No, I have not given up blogging, I’ve just been very busy on a number of professional projects that are taking most of my time. I have about a half dozen different blog articles in various states of incomplete but it’s been weeks since I last published a new one so forced myself upon the keyboard and started working to complete one of those that’s been sitting around for a while.
Lately, I’ve been feeling a lot of sadness, depression even about accessibility in general. Thus far this year, Google has released a new and completely inaccessible framework and deprecated an accessible IDE for Android programming to be replaced by an inaccessible one; at the same time, Google made some very positive steps forward in accessibility with GoogleDocs and Chrome. Up in Redmond, the Microsoft guys released Windows 10 with no obvious accessibility improvements and a large number of regressions, they released their new browser with zero support for accessibility and, in general, the Windows accessibility ecosystem continues to degrade. Two of the articles I had started were about Google and MS and their continued problematic accessibility strategies.
I found myself in a personal space torn between knowing about a lot of truly excellent work going on in accessibility with the increasingly muddy accessibility landscape that we need to deal with daily. I was feeling burned out on the subject matter and wanted to write something positive about developments in accessibility. and, with their 2015 line of product releases, Apple gave me that opportunity.
I’m afraid that this is not going to be a terrific piece as I’m writing the entire thing off the top of my head so, for you long term readers, expect something more like a BlindConfidential piece than the more formal and well researched articles I usually run here. This article is an expression of my personal opinions and talks about things I, as an individual, enjoy or dislike and doesn’t pretend to be speaking to broad issues nor does it contain the kind of objective measures I tend to bring to my pieces. I hope you enjoy the article and find my thoughts useful, if perhaps impractical for your own use cases.
Apple’s Big Rebound
Last year, I wrote three articles here about the reasons I hate to love Apple. I still have my disagreements with them about IP strategies but, regarding accessibility, Apple is the champion among the major corporations. If you’re looking for detailed reports about the autumn line of Apple releases, I suggest you take a look at the work our friends at AppleVis have published as they did real testing, I’m just reporting my personal experience here.
Recently, a friend bought me an AppleWatch as a gift and gave it to me while we were together in Toronto visiting a client. I didn’t think I wanted an AppleWatch, I was uncertain if it did anything I cared to have. But, as it was a gift, I started using it and now it’s become a constant part of my daily attire.
The first thing I noticed about the AppleWatch was that it felt great on my wrist. Mine is the larger sized watch face and I’ve since added the black leather watchband to it. As I’ve switched from a big yellow labrador guide dog to a black one, I’m changing much of my attire from light colors to varying shades of black and the nice leather Apple watchband fits in nicely.
When I started testing the AppleWatch, I found exactly one accessibility bug in the entire system. That was a single unlabeled button and, as it was the only button on the screen at the time, I assumed it was an “OK” and tapping it did what I had expected. There are lots and lots of different controls on an AppleWatch and finding only one accessibility flaw demonstrates Apple’s commitment to 100% accessibility out of the box. As far as I can tell, this is the first product to be fully accessible on day one ever released by any major company, Apple has made accessibility history again. This permits accessibility professionals to skip the “fundamental accessibility” problems and jump straight into new and exciting ideas for people with disabilities on the device. While there aren’t a ton of practical applications for the AppleWatch today, I predict that we’ll see a lot of interesting developments in the coming year.
Once I had the watch set up, as I do, I ran the update utility to install the AppleWatch OS 2 software. Once the downloading and such was complete and I ran the installation stuff, I discovered that the single unlabeled button that I had found in the initial AppleWatch had been fixed and could not find a single accessibility bug testing as much of the things that come installed out-of-the-box as I could find. On accessibility alone, this device is already incredible.
The value of an AppleWatch to you, as an individual, is something you need to determine for yourself. It’s definitely not the most important or useful device I own but I like mine and here are a few reasons why:
- ”Where Am I?” is a question I found myself asking Siri as I stood in the middle of a block on Haight Street in San Francisco. The nearly instant response was an address and I knew that I needed to continue walking west to find the store in which I was looking to shop. I find that I have no use for “turn by turn” directions when walking places but that I like having GPS to orient myself or to find a specific address. Having the ability to raise my wrist toward my face and say, “Hey Siri, where am I?” works very nicely for my needs.
