In June 2009, Apple changed the accessible smartphone market forever with the announcement of the VoiceOver screen reader on the iPhone 3GS. The device was officially released to the public on Friday, June 19, 2009; five years later, I thought it would be fun to take a look at my own early experiences with the iPhone, reflect on how much VoiceOver has changed (hint: more than I realized), and offer some thoughts on—and hopes for—the future.
For those new to how VoiceOver works, VoiceOver provides a way for blind and low-vision users to use iOS devices—iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches—without seeing the screen. (VoiceOver is also available on all modern Macs.) Using a modified set of gestures (for example, double-tapping on an icon to activate it instead of single-tapping), blind users are able to access all of the built-in device functions—as well as an increasing number of third-party apps—with ease. To say that VoiceOver revolutionized accessible smartphone technology for the blind is, in my opinion, putting it mildly.
A Personal Reflection
I can remember quite clearly my reaction when VoiceOver on the iPhone was first announced: "How the heck is a blind person supposed to use a touchscreen?" "It’s a great idea, but I don’t see it working." (Pardon the pun.) And, this is the best of them all: "I don’t want an iPhone!"
For those brave enough to venture into the world of touchscreen devices—uncharted territory up until that point—VoiceOver seemed to be everything Apple said it was...and more. While I don’t have any documentation as to the early features of VoiceOver, I remember reviews from early-adopters being overwhelmingly positive. (Here's one review by Mark Taylor dated June 29, 2009.)
Even though people who had iPhones generally really liked them, I still did not want one; the idea of trying to enter text without a physical keyboard, in particular, was just too daunting. (Is there such a thing as touchscreen phobia? If so, I had it.)
Fast-forward a year and a few iOS (then called "iPhone OS") updates. At this point, I had a Windows Mobile 6.5 device with Mobile Speak. Before the iPhone, Windows Mobile was where it was at—as far as I was concerned, anyway. The device did just about everything I wanted, but there was that nagging voice in the back of my head telling me that Windows Mobile was quickly fading into obsolescence in favor of newer—and, I assumed, less-accessible—technology.
Of course, I could always switch to that touchscreen iPhone that an increasing number of blind people said they were really happy with. My attitudes towards the iPhone had softened over the past year, and I was becoming increasingly curious about the device and what all one could do with it. (The rapid decline in my current phone's performance, combined with the decreasing availability of accessible Windows Mobile handsets, probably had something to do with that.)
While attending a summer camp at the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired in June 2010, I had the opportunity to see an iPhone, try out VoiceOver for myself, and talk to a blind person who, like me, had used Windows Mobile pre-iPhone. After figuring out just how easy the touchscreen really was to use (making a phone call was a huge milestone), it was then that I knew I had to get one—and embrace the technology of the future.
I began my iOS journey with a new 16GB iPhone 3GS running iOS 3.1.3, which I quickly upgraded to iOS 4. When I finally got service on my device (I was using it on T-Mobile), I wanted to do everything: I was downloading apps, surfing the internet...you name it. I also got to be pretty quick at typing on the touchscreen as well, until I got my first Bluetooth keyboard and realized how much faster that was to use.
One of the things I really liked about iOS 4, believe it or not, was the original text-to-speech voice. Perhaps it is because hearing that particular iteration of Vocalizer brings me back to my very enjoyable first days using an iPhone, or perhaps it is because the voice was lower pitched and less whiny—I think the compact voices since iOS 4 have not been as good. The iOS 6 compact voice (for U.S. English) was about as close to the original VoiceOver voice as I think we’ll ever get, but that was replaced in iOS 7 in favor of Vocalizer Expressive. I remember reading on the AppleVis forum that the iOS 6 Compact Voice used Vocalizer for Automotive—a speech engine that is no longer in production. Ah well...
VoiceOver Through the Years
With each major release of iOS, Apple continually adds new features to VoiceOver. While researching for this article, I came across three great blog posts by Scott Davert, detailing what was new and changed with VoiceOver in iOS 5, iOS 6, and iOS 7, respectively. There is a lot more information than I have space to list, so be sure to visit the links above for a complete rundown. Below are the highlights as I see them:
- iOS 5: For me, the big new feature in iOS 5 was the premium voice, now called the Enhanced Quality voice. Of special note, too, was the introduction of many new rotor options, the Accessibility Shortcut, and custom element labeling.
- iOS 6: iOS 6 brought a better compact voice (see above), more rotor options (custom actions comes to mind), keyboard improvements, and Assistive Touch support—as well as some bug fixes for Braille users.
- iOS 7: iOS 7 included the ability to have more than one premium voice on your device, a long-requested feature to not automatically speak incoming notifications while on a phone call, Handwriting Mode, and even more rotor options.
- iOS 8: While not much is known about what new VoiceOver features will be included in iOS 8, Apple announced at WWDC that VoiceOver would include the Alex voice—the default text-to-speech voice from Mac OS X—as well as a method for direct Braille input on the device. While not specifically a new accessibility feature, Apple also announced that third-party keyboards would be able to be integrated system-wide, opening up even more keyboard options for all. (MBraille, anyone?)
Over the last five years, I have again and again seen demonstrations of Apple’s continuing commitment to accessibility. Besides the continual VoiceOver features and improvements with each major update to iOS and OS X, one of the best examples of this commitment came from CEO Tim Cook at a shareholder meeting this past March. While responding to a request from the National Center for Public Policy Research that Apple give an account of the costs of its energy sustainability programs and continue only those programs that were profitable, Cook said that a return on investment (ROI) was not Apple’s only motivation.
"When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI," Cook said.
"But There Are Accessibility Bugs..."
While iOS and Mac OS X do have some accessibility bugs—keep in mind that no operating system is bug-free—I do believe that Apple is actively working on solving these issues. You can help report bugs by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org if there’s an issue you’re having in iOS or OS X. (Users in the U.S. may also call Apple Accessibility at 877-204-3930.) You are your own best advocate, and Apple Accessibility won’t know your needs and your specific situation unless you tell them. In your e-mail/phone call, tell the representative how you expected the feature to work, what is happening instead, and how the issue is impacting your use of the device.
The same idea goes for iOS and OS X feature requests; Apple won’t know what you want unless you tell them. While the feature sets of iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite are likely already finalized, a request one makes now could very well lead to a new feature in a future update.
In June 2009, VoiceOver revolutionized the accessible smartphone market in a way nobody thought was possible. I know I certainly never expected that five years later I would have an iPhone, let alone be a member of the editorial team for a community-powered website for iPhone (and other Apple product) users.
To Tim Cook and Apple Accessibility: my hat is off to you for a job well done. I look forward to many great advancements in the months and years to come.