Most of this article appeared first on this blog yesterday (10/14/14) under the title, “Apple: The Company I Hate To Love.” A number of our most loyal readers asked that I split that story up and start, as I did for Android, a series on the problems I perceive surrounding Apple and accessibility these days. So, being a blogger who tries to be responsive to his readers and fully understanding why they felt this should be a series, here’s part 2, in which I discuss the problems I’ve experienced since installing iOS/8 and my continued issues with the lack of competition in this space.
For years, both here and on my BlindConfidential blog in the past, I have railed against the lack of competition in the screen reader business. Years before systems like iOS, Android and Fire existed, I ranted about how GW Micro chose to take what I had described as a “non-compete” strategy in the market battles between JAWS and Window-Eyes. I’ve demonstrated in these articles how the community of screen reading using people were screwed in the end as, once JAWS was allowed to reach a position of market dominance, FS was left without incentive to continue making JAWS great as, in reality, if the competition “sucks worse” you remain the winner.
I have always and probably will always blame the lack of competition not on the winners nor on the consumers but, rather, squarely in the lap of the businesses who chose not to compete. It isn’t the fault of the JAWS developers that they built the best screen reader on the market back in those days.
Actually, rethinking, I suppose, indeed, that it is my fault and that of Eric Damery that we elected to spend the development dollars to make software like Excel and PowerPoint not just demo well but be usable in real professional settings. It’s my fault and that of Glen Gordon that we didn’t take the then broken MSAA approach to web accessibility but, rather, decided to invent the virtual buffer, the invention most blind people enjoy on Windows and to a lesser extent other platforms today. It’s definitely our fault personally as we are bad people who did the awful, we made the best thing out there and, as a result, we achieved a monopoly position, a position Apple holds today in the mobile accessibility space.
It isn’t the fault of people who told the world to buy Apple products for being accessible and to eschew products whose accessibility remains poor. It isn’t my fault that Google makes a poor accessibility solution, that’s Google’s fault. I report on what I observe and I encourage people to buy the best and, today, in spite of the disappointing iOS/8 release, Apple remains the best, even if they may not be as good as they were in their previous release.
Buying an Android device today, purely if accessibility is the standard on which one makes their decisions, is a really bad idea. Buying Android today doesn’t create competition but, rather, discourages such as it tells the manufacturers “it’s ok to suck.” It also tells the leader that they can stop working as, if users accept that crap, why should the best even consider for a second getting even better? competition will start in this space when there are two or more players who can claim what iOS/7 did, namely,100% compatibility with their own accessibility API. As no mobile device other than those running iOS come even close to iOS/8, defects and all, going to Android is only telling Apple that it’s ok to suck even more as we’ll buy this stuff just to not buy product from you.
I heard this exact same argument while at FS. People would say things like, “Sure, Window-Eyes is a poor alternative but I’ll use it just to promote competition.” How well did that work out? In those days, I was told by people at AFB that they refused to write a fair review of JAWS or Window-Eyes that compared the two as they feared killing the competition between the two screen readers. I railed very publicly as an FS VP against AccessWorld for saying that MAGic (the FS low vision software) was nearly as good as ZoomText because it was not so, I found this sort of article to be entirely misleading for readers as some, if they actually believed AccessWorld, might choose MAGic over its far superior competitor and vowed to work to drive MAGic to catch up (another of my personal failures). Promoting substandard solutions does not drive the leader to improve, it does the exact opposite and, as we saw with JAWS and Window-Eyes, a leader who isn’t pushed by its competitors will allow its technology to atrophy.
Can someone find me another industry where any consumers say, “I’m going to buy the crappy one, I’m going to reward them with my dollars just to encourage them to do better in the future?” No, of course not.
Fans Versus Consumers
It’s playoff time of year so my attention turns to baseball and I’ll use a baseball metaphor to describe what I consider to be the difference between a “fan” or “fanboy” if you prefer and a consumer.
Let’s say that you live in New York where you have a choice between two baseball teams, the Yankees and the Mets. Let’s add that, in this particular season, the Mets are a really terrific team and the Yankees are a poor one. If the Yankees and the Mets are playing at the same time but, of course, in their separate stadiums and you want to go to a baseball game, you need to make a choice as to whether to travel to the Bronx or out to Queens, you need to decide whether or not to pay to see the Yankees or pay to see the Mets.
If, in this case where the Mets are a superior product, you choose to go see the Yankees, you do so because you are a Yankee “fan” or “fanboy” if you prefer; if you choose to go to the Mets game, you are making a consumer based choice and buying the better product. If you think that buying a ticket for the Yankees will help them build a better team in the future, you are like the fans of the Chicago Cubs who haven’t won a World Series in more than a century, you are buying hope without reality.
This is, fundamentally, why winning teams draw large crowds and, in cities other than Boston, San Francisco or New York where money is so abundant, poorly performing teams draw poor attendance.