- I enjoy fishing and, as any enthusiast of the salt water versions of the sport will tell you, knowing the tide is an important aspect of deciding when and where one might actually find fish to be caught. I looked for a tide table app for the watch and found a guy in the Netherlands named Jake Ruston who publishes such and, when I saw that his app was perfectly accessible, I sent him a note of appreciation. Jake responded in an email by saying, “It really is a shame that most developers don’t spend more time on things like this. It really doesn’t take much time to fix issues like these…” and he included coupon codes so, in addition to “My Tide Table Pro” I could test his “My Hurricane Tracker Pro,” “My Earthquake Alerts Pro” and, my favorite of the bunch, “Flush,” a public toilet finding app. All of Jake’s software is accessible in its full form on my iPhone 6S running iOS/9 as well as on the AppleWatch. Please support Jake and his work if you find a need for anything he makes, he’s a really good guy who is interested in making things more accessible and we should reward him by purchasing his apps, they’re only $2 or so and I expect most readers with an iOS device can afford such an extravagance.
- I enjoy the activity monitor stuff as, while some of the reminders can be annoying (you can turn them off), I find that having my watch remind me just how lazy my ass is to motivate me to at the very least try to get some exercise which is good for both me and my dog. I don’t know why but having something keep score motivates me but I can’t explain a lot of my motivations to do all sorts of the things I do.
While I want this to be a positive article, I do also want to include some things that I do not like about the AppleWatch, it’s accessibility may be nearly perfect but it does have a few aspects that I don’t especially enjoy much:
- Apple seems to believe that people have much thicker wrists than some of we smaller sorts actually possess. My AppleWatch is the larger model and one of my best friends, a woman with thin wrists, has the smaller version. We both own the smallest sized watchbands sold by Apple, mine the black leather one, her’s the stainless steel. In both of our cases, the band is about 40% longer than it needs to be. My leather band, even with the extra length, feels great on the wrist but I do wish Apple sold something for we more “petite” people.
- I also find that the speaker volume, at it’s maximum level, is not loud enough for some situations in which I find myself. Recently, I was in a San Francisco brewpub where the music was playing pretty loud and I simply could not hear the watch unless it was an inch or so from my ear which kind of defeats the purpose of having it on my wrist. This isn’t an “accessibility” issue per se but, rather, a function of the mechanical and electronic design of the AppleWatch which I hope they fix in future versions.
This autumn, Apple also released it’s latest version of Macintosh OS (10.11). In El Capitan, the Apple accessibility team made major corrections to some of the biggest complaints I published a year ago. Most especially, VoiceOver is fast again, something that had been pretty sluggish in 10.10 and 10.9. If you were, as I was, annoyed by the sluggish performance of VO in previous versions of OS X, you’ll likely be pleased with this release.
Apple’s iWorks Productivity Suite
In the past, both for accessibility and general usability reasons, I didn’t like iWorks very much. Then, it’s accessibility got really good but I refused to give it much of a chance as I didn’t think it could possibly compete with Microsoft Office. For full disclosure, I must admit that my treatment of iWorks was a purely ego driven decision on my part as I more or less designed much of the way that JAWS works with Excel and couldn’t possibly imagine that any other screen reader would ever present a spreadsheet as well as we did at Freedom Scientific.
At a Benetech dinner last June, I was seated at a table with my new friend Chelsea Cook, one of the smartest and most interesting young blind people I’ve met in years. Chelsea was apparently a long time reader of this blog and, while she had lots of nice things to say about most things I’ve written, she challenged me about the Excel versus Numbers question and slammed me for always pointing to the JAWS plus Excel solution. As she made a lot of entirely valid points, I revisited Apple’s Numbers spreadsheet and tried to approach it with an open mind. Indeed, Chelsea was correct, Numbers is not just terrifically accessible, it’s also a really useful tool that I can now recommend as an alternative to Excel.
If you are like me and have been using spreadsheets heavily since the days of first VisiCalc (Danny Bricklin’s first true spreadsheet) and then Lotus 1-2-3, you may find some aspects of Numbers a bit confusing. Apple redesigned the interface of its spreadsheet and it’s a lot different from those older ones as well as being different from Excel. It takes a bit of adjustment for us oldsters to get the hang of Numbers but, once we’ve gotten old habits out of our heads, Numbers stands up nicely. Special thanks to chelsea for taking me to task on this one, she was right, my Excel design may not be the final word in spreadsheet accessibility.
