Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Accessibility v Functionality: On the Horns of a Dilemma!

I have spent the last few weeks trying out lots of different distros as possible foundations upon which to build Vinux. I have looked at Ubuntu 9.04, Mint 7.0 (based on 9.04), Debian Lenny 5.0, Dream Linux 3.5, Fedora 11 and OpenSuse 11. The conclusion I have come to is that I am going to have to choose between accessibility and functionality. Ubuntu and Mint offer the greatest functionality in terms of ease of use and hardware detection etc. In fact Mint is better than Ubuntu in this regard as it has a lot of extra features and multimedia codecs etc., and I am now using a remastered version of Mint 7.0 on my main workstations which do not require any accessibility software. However the performance of accessibility software on both Ubuntu and Mint is poor. The speech is slow and jerky and more often than not locks up at some point. This is likely to be caused by PuleAudio and compounded by a cutting edge version of Xorg. Debian on the other hand, while it doesn't provide accessibility in terms of speech or magnification out of the box (Braille support is available) allows me to set up Orca with Alsa and Speech-Dispatcher and produce a very responsive screen-reader. The down side is that Debian doesn't support anywhere near the amount of hardware Ubuntu and Mint do, especially when it comes to restricted or non-free drivers and codecs etc. So this is the dilemma I face! Do I provide good accessibility at the cost of functionality, or functionality at the cost of accessibility? After wrestling with this problem for several weeks I have come to the conclusion that I have to give priority to accessibility. I can certainly improve the functionality of Debian to some extent by installing wireless drivers and some multimedia codecs etc., and as long as Vinux is accessible users can can then either get support in resolving hardware issues or work out solutions themselves as long as they have a functioning screen-reader etc. The main advantage of Debian is that it still uses the Alsa sound system, which works a lot better with Orca and Speech-Dispatcher than PulseAudio. So I am hoping to offer users a very stable and accessible distribution, but it is not going to be very cutting edge or support as wide a variety of hardware as Ubuntu and/or Mint can. I will still be monitoring the most popular distros to see if the issues caused by PulseAudio etc., have been resolved and if they have then of course I will then have the option to switch back to Ubuntu or Mint etc. The rumours are that in Gnome 3.0 Speech-Dispatcher will become the default speech server for Orca and hopefully then the issues with PulseAudio will eventually be resolved, and maybe one day one of the major distros will actually get off their arses and produce a fully accessible distro (hears faint oinking in the distance as vast herds of pigs fly south for the winter).