The iOS/8 Fiasco
I did not join the beta program to test iOS/8, I’m entirely unwilling to pay Apple $100 per year for the privilege of running broken, pre-release software, that’s an effort for which individuals should be paid as quality assurance professionals and is not something that billion dollar corporations should be enjoying as free labor from volunteers. All I can say, however, is that it appears as if Apple accessibility must have hired a QA person out of Google as the number of glaringly obvious accessibility bugs, defects that were reported by people paying Apple for the right to report bugs, remain in the released version of the software. We’re not talking about obscure problems that require a lot of steps to reproduce or may be the result of a strangely and unpredictable combination of features/apps/hardware but, rather, these are the really stupid bugs, the ones that any automated testing process should have caught that are present in many areas in iOS/8.
So, it remains that iOS/7 is the all time out-of-the-box accessibility champion. As iOS/7 can no longer be purchased from Apple, this also means that the most accessible solution for mobile computing is now a thing of the past. We’ve regressed in iOS/8 and Apple must be taken to task for such. That iOS/8 is crappy, though, does not mean, “go out and get an Android device” as Android remains far worse. Apple set the gold standard in iOS/7 and, with iOS/8, has taken a step backward but remains, by far, the best accessibility solution for people with profound to total vision impairment.
I’ve spent most of the past month in a car traveling from the Boston area where we spend our summers to Florida, unpacking and then getting back in the car for a much shorter drive south to Palmetto, Florida where I spent 25 days in guide dog school. As I was learning to work with a wonderful new dog, I didn’t have the time to do any serious testing of iOS/8 myself. Please do read the very comprehensive article on iOS/8 accessibility bugs on AppleViz if you need more details as the problems I mention in this article are a subsection of those I’ve personally experienced and is not a result of a comprehensive plan. I tend to ignore AppleViz in general as I find their editorial gist is too soft on Apple and contains too little criticism. This article, however, is pretty good and reflects much more of an effort than the item you are currently reading.
The Stupid Bugs
I am using the word “stupid” here specifically as a term to describe obvious bugs that should have been caught by automated testing. These are the sorts of bugs that drive me crazy about Android accessibility with the question, “How can you miss something as simple as putting something into the tab order or adding a label to a button?” as testing for such should take no more than a few seconds of an automated testing tool telling the developer, “Hey stupid, you forgot the damned tab stop.” These are the bugs that require thought to remedy, they can mostly be handled with a tiny bit of typing. If, on iOS/7, a blind user installed everything that came out-of-the-box plus all no cost iOS/7 apps that carried the Apple brand name, they would find that there are more than a thousand total accessibility API tests that could be performed and that all but a tiny fraction (10 or so) passed on iOS/7 giving a result of 100% when the results are rounded to integers. While this number is far worse on Android than iOS/8, the new iOS offering certainly does not hit the 100% mark but is probably still in the greater than 90% score level. Compared to Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Samsung, this is still the best score on the market today by at least 30 points but, as the newly introduced bugs are mostly “stupid” ones, the trend toward regression at Apple is alarming.
The Apple Monopoly Position
I had a lot of time alone while at guide dog school, it’s largely a “hurry up and wait” experience and while other students were training, I had a lot of time to think. What came into mind as I went from iOS/8 to 8.01 to 8.02 was also partially propagated by other students in the class and at another guide dog school where, coincidentally, my dearest friend was getting a new dog at the same time.
Of the 24 students in the two classes, 22 used at least one Apple device. All of these people, quite obviously, were also blind. What they are not in any other way is a narrow sample as they spread an age range from around 20 to over 80, a wide array of educational backgrounds, personal histories and so on. As a sample of adult blind people, this, while not scientific in any manner, was a fairly diverse group. The single thing that we had in common was that we used iOS devices and that we handled guide dogs. Of the two who didn’t use iOS, one was an older woman who still used an old Nokia N82 with Talx and the other was an Android user who admittedly didn’t use the device to do much more than accept and send phone calls. So, 22 of 24 users had already moved to iOS.
This complete market dominance led me to think of JAWS in late 2002. By then, Freedom Scientific was holding a marketshare among new product sales of over 80%. We had achieved a monopoly position and, while I may rant and rave about such decisions on philosophical grounds, it would have been a seriously poor business decision to continue investing as we were in JAWS as, quite simply, the market demands caused by serious competition had disappeared. I use the word serious about competition in this space as, in theory, GW Micro and Window-Eyes “competed” with JAWS and Android, also in theory only, competes with Apple in the accessibility space, they just do not compete with any serious efforts at doing so. Thus, in the lack of competition, why should Apple do anything but wait for the others to catch up?
