The Story of Firefox, for kids

January 5, 2011

Over the past few years, I’ve been working on and off on a children’s book about Firefox. The project started when my kids wanted to understand what I did at work every day.

The story is a sketch about the evolution of Netscape into Firefox and the power of being open. In terms of historical accuracy, a number of things were simplified in order to keep the messages simple.  For better or worse, it’s already 2500 words. That means it’s not for very young children (I’m thinking 2nd graders and older).

I used readily available imagery of a dragon, a phoenix, Firefox, and Mammon (the god of greed, as I’ve learned). In the story, coders are wizards who cast spells. Naturally, there is also a Chief Lizard Wrangler :)  Where possible, I used plot and dialogue, but at times it addresses the reader directly.

The only kid I’ve tested it on so far is my son Oliver (age 8). He loves it, but then he may just be happy that his father spent time to write about a dragon.

If anyone is seriously interested, I’d love to get some help polishing it until it’s good enough to become an actual book.

Cygnet in peril

June 13, 2009

This morning on the way to market in Esslingen, Germany, I discovered a new family of swans, living in a canal that leads through the center of town. The mother and father swans were there with their 3 cygnets, looking something about like this. The ones I saw looked a bit older and larger than those in the photo. My friends had seen the eggs earlier and we think they’re about 2-3 weeks old. I watched as the cygnets practiced diving for food. This was a very tight family, which is to be expected from swans. who are extremely loyal to each other and even mate for life.

Other waterfowl live there as well, including a graceful blue heron.

The little family really struck me and I came back after dinner to see how they were doing. Unfortunately, one of the cygnets was caught in the current of a small, man-made waterfall that drains the canal back to the Neckar river (where it originates from). The slope and current there are navigable for a larger bird, but this cygnet was having real trouble getting back up to the calm, safe part of the river. As the rest of the cygnet’s family watched helplessly, it was simultaneously crying and swimming, desperately trying to rejoin them. And it kept getting so close! The pattern was the same every time: the cygnet would swim hard enough get its feet onto some rough stone at the top of the tiny falls, and the rushing current would take it back where it was.

The cries for help were heart-wrenching but no one could help — the river was fenced off and far below all of us humans observing the drama. The parent swans were a little less helpless, but they had to simultaneously prevent the other two curious siblings from getting caught in the same current. They took turns watching the two siblings and trying to help. Sometimes one would get close enough to touch the cygnet with a beak, but they did not really find a way to push or pull. Neither tried to get behind and push. Sadly, the little swan ran out of energy after 15 minutes or so of trying and crying, and was finally swept away under a bridge into the darkness and eventually to the other side in a fast moving stream. The rest of the family was exhausted from the whole thing and went back to their nesting ground to quit the day.

The cygnet probably survived the swift journey to the Neckar, which will open up to be wide and calm. Despite how afraid it is, I can imagine that the cygnet would be impressed by the immense, still beauty relative to the little urban world it had known. But, I doubt there is any realistic chance for it to survive on its own out there. It may be able to find food, but there will be predators. I only hope Walt Disney is watching from somewhere and will make something wonderful happen. However, nature is probably a little harsher than my imagination of a happy ending. In any case, good luck out there little cygnet, you can make it if you can think like Huckleberry Finn.

IBM, Open Accessibility and Change

January 23, 2009

Richard Schwerdtfeger, my mentor and technical lead at IBM, explains why IBM let go of myself and Pete Brunet, and what it says about IBM strategy in open accessibility going forward. Although it was done suddenly, it makes a certain amount of business sense.

To summarize what I’m reading and thinking: IBM realized that our efforts in driving WAI-ARIA and IAccessible2 forward were a success.Things are now at a point where IBM can use these technologies in products without devoting full time employees to drive them. IBM believes browser manufacturers must carry forth any further efforts necessary to make web applications accessible.

What still remains to be done? There is more work in W3C to finalize the WAI-ARIA 1.0 standard, and Rich will still be chairing that effort. There is more work to support WAI-ARIA within various JavaScript toolkits and assistive technologies such as screen readers. However, the biggest missing piece in the infrastructure now are solid, consistent, support across all browsers. Firefox support for WAI-ARIA is strong, although some advanced uses such as complex grids with expandable parts will take time to sort out. In addition, consistent support across other browsers will be elusive for some time. Hint: IE 8 betas need work, but are easily beating WebKit and Opera.

