PDFaloud Creator Speaks Up About PDF

Martin McKay has worked all his adult life in assistive technology. Just over a decade ago — 11 years, to be precise — he helped form a startup company in Ireland, and started working on some assistive communication aids for people with severe and profound disabilities. Over the years, they moved into assistive technology for people with ‘print related disabilities’ — vision impairment and learning / reading disabilities. The company has been helping to make the most popular document formats accessible to people who cannot read, and a few years ago, the focus shifted to PDF.

As a founding member of Texthelp Systems, McKay was the primary developer of Texthelp Read & Write, and has directed the development of the company’s other software products — including the PDF-based PDFaloud product. The assistive software company has received a number of awards for its work, and made Ireland’s Fast 50 for three years running spanning 2001-2003. The Fast 50 Program (Ireland) is organized by Deloitte & Touche, and is recognizes the 50 fastest growing technology companies in Ireland.

I caught up with him to ask about his take on PDF’s present and future with respect to Assistive technologies. The full text of the interview follows.

DAN SHEA, Planet PDF Associate Editor: When and why did you first get involved with Acrobat/PDF?

MARTIN MCKAY, Technical Director, Texthelp Systems Ltd.: In the nineties our customers started to ask us for technology to read PDF files using Text To Speech technology. We needed to develop a solution that would allow users with disabilities to listed to a PDF file being read out loud without compromising document security.

SHEA: For those who don’t know, what is it that you are doing with PDF right now?

MCKAY: We have developed new versions of PDFaloud and Browsealoud — our assistive technology for PDF people. The technology is maturing, and we have developed some good technology licensing relationships with key players in the industry such as ActivePDF. Our goal is to give the assistive technology away free to the end user, and have the accessibility built in to the document at the distillation stage. The document publisher can embed the accessibility for a few cents per distillation.

SHEA: Briefly describe the most significant change in the development or use of the technology, since you first began working with Acrobat/PDF, and why do you consider it significant?

MCKAY: The most significant change for us at textHELP has been that Adobe have embraced accessibility, and made it a ‘core feature’ of Acrobat 6. Also the development of Acrobat for OSX was effectively a new platform to support.

SHEA: Tell me, what is it about PDF that makes it useful to so many different people?

MCKAY: Its Cross platform — open standard — Mac, PC, Palm PocketPC etc. It is relatively secure. It offers High Print Fidelity. The viewer is preinstalled on most PCs and handhelds. It is a good electronic forms platform. The viewer is free.

SHEA: Acrobat and PDF are now used in so many industries and in so many ways; do you see new areas that perhaps haven’t yet been tapped? Where do you see the greatest potential for growth?

MCKAY: Expecting students to sit exams using paper and pencil is a pretty old fashioned idea — they spend the rest of the year using computers to prepare their work. I think that using PDF as a secure cross platform is a natural extension of that.

SHEA: What do you see in the future of PDF?

MCKAY: There is quite a bit of open source PDF development going on in the open source arena, so I can see PDF creation becoming free in the near future — it already is pretty much free on Mac OS X. I can see it being used more widely in education for data collection, and test taking.

SHEA: What can Adobe change in the next version of Acrobat to make it better?

MCKAY: Make a commitment to accessibility on the Mac platform.

SHEA: Can Acrobat and PDF be all things to all people?


SHEA: Briefly describe a common misconception about or frequent problem you’ve seen with Acrobat/PDF that you’d like to try to clarify for others and/or provide a tip to address.

MCKAY: I suppose the most common problem I encounter is people’s confusion about accessibility and document security. The simple truth is that there is a trade off between accessibility and security. No fully secure document will be fully accessible. No fully accessible document will be fully secure. I don’t have a solution…yet.

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About the Author: Dan Shea

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