Freedom Scientific, maker of, among other things, the JAWS screen reader. Ai Squared, in turn, is the maker of, among other things, Window-Eyes, which has traditionally been going head-to-head with JAWS in the screen reader market. It is as a user of screen readers that I am writing this article. There are other products, such as screen magnification software, of which I am not in a position to comment, so I will restrict any comments here to a subject about which I at least know something.

Also, anything stated here must be construed as conjecture on my part. I have no special knowledge on this subject, so like most of you, all I can do is speculate, so this response to the merger must be regarded as such.

From what I have been reading, the biggest concern people have is that VFO Group will be gaining a monopoly in its field. I do understand this concern. Monopolies tend to scare people, and not without reason. ?However, I would like to make a few observations.

First, we don't know what is going to happen with the two screen readers. The implication is that they will continue to be made and distributed as separate entities, at least for the forseeable future. Will that continue, and if so, for how long? Maybe the companies themselves don't know the answer to this one yet, who can tell?

Next, we have much more choice when it comes to screen readers than we have ever had, at least for Windows PCs. When I started using Windows back in 2003, there were three choices: JAWS, Window-Eyes, and Hal. In 2016, the options include JAWS, Window-Eyes (which as yet is not going anywhere), Hal, System Access, NVDA, and for basic no-frills computing, Windows Narrator has become surprisingly useful in the last year. One of these competing screen readers, NVDA, is also a free product, something which forces any products expecting to be purchased to innovate. If pooling resources - financial, technological, human - might increase such innovation, I have to say I'm for it. We didn't have a free competitor in 2003. True, these two companies are merging, but I contend that, given what I have said earlier, the competition is still more robust than it was in 2003.

Finally, I almost never hear anyone complaining that there is only one screen reader available to users of Apple products, VoiceOver. And I'm not saying that people should be complaining: Apple has worked hard to allow unprecedented mainstream device accessibility. It still thrills me to be able to get an iPhone still in its cellophane and make it fully voicing without any sighted assistance. All I am saying is that, at least to me, it seems something of a double standard to worry about a monopoly on the PC side of things while not being at all worried about the monopoly which, one can't deny, does exist on the Apple side of things.

Mergers and company acquisitions are, of course, nothing new. The history book of human selective memory tends to only recall the mergers that have impacted people negatively. Many more mergers throughout history have been positive experiences for everyone involved.

What does the future hold for VFO Group and Ai Squared as a result of this acquisition? I honestly don't know. But I'm willing to give it a chance. Will this result in monopoly, or unity, or something else? We'll just have to wait and see, but I won't be doing my Chicken Little imitation just yet.
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Bruce Toews

June 2017

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