Don’t blame the Apple fanboys for creating this environment, they saw the best thing this community has ever seen out-of-the-box, they rightfully celebrated the top thing on the market. The blame here falls directly in Google’s lap, TV Raman and his team produced a horrible solution wrought with the stupidest of bugs and Google corporate policy doesn’t even require accessibility testing on anything they make. Don’t blame the monopoly position on Apple, they only did what they were asked by this community to do: namely, deliver a device 100% accessible to people with profound to total vision impairment. In the same way that blaming FS for the failures at GW is absurd, so is blaming Apple for what are solidly problems at the businesses that claim to compete with them.
I’m not blaming the users for buying the best thing, that’s, indeed, how competition works, two or more companies release similar products, consumers evaluate them and buy the one they prefer. Apple built a highly preferable system or that’s what the marketshare numbers tell us and it was so profoundly preferable that virtually all blind consumers, based in a function of competition, chose the system that best met their needs. If a large number of blind people were to suddenly abandon iOS in the hopes that buying an Android device would “promote competition in the future,” they miss the definition of competition because, on the day you’ve bought the device, you have, by rewarding the manufacturer with your money, actually announcing that the inferior option has won because you’ve given them the only actual prize that a large corporation cares about.
No traditional market forces are at play in this situation and all I can say is that I really do hope that Peter Korn can bring some actual competition to this space.
How Does This Happen?
Something, I don’t know what, is different inside Apple these days. Maybe it’s the new CEO, maybe it’s something else, maybe they really did put a person out of Google in charge of accessibility QA, I don’t know. All I know is that no one seems to be minding the store. If the stupid bugs are starting to slip through, what can we expect next. I’m glad that iOS/8 has support for MathML and has added some other interesting new features but, overall, the release is unnecessarily sloppy.
Some of the most annoying bugs I’ve encountered have nothing to do with accessibility. One in specific, I hang up a call, another finger happens to accidentally tap a number on the keypad, the tone from that number starts to play and does not stop. If this thing is called a phone, the one app that should work flawlessly would be the one for using the phone, isn’t it? This doesn’t just happen to VO users, it’s a stupid bug that a lot of people are experiencing, having to entirely reboot the phone to get it to work. Really? A phone button is stuck down? You guys didn’t think of testing such?
Other bugs, some related to accessibility, some not, seem so stupid that I can only wonder if anyone at Apple either tested such or if they listened to beta testers at all as I’m highly confident that most, if not all, of the most obvious bugs would have been caught there. As I wrote above, I’m not an iOS beta tester so I’m running on assumptions here but, if they had as few as two blind people testing and reporting iOS/8 bugs, they’d have heard reports of most if not all of these problems and, as I wrote above, most of these could have been remedied in less than a minute each by anyone who can type.
What is it that seems to have, regarding accessibility at least, to have allowed Apple to think it can do such a sloppy release? in my mind, it’s the fault of their competitors refusing to make a credible solution at all. If everyone else sucks, they are giving the leader carte blanche to suck too. When Window-Eyes fell behind JAWS, they could have worked really hard to catch up, especially when it, around the release of JAWS 7, became very obvious to the general public that FS was working far less hard on JAWS than we had previously. If Google released an Android with an accessibility score even close to the iOS/8 with all of its bugs included, it would be true choice and would incentivize a lot of users to give it a try; in its current condition, Android is not “competition” but, rather, capitulation to Apple’s dominance.
Apple is doing something different and dangerous with their accessibility strategy. By choosing to release iOS/8 with so many glaringly obvious bugs, they have allowed accessibility regressions to vastly overshadow any improvements in such in iOS/8. My personal conclusion is that this is the result of a failure by the Apple competitors, most notably Google and Microsoft, to actually compete in this space. Apple released iOS/7 with a 100% accessibility API compatibility rating, the only out-of-the-box solution that has even tried to achieve such. Apple is still the clear leader in accessibility in the mobile computing arena but has proven that they can disappoint as well as surprise this community with their accessibility efforts.
I’m feeling tremendously discouraged. I’d love to be able to say, “Apple is blowing it, support one of their competitors,” but, in good faith, as iOS/8 is still substantially better in all areas of accessibility than is Google, Amazon or Microsoft, I’d be recommending an even worse solution. Apple and iOS/8 may suck but it sucks far less than its competitors. I refuse to look at trend lines in this space as they are historically unpredictable but, based in both insider and public information, I think that MS and Amazon might be making a solid move in accessibility and its a move forward. Google has demonstrated a few promising signs (Chrome is more accessible on Android and Windows, GoogleDocs seems to be catching up to Microsoft Office Online in accessibility) but we’ve heard so many promises from Google for so long that, with them, I take a wait and see attitude ignoring all statements about the future that isn’t accompanied by actual functioning bits.
I still conclude that the fault for this lies entirely in the hands of Apple’s competitors. If Apple had someone knocking on the accessibility marketshare door, they might not be so cavalier with choosing which bugs to fix and which to force upon us as paying customers. As long as Apple can say, “we suck less,” they will continue to e allowed to suck further until they drop all of the way down to the standards of their competition. If we, as blind consumers, accept a lower standard for accessibility, we are part the problem, not part of the solution.