iOS or Android for the visually impaired revisited: Jelly Bean or iOS?

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Back in March when I took a stab at comparing iOS and Android from the perspective of a blind user, Android 4.1 (a.k.a. Jelly Bean) was nonexistent and no one knew what access features it would offer. Having tested Google Nexus 7 for more than two weeks and having seen blind users' opinions of Android 4.1, I'm now in a better position to compare iOS and Android yet again. So tighten your belt as I briefly go through my original comparison points first to check what has changed and then move on to an uncharted territory.

Where's the battleground?

Jelly Bean might not be a major Android update, but it's a big step forward in terms of accessibility. It looks as if Google engineers got together and said "let's ditch our access model in ICS and go back to the drawing board to devise a new one." However, rather than listing the new features one after another, I decided to intersperse them throughout this article as I mention the original comparison points.

The screen curtain -- it's not there yet

This feature allows users to essentially turn off the display and use the handset without necessarily worrying about prying eyes or the so-called "quidnunc." Now someone might say Android can do the same with a third-party app. Though I’ve not heard of such an app, VoiceOver’s approach requires no extra installation or configuration -- just a gesture.

As before, Jelly Bean doesn't have a quasi-screen curtain feature. In fact, it's not known if third-party apps which can be used to turn off the display work with Android 4.1. However, I should admit that as much as I like this feature (mine gets active whenever VoiceOver starts), I know that it's not a dealbreaker for many users. Neither is it a dealbreaker for me nor do I lament its absence in Jelly Bean and TalkBack, but it's undoubtedly a very useful utility which complements all mobile screen readers.

Labeling unknown icons -- not yet

I’ve used it several times in various apps, and can’t imagine how a mobile screen reader can exist without it.

Interestingly, android is also very much in need of such a feature for its major screen reader. In an ideal world, you could contact all developers and they'd take care of their strange label names, thanking you for the time it took to bring the issue to their attention. Sadly, that's not going to happen anytime soon.

Flicking is the star of the show -- Android has a true star now

I’ve heard this from some Android fanboys: "flicking is unnecessary and time-consuming." ... Flicking makes a huge difference in using newly installed apps and discovering new controls. ...

this has frustrated some Android fanboys and many of them call it a chapter from Apple's book. However, flicking works well in Jelly Bean and, for the first time, Android has become a friendlier OS for the blind. Also, it now uses the double-tap approach like what iOS offers -- no split-tap yet.

Independent and functional touch and keyboard modes -- don't look for them in Android

... VoiceOver can be operated with or without a Bluetooth keyboard.

Nothing has changed here in Android 4.1. Simply put, your bluetooth keyboard in Jelly Bean moves the System focus as if TalkBack were disabled whereas flicking moves the Accessibility focus. This makes using bluetooth keyboards in Android all the more difficult as you can't, say, unlock the handset with the keyboard or use it to quickly move to certain areas of the screen the way flicking and exclusive touch gestures do.

Easy movement to the top and bottom of the screen -- Android lives without it

With iOS 5 one can perform a four-finger gesture on the top or bottom of the screen and move the focus to that area -- I mean to the very first or the very last item on the screen.

While Android doesn't have these gestures (and they're even more important for larger Android screens), it's worth mentioning that Jelly Bean now has dedicated gestures to move users to important areas of the OS like the Home screen. It also has a new gesture to simulate the presses of the Back button. I like Android's approach where you use the combination of two single gestures out of four, (up, down, left and right), to perform those tasks. For instance, you might move up and right to do what you want. Again, this is not the equivalent of moving to the first or last screen element; rather, I mentioned them here to demonstrate an important Android improvement.

Better language and voice support -- a mixed bag for Jelly Bean

... I don’t like the default Android voice for US and UK English. ... Admittedly, extra voices can be purchased in Android ...

