Hello Everyone,

As I did not obtain explicit permission to post the following comments from the writer though it was posted to a public mailing list, I will not disclose the author’s name. 

Please know that the author is, if not the most, then one of the most respected names in the field of assistive technology for the visually impaired and, further, has earned my heartfelt respect and admiration:

So, to all of us iPhone 3G S early adopters and to all of you Apple “fan-boys” out there, here is a clear, concise, beautifully written, and definitely to-be-considered “gravity-check” regarding the practical application of the iPhone 3G S for the blind and low vision: 

Most Sincerely,

Mark

THE ACCESSIBLE iPHONE 3G S FOR THE BLIND AND LOW VISION, A REALITY-CHECK

[Posted June 9, 2009]

There’s been some pretty lively discussion on Twitter since the announcement of the new iPhone, which some are calling accessible. As 140 characters can be quite limiting, I thought I would make some extended comment through this list.
 
There seems to be a great deal of excitement over the fact that Apple have put a screen reader into the iPhone. For no extra cost, someone can go to AT&T in the US, or your iPhone carrier in other countries, pick up an iPhone, and get speech without installing any additional software. It can be made to talk by enabling the feature from the PC, so no sighted assistance is required. At face value, the principle is an enticing one, although the concept is not entirely new. Phones such as some of the LG range have offered an out of box experience that has varied in its degree of accessibility for some time. There is also the question of how easily we as blind people can influence product enhancements. But hats off to Apple for getting this done for sure.
 
Just because we’re blind, doesn’t mean we’re immune to the latest trend and marketing hype. Sighted iPhone devotees love the look of the iPhone, and its touch screen. So there are blind people who want an iPhone because it’s trendy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this either. If we want to be part of the latest big thing, it is wrong for consumers that happen to be blind to be locked out. It is worth baring in mind though that Nokia still well outsells all of its competitors put together in the global market.
 
We all use our phones for different purposes, and perhaps it is true that because screen readers have only run on smartphones, some of us are using smartphones when we otherwise wouldn’t be. A smartphone is all about productivity. Getting information in and out of the device with ease is critical.
 
There are comments in the Apple documentation, found at http://www.apple.com/accessibility/iphone/vision.html that intrigue me with respect to reviewing what is on the screen. They say in part:
 
What makes VoiceOver on iPhone truly remarkable is that you control it using simple gestures that let you physically interact with items on screen. It’s easy to learn and fun to use. Instead of memorizing hundreds of keyboard commands, or endlessly pressing tiny arrow keys to find what you’re looking for, with VoiceOver, you simply touch the screen to hear a description of the item under your finger, then gesture with a double-tap, drag, or flick to control the phone.

VoiceOver delivers an experience unlike any screen reader you’ve ever used before. Traditional screen readers describe individual elements on the screen, but struggle to communicate where each element is located or provide information about adjoining objects. This contextual information is very important but typically filtered out by other screen readers. For example, “off-screen” models used by traditional screen readers to represent applications and web pages intentionally strip away contextual information and describe web pages as a list or menu of items. But with VoiceOver on iPhone 3G S, you’ll experience something entirely new.

So say the people at Apple. It seems they are indulging in some serious hyperbole here. As a Talks and Mobile Speak user who uses a lot of the screen readers’ functionality, it is simply not the case that there are hundreds of commands to remember. Further, are arrow keys and a keyboard or number pad really so bad? It would appear to me to be an optimal interface for a blind person to use.

But the really interesting philosophical point for me relates to their comment about knowing where information appears on the screen. Apple says this is important. But this begs the question, who says that where information appears on the screen of a phone is important? Not many, if any, blind people. We’re not talking about formatting complex documents here. We want to get at our information, whether that be reading a message or checking our battery status, efficiently. I’ve used accessible phones for six years now. Never once has it even occurred to me to wonder where the power and battery status appears on the screen of my phone. Why should it?
Irrespective of where it appears, I want a foolproof, 100% guaranteed way of hearing that information without fuss. The description on the Apple site simply seeks to turn what is a negative for us, the lack of arrow keys and a real keyboard, into a positive. In my view, it’s a false positive. We do not need to know where something appears on the screen. That said, with practice, it probably will be straightforward enough to aim at the right part of the screen to get the information you want, although I’d say not as reliable as getting there from a keyboard.
 
For input, anyone who has a current smartphone running one of the other operating systems will be taking a step back in terms of ease of use and productivity.
 