My New iPhone 6S and iOS/9
As my Verizon contract was nearly over, I decided to switch to T-Mobile and get myself a new iPhone 6S. As you may have read on this blog about a year ago, I was pretty disappointed with iOS/8. I had written that I felt that Apple had gained the top spot in corporate accessibility and was so far ahead of its competitors that they had probably chosen to take the Freedom Scientific strategy and milk the huge lead they had in accessibility. Plain and simply, even though I thought iOS/8 was a disappointment, if accessibility is a requirement for purchasing a mobile device, as it is under Section 508 for all federal government purchases, Apple would win every bid as Microsoft and Google were so distantly behind that Apple could coast for years to come, allowing VoiceOver to deteriorate as JAWS has over the years.
Then Apple released iOS/9. It fixes virtually every problem I had reported about iOS/8 and it takes the accessibility a step further. Plain and simply, iOS/9 is by far the best version Apple has released to date regarding accessibility and, again, if you’re looking for a more detailed report, check out AppleVis as they did far more work than I have on this product.
Apple Is The Exception
The most interesting thing in this story is not that Apple is the clear leader in out-of-the-box accessibility, they have held that position for a bunch of years now. The real story, as I suggest in the Introduction section of this piece is that Apple is the only large company who has delivered “end to end” accessibility solutions on virtually every product that carries its brandname. Whether it’s the brand new AppleWatch, the nearly ubiquitous AppleTV, the iPhone, the various iPad models, the iPod Touch and, to a great extent, Macintosh OS, Apple has a solution that’s reasonably to perfectly accessible.
Apple has many areas in which it can improve greatly. Most of my complaints with the inefficient interaction models in complex applications like Xcode and Garageband persist (although I did notice some improvements in the Garageband interface with VoiceOver but didn’t spend much time exploring it deeply enough to issue an opinion), various Apple development tools remain either inaccessible or difficult enough to make programming tasks very difficult, VoiceOver does a pretty poor job in the Terminal app and there are a number of other problems I’d like to see fixed soon but, compared to their competitors, Apple stands as an exception to the rule that accessibility must be a messy business at best.
The Apple competitors, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Samsung and so on all have terrific and talented people working on accessibility and, in some parts of their companies, are demonstrating solid progress but, when viewed as an entire organization, their accessibility strategies look haphazard at best and, cynically, as minimal as possible. Google is buying a lot of good publicity by tossing around a pile of research dollars but, in my opinion, should have first spent the money fixing the mountain of inaccessible crap they publish before contemplating ideas for the future. I’ve no idea whatsoever is going on up at Microsoft other than it’s publishing increasingly less accessible products year after year. In brief, as Apple has no other company pushing it, it’s exceptionalism becomes all the more obvious.
So, cheers to Apple for taking the lead and for not just milking the distance they have ahead of their competitors but actually continuing to improve over time. With their autumn 2015 releases (OS X version 10.11, iOS/9, AppleWatch, etc.) Apple, as a corporation, demonstrated with real functioning bits that, indeed, universal accessibility is possible. With Tim Cook’s keynote at Apple’s 2015 World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) and having three separate main stage presentations about accessibility, pronounced a commitment to making their products more accessible quite loudly. I just wish other companies would follow the Apple lead and make this happen on all platforms so we can have true choices in which technology we buy.
If it’s not obvious, I’m pleased with Apple’s 2015 offerings. They erased a bit of my cynicism and I hope to see them improve further in future releases of their products.
At the same time, I honestly don’t understand the accessibility strategies at companies like Google, Microsoft, Oracle, LinkedIn and a bunch of others who show up at every accessibility related conference, talk a great game, have smiling and supportive spokespeople but produce such an inconsistent accessibility experience across their organizations as to be perplexing. Apple has demonstrated that corporate wide accessibility is possible, these other companies can try to follow the Apple model or they can continue down the path they’re on and continue to fail in accessibility.
Thus, it’s difficult to even compare Apple to its competitors as it stands alone as a single data point on the accessibility curve. Apple is an outlier, they’re the exception to the rule that accessibility must be an afterthought. I tip my hat to Apple and hope they continue to improve into the future even without any true competitive pressure.