In the wake of Sun's acquisition by Oracle, the future of MySQL has attracted the most voluminous (and often, the most heated) debate, but it is far from the only open source project to feel the effects. Linux and open source community members have publicly taken Oracle to task this week for its decision to cut the jobs of developers at Sun's Accessibility Program Office (APO), which contributes heavily to GNOME's accessibility efforts, as well as to accessibility work in Firefox, OpenOffice, and other applications.
Accessibility in open source incorporates assistive technology tools for users with disabilities, including screen readers, magnifiers, speech interfaces, on-screen keyboards and other input mechanisms, but it includes toolkit and application features in the rest of the software stack as well. For example, GNOME's Accessibility Toolkit (ATK) API enables assistive technology applications to read a program's existing GTK+ widget labels. Custom components require additional work than all-stock-GTK+, of course, and any application must take steps to be accessible through associating textual descriptions with all user interface elements, including buttons, canvases, and status indicators.
Cuts and response
Reports were circulating in the first week of February that two APO jobs were being cut, one of which belonged to Will Walker, leader of GNOME's Accessibility Project and the project maintainer for Orca, the open source screen reader. The reaction to Walker's layoff was swift, with members of the Orca and GNOME projects expressing their support and calling for a public display of that support — and concern over what the move said about Oracle's commitment to accessibility.
Several accessibility experts and developers voiced concern through mailing lists and blogs. Orca user Mike Gorse blogged his fear that Orca development would slow down and suffer. Discussion on the Orca list ranged from the pessimistic to the unconcerned, with some confident that the work would continue and others advocating the immediate search for alternate project funding.
Joanmarie Diggs, assistive tech specialist with the Carroll Center for the Blind, published an open letter to Oracle, challenging it to "embrace the opportunity to continue this important work." Fernando Herrera wrote to the GNOME Foundation board urging it to "take this issue very seriously" and approach Oracle representatives for a resolution.
For his own part, Walker assured the Orca and accessibility communities that he would continue to devote as much of his time as he could to the projects as a volunteer, but said that he would have to seek employment regardless of whether or not he found another position that allowed him to contribute to Orca and GNOME full-time. Specifically, Walker said he remains committed to seeing through the upcoming 2.30 release of GNOME. Beyond that is where the future becomes less certain.
APO, accessibility, and GNOME
Over the years, Sun's APO contributed to considerably more than Orca alone. Walker described Sun's support of open source accessibility as the "best in the industry" and said he was lucky to have been part of it. Walker joined APO in 2005, after several years working on accessibility at Sun Labs. Initially his duties focused on Orca, but over time expanded to include accessibility overall.
APO served several purposes, Walker said, including that of a "centralized organization to help guide, consult, etc., all things related to accessibility" in addition to software engineering itself. Much of that work consists of testing, filing bug reports, performing maintenance, and addressing deprecation in GNOME applications and key desktop components like Firefox and OpenOffice. It also includes educating the developer community at large on accessible design, development, and testing as parts of everyday practice.
Since the 3.0 planning process began, one of Walker's most important duties as a GNOME Accessibility lead has been preparing for platform changes. GNOME 3.0 will do away with the CORBA object model, which in turn will require GNOME's implementation of the Assistive Technology Service Provider Interface (AT-SPI) to migrate to a completely new, D-Bus-based backend. In addition, several assistive technologies will undergo major updates, such as the deprecation of gnome-speech in favor of SpeechDispatcher, and moving screen magnification into GNOME Shell.
Over the past two years, however, Walker said that the work has felt "like swimming upstream," thanks to the changes in GNOME, Firefox, and other desktop components, coupled with reductions in the number of programmers available to work on GNOME accessibility. Not only have there been other job reductions at Sun to hit APO, but full-time developers have been cut from other contributors, such as IBM. Mark Doffman cataloged the losses on his blog, estimating that $200,000-worth of annual accessibility developer support has disappeared since 2007.
Nevertheless, Walker said that he has no "sour grapes" about his current situation, and is looking forward to seeing GNOME Accessibility succeed. How best to bring that about remains the topic for discussion among GNOME and other open source developers.
Doffman advocated actively seeking out corporate support for more accessibility development, citing Jonathan Corbet's estimate at linux.conf.au that 75 percent of Linux kernel code is contributed by paid, full-time developers. GNOME's Dave Neary contended instead that the GNOME Foundation should look to government and non-profit grants as a source of income to support accessibility development.
For his part, Walker said that funding from Mozilla, Canonical, Google, Novell, and AEGIS have all provided relief in recent years, but that the contributed funding model risks turning into a "coin operated" development mentality: when the coins stop, the development stops. Instead, he emphasized the need to grow the developer community itself and to spend more energy educating mainstream developers about incorporating accessible design in their work.
With all the publicity Oracle is getting in relation to their effect on GNOME Accessibility, I think we need to remind people of something else. As I understand it, Oracle's product teams design and develop for accessibility. In other words, Oracle does appear to have succeeded in making accessibility a core responsibility of each product team. If my understanding is accurate, that is *huge* and something other organizations can learn from.
Oracle does, indeed, make accessibility a high priority item, highlighting it with policy statements, and providing training and support. As Walker said, success for accessibility efforts in open source software is not limited to the development of stand-alone assistive technologies like Orca, but in building integrated accessible design into every tool and application.
In the near term, the GNOME 3.0 roadmap includes a long list of open
tasks, many related to the AT-SPI migration. KDE developer Jeremy Whiting
provided a status
update of the situation from KDE's point of view. GNOME and KDE have
collaborated on the latest AT-SPI work, including the D-Bus backend. Qt
provides an accessibility framework, but is lacking a Qt-to-AT-SPI bridge.
While the good news is that both major desktops agree on a common framework
for accessibility and assistive technology, both have considerable amount
of work cut
out for them.
Oracle is not closing the Sun APO entirely, nor is GNOME's Accessibility Project shutting its doors. But the impact a single full-time developer can have on an important infrastructure effort like accessibility indicates how under-staffed the effort is — as well as how many open source projects benefited from Sun's investment, despite the grief it sometimes received. The public support shown for Walker demonstrates that the community wants open source accessibility work to receive the attention it deserves, it just needs to solve the funding problem.
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