But what’s really needed now is WAI-ARIA support in popular web applications. Killer WAI-ARIA applications will drive the need for better browser support, by putting meaning behind the efforts. One would think that a killer consumer application using Dojo’s Dijit or native WAI-ARIA support would emerge, but I haven’t seen one yet (please correct me if I’m wrong). You will still hear this note of resistance when discussing the need for WAI-ARIA with developers of some browser engines. WAI-ARIA bugs in ATs and browsers are simply more likely to get fixed if real users must switch browsers in order to access their web mail, calendar or web-based office application.

The solid Firefox and AT support, and upcoming IE support, are reason enough for developers to rally behind WAI-ARIA. Web application developers, please, implement WAI-ARIA and push browser manufacturers to fix their bugs. Finally, JavaScript front-end developers — please help contribute WAI-ARIA questions and documentation to the free-aria mailing list and wiki.

So in summary, IBM is right. They really did a lot for the community in developing WAI-ARIA and IAccessible2. A major aspect of this was their support for Pete Brunet and myself. We did a great job and IBM will continue to use the results for accessibility in their products. Now, the community will bring these technologies to the next level — mostly, by embracing them.

I want to end by lauding the work Pete did with IAccessible2. Without IAccessible2, advanced web application accessibility would not be available on Windows. IAccessible2 also allows any desktop application to support full accessibility. Like myself, Pete is obviously considering opportunities — he is brunet at And hey Pete … open some champagne. Both Rich’s post and our body of work show the facts. We were profoundly successful.

Goodbye IBM

January 21, 2009

This came as shock to me today, but I was just laid off from IBM. It was not a result of performance. They tell me it was because ARIA and working with external browser vendors is no longer a priority. There is still the chance to find work for another group in IBM, and I will probably be looking into that.

I have enjoyed working there, especially on Web 2.0 accessibility and Mozilla.

But, perhaps this will be the opening of new opportunities. I’m always optimistic.

Update: Some more thoughts … I’ve never been laid off before. In fact, everyone I ever worked for was more than pleased with my output. I know that people who understood my work in IBM really appreciated it. We certainly rocked the accessibility world!

I’m not too worried right now, and I’m very open to hearing about opportunities. Mostly, I just like doing things that benefit society. It doesn’t have to be accessibility, and probably doesn’t even have to be software. Realistically, it may be difficult to be given a great opportunity to move and shake outside of software, but you never know. I do like the kind of projects that Benetech gets going. I’m fascinated in potential in Obama’s plans for using technology to better utilize the public in decision-making. I’ve had some cool ideas around that in the past, which in fact can be more general and could be quite fun to work on.

And, don’t be too surprised if I stay in accessibility or even if I find some new opportunity to work on accessibility within Big Blue itself.

If you have a challenging opportunity to run by me, please send a note to aaron at

Looking back … and forward

January 8, 2009

So this whole thing started for me back in 2000. It began as a one way trip from Chicago to Netscape’s Mountain View offices, traveling through small towns and past the Grand Canyon, up through California and finally into the fog of the bay area. This was to be the last major trip for my mini-Cadillac (a 1986 Chrysler New Yorker).

Netscape barely knew what accessibility was. But they gave me an apartment to live in, and an office. I was working for a Braille note-taker manufacturer who needed web browsing capability. My coding skills were all home grown, in straight C and not in C++. I had never touched something as immense as the Mozilla codebase, and still had not grasped the true power of dynamic content. But what I did have was passion and the belief that open source was a beautiful place — and the best place to implement accessibility the right way.

Eventually Netscape hired me to integrate accessibility into the core product. There was a lot to do — not just to make Mozilla communicate XUL and HTML content and events to screen readers via MSAA, but also to add full keyboard support. I also added some special features for all users, like caret browsing and type ahead find (later enhanced by Blake Ross to become the find bar).

Then in July of 2003, Black Tuesday arrived. The Netscape browser team was laid off. I’d like to thank Asa Dotzler and others for their optimism very early on, even before this. Asa knew that Mozilla needed to be free to develop its own vision, Firefox. The truly passionate found a way to continue working on Mozilla. A year after I was laid off, IBM hired me finish the accessibility work. Yay!

All in all, I got married, had two children, went through three jobs, lived in three cities and fixed over 1000 bugs since it all started …. and we have a very accessible Firefox. Mozilla has a major role in leading the charge for accessibility of Web 2.0, not to mention accessibility on the Windows and Linux desktop.

