At Apple’s WWDC event in June, our favourite fruit company announced they would be transitioning Macs to run on their own processors which they dubbed Apple Silicon. This isn’t the first time they’ve done this as they moved from Motorola 68k processors to PowerPC and from PowerPC to Intel. In 2015, Apple’s engineers got fed up with Intel’s Skylake chips, so they decided to take their ball and go home to design their own processors. For VoiceOver users, this is a big deal. It might not be as monumental as hearing the iPhone 3GS run VoiceOver for the first time in 2009, but it does represent quantum leap forward for VoiceOver and the Mac. I had a few thoughts I wanted to share about this.System On Chip (SOC)
This was a popular term thrown around at WWDC. It essentially means Apple can etch the most fundamental and important parts of MacOS onto their chips at the fabrication stage—something they could not do with Intel chips. Tasks like networking, memory management, the file system and security can all be baked into the hardware. This includes VoiceOver. This leap forward is similar to the way Intel started including multimedia support on its chips back in the late 90s and early 2000s, eliminating the need for external sound and graphics cards.
VoiceOver running directly off the chip means instant-on and rock solid reliability. Imagine being able to select from multiple operating systems at startup, log in without hearing clicks or beeps when File Vault is turned on or checking on the progress of a MacOS upgrade with the Alex voice instead of 25 year-old Fred when your Mac restarts to install the latest version of MacOS. These are features that will be rolled out when Apple Silicon arrives.
For the system admins among us, this means less sighted help when administering Macs and more flexibility when it comes to helping your hapless sighted colleague get her new laptop up and running.Better Speech
If you’ve ever tried to run one of the Siri voices on MacOS, you may have found the performance a bit sluggish. On Apple Silicon, Macs will be able to take advantage of the cutting edge technology that allows these voices to perform quickly on iPhones and iPads. Furthermore, Apple Silicon means Macs can receive the same machine learning hardware that will allow more expressive and natural-sounding voices for your Mac. Imagine reading through AppleVis and hearing the frustration when someone uses 3 exclamation points to rant about unlabeled buttons, or a nearly identical Morgan Freeman voice reading you a book in the desktop version of Books.
In addition to better speech, an Apple Silicon chip means VoiceOver can perform much quicker, better and more efficiently in complex documents, programs or web pages. Think of how sluggish VO performs in a very large Numbers sheet or complex Keynote presentation versus the same file being open on an iPad Pro. We can hopefully kiss the “busy, busy, busy” message goodbye once Macs are running on Apple Silicon.VoiceOver and AI
The move away from Intel means Apple Silicon can turbocharge VoiceOver to take advantage of features not available on Intel chips such as AI and machine learning. One potential application is true and accurate image detection for those buttons and controls that VoiceOver can’t detect or operate in poorly coded programs. Other features might include multicore processing, artificial vision which would allow for object detection with your iSight camera, better 3D audio support for audio cues and features not yet dreamt of by the developers of the future—some of whom are reading this post.
It isn’t clear as to where this technology can go for a screen reader, but Apple Silicon chips are going to be much more powerful than Intel chips and will create an entirely new set of features we have yet to tap into.Faster Upgrade Cycles
With Apple rolling out its own silicon, software and hardware releases are no longer tied to Intel’s development schedule. This means VoiceOver may finally get the love it deserves when software and hardware teams are all working off of the same release schedules. With VoiceOver being a parted of the SOC, this may mean the core functionality of VoiceOver will remain rock solid while add-on features can run off of the SSD until they’re deemed worthy enough to be baked into the next chip.
VoiceOver may seem as if it has been stuck over the past 15 years on Mac, simply because of the limitation of Intel chips. Apple Silicon will now allow for huge leaps forward for the screen reader.Your Thoughts
So, what do you think is next for VoiceOver when Apple switches to its own silicon? Will we see artificial intelligence features slowly make their way into our screen readers? What features are you expecting when we have the same chips in our Macs that are in our iPads and iPhones? Will we begin to hear realistic human-sounding voices read us the news? Will Siri and VoiceOver have some kind of AI baby that will be like the movie Her? Please leave your comments below.