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"Hartgen Consultancy, we'll Bury You In a Pile of US Legal Hell!"

Introduction.

If blind people spend any amount of time on Twitter or in other social media forums, it will not be too long before they see posts regarding which screen-reader people prefer over another, and further still, condemning those who enjoy working in a specific way or with a particular product. I've learned to ignore such remarks, and also those which are directed at our products. Because we are a commercial company, albeit a very small one, we know there are going to be people who feel they have an entitlement to something for nothing and that we should not be levying any charges against our products and services. In summary, their view is that products should be free because of the high unemployment rate among visually impaired people. There is absolutely nothing we can do about that unless we donated our time for free and lived off the state. Consequently, I rarely write and defend our position.

However, when you receive emails which amount to blackmail, you are vigorously threatened, or there is a systematic campaign against you, then is the time to speak out.

The project known as Dictation Bridge is just about to mount its "Crowd-Funding" campaign to raise money to produce a rival product to those we've developed over the years, in order that blind people can work with their computers by speaking to them, while at the same time providing speech feedback from the screen-reader. Again, this in itself would not concern me. Since I began working in the voice recognition arena in 2003, I have seen three such alternative solutions. There are also competitive products to the screen-reader our company happens to work with and favour. However, as you will read, the Dictation Bridge project partly arose as a direct result of threats made to me during 2015. I only recount this so that, when you pledge your money to the campaign, you are doing so with full knowledge of what occurred.

The Background.

On 3 July 2015, one of our most trusted, (and I have to say hard working) beta testers, advised us that he was considering working on a technology to support Dragon NaturallySpeaking and the NVDA screen-reader. As a matter of course, we felt that he could no longer be part of the J-Say beta testing team. This is standard practice in many beta testing groups. Non-Disclosure agreements often state that, if a person is involved in what could be deemed as being a competitive project, it is likely they will be dismissed from the group. That is fair comment and applied in this case. It was very sad to lose the beta tester, together with two others who also felt they wanted to leave at the same time, who are now part of the Dictation Bridge group.

I wrote to the tester. I did thank him for letting me know his intentions, and I praised him for the considerable amount of work and time he had invested since J-Say's inception. . I did say that I felt considerably betrayed, particularly as not only would he be potentially taking our ideas and concepts to an alternative project to further its cause, but we had in the past rewarded his testing time by providing him with copies of the software at no cost over a number of years. I went onto intimate that we may well seek legal advice, particularly if the concepts of design were identical to what we had developed. That too was very fair, and indeed we did take appropriate advice.

In conclusion, I reiterated that I felt it was sad that someone who had very in depth knowledge of how the products function no longer wanted to be a part of a group whose members were loyal and where, I thought, we were all working to a common goal. My mistake was that I wrote to him. I should have just let him go.

I then received an email message on 3 July 2015 from Chris Hofstader, who now spearheads the Dictation Bridge project. I had not heard from Mr Hofstader for a number of years before this time. Using the most insulting and unpleasant language, he let me know that if I did not apologise to the tester for stating that I was hurt and betrayed by him leaving, and that I didn't mind him taking our ideas to another project, then the following would happen:

  1. A group of people would prepare an alternative to our J-Say product.
  2. I would be personally and professionally "Trashed" on what he perceives to be "the most popular of the independent blogs in the blindness space.
  3. I should also "stop making stabs at GPL". This refers to A Blog Post I wrote on 30 June 2015, in which I fairly and clearly set out our reasons why we could not produce products as a commercial company to support the NVDA screen-reader.
  4. I should Stop charging for products and instead use "crowdfunding and contract services to keep the coffers full".
  5. I was told that "If you do not do this immediately, you can expect to see yourself and your business slammed on the blog." "Is this blackmail? Sure, sue me for extortion, I’ve beaten FS (or Freedom Scientific) nine times in legal actions, I’ll beat your ass too."
  6. I was warned that "If you as much as breathe another semi-threat in (the tester's) direction, we will bury you in a pile of US legal hell."
  7. Finally, I was advised that if I complied I may no longer be on "the NVDA enemies list". I wasn't aware there was such a list to be on.

Needless to say, I did not respond to the email. I will not be bullied or intimidated by this kind of behaviour. We continued conducting our business in a professional manner, and in point of fact became a distributor of Serotek's DocuScan product. (Serotek are actively involved in Dictation Bridge, so clearly there is no axe to grind on our part). Furthermore, we have remained on friendly terms with people who we know are actively involved in the Dictation Bridge project.