If you want to dial numbers and play music from your library, the iPhone will allow you to do this by speaking to the device. We won’t know how well this works in noisy environments, but speech recognition is quite good these days, so one would expect satisfactory results in most conditions.
 
The area where the iPhone is especially weak is inputting data, such as texts, e-mail and contacts. The contacts of course could be entered on a desktop device and synchronised, but when on the move, you want to be able to send texts and e-mails speedily.
 
When you are running Voiceover on the iPhone, a different user interface is active for the touch screen from that which is in play for sighted users.
Here’s what Apple’s own documentation says about entering data.
 
When you’re typing text, such as an email message or a note, VoiceOver echoes each character on the keyboard as you touch it, and again to confirm when you enter it. You can also have VoiceOver speak each completed word instead of and in addition to individual characters as you type them. A flick up or down while typing moves the insertion point cursor left and right within the text so you can edit a word just as easily and precisely as typing a new word.
 
To help you type more quickly and accurately, iPhone features word prediction and suggests the correct spelling when you type a word incorrectly. With Speak Auto-text enabled, you’ll hear a sound effect and the suggested word spoken automatically. You can just keep typing to ignore it, or press the space key to have iPhone type it for you.
 
So say Apple. So this sounds fairly similar to the functionality offered on Pocket PC touch screen phones by Mobile Speak Pocket, although it is considerably more advanced in terms of the various gestures one can make on the screen to control a range of functions. My concern is the speed at which data entry will be possible. You first have to locate the character you want, on a completely flat surface touch screen, with Voiceover voicing each character as you search for the one you want. Once located, you must confirm the entry of that character. Now with practice, one may get fairly accurate about guessing where your finger needs to be on the screen in order to get the character you want. However I think one can be more precise, and more importantly, efficient if one uses a qwerty keyboard or number pad. A really proficient T9 text user is something to be hold in terms of speed.
 
Efficiency is critical for people who need to process information quickly to be as productive on the job as their sighted peers.
 
It is possible that the word prediction algorithm may substantially speed up data entry. However it would seem unlike that even then, data entry would be as fast as an accomplished T9 user.
 
Then there is the question of third party applications, which may be thin on the ground for the iPhone, at least initially. Apple says:
 
VoiceOver works with all of the built-in applications that come with iPhone 3G S, such as Phone, iPod, iTunes, Mail, Safari, and Maps. So, you can place and receive calls, surf the web, text and email your friends, check your stocks and the weather, and much, much more. Apple is also working with iPhone software developers so they can make their applications VoiceOver compatible.
 
This is, at least in the short term, a lot more limiting than other options such as Symbian or Windows Mobile.
 
In the end, it depends on what you’re after. Some people believe that having a “mainstream” device accessible out of the box is so important, that they will sacrifice productivity. And of course, there’s no need to buy any additional software. I personally believe that we are a market deserving of our needs to be met in the best way that meets our needs. There are still better phones out there. The new Nokia range, such as the N86, has an 8 MP camera, great data speeds, built-in voice over IP, and the potential to run the KNFB Reader. If you are willing to put up with access that is more fiddly for a lower price, then maybe the iPhone is an attractive proposition. For me, my phone is not a gimmick, nor is it an experiment. I need a phone that will let me manage my data on the move, and get the messages out, without hunt and peck.
 
To those who say that the touch screen is the way of the future, this is clearly not the case. Many, many manufacturers, even those that dabble in some touch screen models, are still producing great new phones with keyboards or number pads that have far better specs than the iPhone.
Further, I watched with interest the hopes being expressed by some bloggers and tech commentators that maybe Apple would come out today with an iPhone complete with slide-out qwerty keyboard. So even sighted people in some quarters are starting to find the touch screen wearing a bit thin.
 
In summary, Apple should be congratulated for taking a device that clearly breached Section 255 of the US Telecommunications Act, and having a go and making it compliant. NFB and ACB have been asking for this, and I’ve no doubt this is a sincere, and commendable effort on Apple’s part to deliver.

Whether it can compete with well established offerings in terms of productive, efficient access, I am not convinced. I still ask, what have we gained in terms of efficient access to the exchange of information. Had Apple come out with the same offering today, but with the addition of a version of the iPhone with a qwerty keyboard, I think they would have been right on the money.
 
Hopefully we can avoid the knee-jerk reactions of the fanboys out there, and have some serious, thoughtful discussion about the appropriateness of this kind of a user interface in meeting Section255 compliance.

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