These days, Marco Zehe, Alex Surkov and David Bolter have taken over the core accessibility work. These are the right guys to bring the quality and polish we need. It’s not all boring; there are also new features to implement. In 2009 we hope to become accessible with VoiceOver on OS X, continue to improve our support for WAI-ARIA and Web 2.0 accessibility, and address advanced topics such as accessible math, diagrams and custom widgets. It’s a bit unfortunate that these are still considered advanced topics in accessibility, when they are so basic to the mainstream. However, when Mozilla addresses new accessibility topics, it tends to pave the road with standards and documentation. This makes things much easier for implementers that come after us.

Although I’m no longer coding I work as hard as ever. I still advise in the codebase and act as module owner. I want to help make sure that decisions of the past are understood by anyone working in the code. Documentation is helpful but ultimately not enough.

What am I working on now?

  • The WAI-ARIA standard and everything around it. Right now, making Web 2.0 accessible means using a narrow set of technologies which support WAI-ARIA well. The browser must currently be Firefox, and some ARIA features are only supported in certain newer assistive techologies, and definitely not on OS X. And, you’ll either need to develop your own widgets or use Dojo’s Dijit toolkit. Fortunately, these inflexibilities are slowly but surely fading away. IE, Opera and WebKit are all working on WAI-ARIA support. Numerous JavaScript toolkits, such as YUI, GWT and JQuery, are moving forward as well. Assistive technologies are improving support for cutting edge areas like AJAX accessibility via WAI-ARIA live regions. But ultimately, Web 2.0 accessibility will arrive for real when a “killer app” arrives which requires a WAI-ARIA compliant browser. That’s what will finally drive things forward.  In the meantime, I’ll try to make things as clear for other implementors as I can.
  • Finding talented individuals and cowriting grant proposals for worthwhile accessibility projects that benefit the web. One example is Silvia Pfeiffer‘s project to add captioning and audio descriptions for HTML 5 video and audio. I’m also working with Eitan Isaacson, a great programmer who helps us in too many ways to count. He developed Speclenium, a tool to allow the accessibility implementations in two browsers to be compared for differences. I plan to use it to help other browsers improve their support for WAI-ARIA.
  • Enabling projects to add basic accessibility testing into Firebug and develop a Firebug extension for more advanced accessibility testing. This will bring awareness of accessibility issues to a wider authoring community, finally bring the test tool development community together on a common strategy, and allow us to address Web 2.0 accessibility testing.
  • Advancing the accessibility of math, diagrams and custom widgets.
  • Participating in efforts such as AIA, to create a cross-platform accessibility API. Today, developing accessibility for native cross-platform applications is a nightmare because each platform has a different solution. It’s best for the web if the entire industry works together on common accessibility solutions — Mozilla, IE, Opera and WebKit.

I’m very lucky to work with the community that has developed around Mozilla accessibility. I think we follow the model of the Mozilla project as a whole, enabling each other to do great things. This is a good opportunity to thank IBM and Mozilla, and in particular Frank Hecker, for the opportunity to work as more of a leader and organizer. It’s a less direct approach than just writing the code yourself, but when the timing is right it’s the right role to take on. You’ll produce far greater results.

Great new ARIA video: “Developing Accessible Widgets Using ARIA”

December 9, 2008

Does your page use JavaScript for dynamic effects, widgets or content updates? Want to make sure it’s accessible? If so, check out Yahoo’s new video Developing Accessible Widgets using ARIA.

Todd Kloots uses real examples to cover setting up the ARIA development and testing environment, landmark roles, widgets, enabling complex widgets with progressive enhancement, keyboard navigation, live regions, custom widgets and more.

A big thank you to Todd Kloots and Yahoo! for putting this together.

A long overdue blog

August 4, 2008

Hello to Accessible Planet and Planet Mozilla.

Thanks for all the … interesting … blog posts over the years.

I’m Aaron Leventhal and I’ve worked on accessibility in Mozilla-based browsers since 2000 — for the first three years that actually meant working on Netscape, and now it’s Firefox.

These days I work at IBM to help make Web 2.0 accessibility possible, and enjoying watching the open source accessibility community grow. And way back in the last century I actually worked on Braille publishing software. Yep, I’m one of those “accessibility experts” you’ve heard about, but don’t hide! I’m not a curmudgeon about these things. For me it’s just about helping people make it all work.

I will dicuss open source & web accessibility, with a special emphasis on Web 2.0 and AJAX. Knowing me, I’ll also have a few crazy ideas along the way.


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