JAWS 10 public beta's Firefox 3 support: A review

In the August issue of the “FS Cast” podcast, Freedom Scientific announced the soon-to-be expected availability of JAWS 10 public beta. They also demoed many of the new features, like the automatic forms mode switching. They also mentioned that they improved Firefox support a lot and that the web should feel transparent now regardless of which of the supported browsers the customer would be using: IE or Firefox. ARIA support, also with an emphasis on live regions, was mentioned, too.

The public beta was released on August 25, and I took it for a test ride. Here’s what I found:

In general, the display of static pages has improved quite significantly over previous versions of JAWS. Especially text being run together with certain HTML constructs is no longer an issue. Missing line breaks are a thing of the past now, too. This makes the over-all reading experience much more pleasant.

One big plus I also noticed is that, when you open a link and then later return from the newly loaded page using Alt+LeftArrow, JAWS correctly sets the virtual cursor to the link you activated. It used to put the virtual cursor at the top of the page.

The automatic forms mode switching works on textboxes and textareas, but Alt+DownArrow on a combobox does not pop into forms mode and open the listbox yet, as was demonstrated in the podcast using IE.

Speaking of listboxes: JAWS 10, unlike 9, shows all items in an HTML listbox (a select with size greater 1). It used to only show the selected entry. In IE, it still does that, but in Firefox, it dumps all the items into the virtual buffer. If you have a list of over 100 items, this can become very annoying.

In terms of ARIA support, there are clear signs that work has been done on this front. For one thing, JAWS now honors the ARIA role of “application”, which means it does not go into virtual PC cursor mode on such pages or in properly marked-up web application environments. An example can be seen here.

Also, live region updates are nicely read on this page.

However, there are also still quite some areas where both ARIA support in general and live region support in particular should be improved before final release. Here are some points where I am still seeing problems:

  • While the live region support works great on the above page, it does not work at all in the ChatZilla Firefox extension. ChatZilla uses an HTML table with role of “log”, and both “polite” and “assertive” live regions. JAWS currently runs all the text inside this table together in one big string, without line breaks. Also, markup such as links inside these chat output messages is completely ignored. While JAWS 9 didn’t support live regions yet, it did properly format the output into a very readable form. As a plus: Updates to the view are now automatically picked up, which was not the case in JAWS 9. There, you had to constantly refresh the virtual buffer to see the newest messages.
  • Live Region support in Google Talk, as I describe in my ARIA in GMail
    post, is flaky. Sometimes new text that comes in gets spoken, sometimes it doesn’t. I haven’t found a consistent pattern yet. Also, the chat window still needs to be popped out into its own window, as also was the case in JAWS 9, to be able to read it at all.
  • Speaking of Google Talk: The ARIA list of contacts behaves inconsistently with Forms Mode. It has a tendency to unexpectedly pop out of forms mode when you arrow from one list item to another. In addition, Enter does not yet work to open a chat or new e-mail message, depending on whether the contact is available for a chat or not. Forms Mode is instead turned off, and the virtual cursor lands somewhere unpredictable, preferably at the very bottom of the virtual buffer.
  • A similar unexpected leaving of forms mode can be observed in this
    Dojo treeView test example. Focusing the tree view, turning on forms mode, and arrowing among the items, opening and closing them works in the downward direction. However, as soon as I go from “Africa” back up to the root element “Continents”, forms mode is popped off.
  • One other problem I discovered was that alert messages have a tendency to get out of sync. I was trying out my example from Easy ARIA tip #3. I called up that page directly after I had started Firefox. Upon launch of Firefox, WebVisum told me that I was now logged in, via an alert. When I then triggered my first alert from the sample page, the “You are now logged into WebVisum” message was repeated. Consequently, all subsequent triggers of alerts would then speak the previous alert message instead of the current one.

In summary, there are clear advancements visible in JAWS 10 with regards to support of Firefox 3. Especially the more readable flow of text and the fact that you always return to the same spot when going back a page are big plus points. However, while there are also advancements visible in the ARIA and live region support, for a public beta after as long a development cycle as was mentioned in the podcast, I would have expected a much more polished first beta.

Having said that, it must not be forgotten that this is still beta software. All above issues were reported to Freedom Scientific prior to publishing this blog post, and the Mozilla accessibility team will work with the developers at FS to resolve these issues.

For the next public beta release of JAWS 10, I am planning an ARIA shootout among all screen readers across all platforms that support ARIA already. So stay tuned!

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