Jelly Bean comes with an improved voice for US English and I like it a lot. However, as many Android TTS providers have been purchased by Nuance, they haven't been updated for Android 4.0 and 4.1, meaning one has even fewer TTS choices in Android now. Also, other than the new US English voice, nothing has changed with the rest of languages.

The use of headings throughout the whole OS and in many apps -- Android still lacks it

When I first read about this I thought it wasn’t a big deal, but it sure is. ...

Needless to say, Jelly Bean doesn't have such a feature. It now provides a way to navigate around text by character, word and paragraph which is nice, but it's different from the exclusive use of headings to navigate around the OS.

Guaranteed future iOS updates -- JB powers less than 1 percent of Android devices

Even many Apple 3GS users have now upgraded to iOS 5.1 and are happily using their two-year-old handsets. Apart from the issue of largely inaccessible skins, Google doesn’t determine the fate of more than 99 percent of Android handsets ...

Nothing has changed in this regard, JB is on 0.8 percent of Android devices and ICS (Android 4.0) powers about 16 percent of them -- check here.

Superior Braille support -- playing catchup has started

I’ve heard that Braille is coming to Android ...

Code Factory's commercial screen reader now supports Braille though it doesn't work well with Jelly Bean. However, JB itself supports Grade I Braille via Google's new app -- BrailleBack. Apart from the missing Grade II support, Braille isn't supported in web views. Good move on Google's part, but a lot needs to be done here.

Now what? Does JB disappoint?

The nice point about Android 4.1 is that Google, for the first time, has displayed a higher degree of commitment to accessibility. However, as groundbreaking as many of these enhancements sound, Jelly Bean and TalkBack still lack important features which seriously hamper the usability of the OS.

Re-enabling access and TalkBack

With Android 4 Google introduced drawing a rectangle to start access services and speech in the setup screen. Now Jelly Bean takes a step further and allows users to keep two fingers on the screen for four seconds to enable access upon setting up the device. However, Google hasn't yet addressed the nagging issue of re-enabling access after a crash or whatever disables TalkBack. Simply put, you should go get sighted assistance to enable it once TalkBack stops speaking. That needs to be addressed ASAP.

Access to the Status Bar is a pain in the neck

The Status Bar in Android allows users to get important information about the battery status, network/signal status, and so forth. However, in Jelly Bean TalkBack reads all of the items in the Status Bar at once and doesn't allow users to, say, check their battery status even if they know where it's exactly located.

Other shortcomings

When I saw the Nexus 7, I was expecting a more consistent approach toward accessibility in TalkBack especially after seeing its consistent approach toward typing and navigation -- the Eyes-Free keyboard is no longer necessary to take advantage of Android. As this is not a full TalkBack/JB review, I'll summarize the problems below.

  • No gesture to start continuous reading,
  • No dedicated gesture to stop reading,
  • No mechanism to turn off/mute speech and later turn it on,
  • No way to know if loading a page in the browser has finished,
  • No way to adjust and disable verbose descriptions,
  • Very frequent speech crashes especially in web views,
  • Redundancy in some gestures -- when one wants to move around, say, character by character or word by word, moving to the next/previous UI control via left/Right swiping gets disabled unless character/word navigation is exited,
  • Lacking Landmark support in the browser, and
  • Inability to use the new offline Voice Dictation feature with TalkBack as it keeps repeating whatever appears on the screen, effectively jumbling the speech recognition.

So, should I make the switch?

It's definitely up to you. Currently the Galaxy Nexus handset and the Nexus 7 tablet are the only Android devices which have access to Jelly Bean. However, if you're looking for a polished, consistent experience and want to spend your hard-earned money in a better way, don't think of Android at the moment. Maybe getting the cheaper Nexus 7 tablet is justifiable, but I'd rather use the same amount of money to get the upcoming iPad Mini. Finally, the reasons for sticking to iOS go beyond this post and I'll dedicate another article to them. With iOS 6 just around the corner, the status of accessibility in Apple's products will be further solidified.