The Dictation Bridge project has now started to materialise. In an interview on ACB Radio's Main Menu program, several times our J-Say product was highlighted in a derogatory manner and inaccurately represented, as is the case on the Dictation Bridge website. If I was involved in the Dictation Bridge project, I would feel that the product ought to be robust enough to standalone without the need to compare it against another. Effective communication skills do mean that you can advocate your product's strengths without referring to your competition, and in fact the following week again on Main Menu, I felt I was able to do just that. I gave an overview of our products, and responded to the comparisons made the week before without mentioning Dictation Bridge once.

Costing and Other Issues.

The main criticism that people level at our products is one of costing, so lets just take a look at that for a moment.

When you run a business, one of the things you need to do is to take into account the number of hours being spent on a project and price it accordingly. This not only includes product development, but documentation preparation, testing time, and the hours of support given to individual customers. When a person purchases software of this nature, because many of them are vulnerable, they are likely to need more support than a keyboard user who could well be content to leave things until someone is able to assist. In addition to being blind, many of our customers are physically unable to walk, cannot use their hands, they may have had a stroke or suffered a traumatic illness, to name but a few examples. Those people need a good deal of patience and time from someone who is willing to work with them.

The considerable time invested in all of our products needs to be paid for. We are a company comprising two people who are trying to make a living, and this is the best way we know how. But despite this, when we started the company we did the following, to be fair to the blindness community.

  1. We reduced the cost of J-Say by £150 (or $175). The original price of the product when a previous company owned J-Say was £550 $773.
  2. We ensured that our office hours would extend from 8 A M to 10 P M UK time, which is 3 A M to 5 PM Eastern Standard, so that people in the United States and Canada would have a chance of obtaining technical support. When necessary, we would also work during the night to serve our Australian customers and deliver presentations to them, which we have.
  3. We introduced a product, J-Dictate, at a much lower cost to J-Say and which would coexist with all versions of Dragon NaturallySpeaking. We have proved that this has not only heightened the awareness of voice recognition technology, but it has also brought it in reach of people who were not necessarily reliant upon it.
  4. We built up a network of over twenty-five companies in a number of countries who want to sell our products. It should be borne in mind that a significant percentage of the costing we receive for J-Say may well go to a distributing company. We do not necessarily receive the entire amount, and that is how it should be.
  5. We invest a substantial sum each year in product development. This means that we commission blind people, (and only blind people at this point), to carry out work for us. This too assists those people to sustain a level of employment.
  6. In addition, we provide payment plans for two of our products, deliver low-cost training courses for people who want to obtain tuition on various subjects, and offer freely downloadable JAWS scripts as and when possible.

In summary, we do what we can to ensure the cost of all products is as low as it can be within the context of what makes good business sense given all aspects of product development, support and marketing.

There is one other charge which I must answer which has been levelled at us. We do not, and will not, create features for our J-Say product which might be described as "Bells and Whistles and which look great in marketing literature. Without exception, every feature we do create is as a direct result of customer requests, and it must be a significant number of requests before we consider it. We're not in the business of creating features because it "looks good" from a marketing perspective, or because one individual has asked for them. My blog post, Why J-Say Search Works, is a very clear explanation of why we do what we do.

Conclusion.

This blog post is by no means a wine or a moan. Had it not been that we are being specifically targeted, I would wish the developers of the Dictation Bridge project the very best of luck. But the fact remains that public money will be requested, and as the public, you have a right to know some of the context surrounding the project. I am not naive enough to think for a moment that there will not be some reaction to this blog post, and clearly, you will make a decision as to whether you wish to back the campaign or not. All we can do, and will do, is to continue producing all of our products in the best way we can, helping our customers and creating features they are asking for.

Post Script.

Following publication of this blog post, we have received a Sincere Apology from Joseph Lee, Chair of the NVDA 10th anniversary celebrations. We can ask for no more than this, which brings closure to a stressful time for us. What is sad about this is that we very much wanted to bring our products to the NVDA community and were not able to as previously explained. In terms of the attitudes expressed by some members of the NVDA community, I could not have summarised the situation more eloquently than Mr Lee. Thank you very much.

Subsequently, Chris has also sent us a full apology, again which we wholeheartedly accept.

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