SMA, RIP: Significant To the AT Industry, Not a Huge Change For Serotek

Today at the ATIA Conference, Mike Calvo, CEO of Serotek, announced that, as of today, “the Software Maintenance Agreement (SMA) is dead.” Apparently, Serotek had tombstones at their exhibit to mark their passing.

So what’s the big deal, you ask?

For years, the major players in the AT space–the people who make the screen readers for, generally, Windows-based computers, have sold “software maintenance agreements” (SMA’s), to their customers who wish to keep their screen readers up to date with the latest updates, features, and operating system and software application changes. These agreements differ somewhat in how they’re constructed, whether lasting for a year or a certain number of major version upgrades, and they cost somewhere between $150 and $350. Users are encouraged to buy a new agreement shortly before the old one expires, and not doing so usually means one has to pay for all the intervening upgrades from the one he owns to the current one. This could cost several hundreds of dollars. In any case, the SMA has been a pain in the ass for many a user of assistive technology.

So, Serotek’s announcement that they have dropped their SMA is significant, if only symbolically significant. More on that in a minute. Mike Calvo stated in an interview on their new Internet radio station that other companies may see the SMA as their bread and butter, but Serotek does not. Serotek seeks to add value in other ways, in ways that they believe their users will find relevant, useful, or at least enough fun to keep paying for (my words, not his, but, generally, his idea as I understand it).

Had Serotek done this a year or two ago, it may not have had the impact that I believe it will have now. Serotek is doing innovative things an really catching up and in some cases surpassing the more established players. System Access worked on 64-bit Windows before the “big guns” did. And let’s not even talk about the free web-based version of System Access, System Access To Go.

Now, they’ve laid down the gauntlet. They’ve issued the challenge. What will the other players in this space do? Will they drop their SMA’s and seek to keep their customers’ loyalty (and buying dollars) in other ways? Or will they continue to do what they are doing now?

I said earlier this was a significant statement, if only a symbolic one. While it’s true that Serotek had a software maintenance fee ($60/year, if memory serves), it’s also true that owners of the System Access software got their upgrades free as long as they were also members of the System Access Mobile Network, a $129/year subscription. Also, the software as a service offerings included software upgrades at no additional cost (not to mention access to the network). So there were a couple ways to not pay a software maintenance fee, and I suspect the number of people who just owned the software and not the network was a very small number. So in real terms, I doubt the SMA was a very small issue in Serotek’s real world dealings. Taking it away completely was, I suspect, no huge loss to them. As they said, the SMA isn’t (and wasn’t) their bread and butter. Rather, offering compelling reasons to use their other offerings and pay for them is what keeps them going. It’s what we in the rest of the world call capitalism. And clearly, they’re offering compelling products and services: easy remote control of your home PC’s, a completely portable and non-disruptive screen reader that does what most people want to do with their computers, an easy service with all the stuff you want right at your fingertips (great for the computer neophite), and all pretty inexpensively. I find it noteworthy that there are Web sites that don’t work with the big name screen readers, yet they work fine with System Access. That’s worth something in itself.

I’ll say it again. The AT space is changing rapidly. It’s changing for the better, as far as the average blind consumer is concerned. New companies are doing interesting, innovative things, and the prices are falling. You can now get a fully functioning machine, with a screen reader that will do most of what most people want to do (Email, surf the web, talk to their friends, write a letter, and so on), for under $500 if you look hard, under $600 if you don’t but are OK with putting all the software in yourself (or know someone who is), or under $800 if you want it to just work when you turn it on. Considering that the big boys charge more just for the software, this is even more significant than the death of the SMA, and it’s been a reality now for a little bit longer. Sure, you could get Linux running with Orca, let’s say, using Ubuntu, or Windows with NVDA, but you’d better be pretty comfortable with computers already. The price breakthrough is as significant, in its way, as Voiceover making any Mac not only usable, but eyes-free installable, without modification. This is the kind of development that’s changing this space, and the established players had better stay on their toes.