An Evaluation of Code Factory's Mobile Accessibility for Android
Just a few short months ago, the accessibility of Android phones was shaky at best. While Google and others had developed some methods for basic access to the Android operating system, these options were really only suitable for advanced users who didn't mind tinkering to make everything work. In addition, some common features, such as Android's built-in Web browser and calendar, remained completely inaccessible to a blind or visually impaired user.
Perhaps one of the biggest recent advancements for Android accessibility is the introduction of Mobile Accessibility for Android from Code Factory, the producers of the popular Mobile Speak software for Symbian and Windows-based cell phones.
Mobile Accessibility provides a two-pronged accessibility solution: a homegrown suite of applications, and a screen reader for the phone. This review looks at version 1.2 of Mobile Accessibility, and evaluates how the software performs a variety of tasks. (In the interest of full disclosure I'll mention that I was a beta tester for this product.)
Mobile Accessibility works with any phone running version 2.1 or later of Google's Android operating system; phones running Android 2.2 will have access to Google's speech recognition services. Most new Android phones available from the major U.S. wireless carriers run at least version 2.1, but it's a good idea to double check before buying the software. For reasons I'll explain below, it's essential to have a phone that includes either a D-pad (an optical button that allows you to arrow around the screen) or some other form of arrow keys. A physical QWERTY keyboard is also highly recommended for optimal use. Unfortunately, these two requirements greatly limit the number of functional phone choices, though there is at least one compatible option from each of the four major carriers. It's probably best to visit a cellular phone store to try out the various options hands-on, as some models include more tactile features than others.
Installation and Initial Set Up
Like most Android applications, Mobile Accessibility is installed through the Android Market, available from virtually any Android phone. The app can be installed using the phone itself or by visiting the Android Market website. Unfortunately, it's still generally not possible to enable the phone's accessibility features without sighted assistance. In my case, I talked a store employee through the necessary steps to enable speech, but this remains one of the biggest disadvantages of Android versus the iPhone. Once this initial hurdle is overcome, sighted assistance should not be needed again.
Code Factory offers several methods for obtaining help with using Mobile Accessibility. The software manual is available on its website, and through a direct link in the software. Code Factory also offers a mailing list where questions and suggestions can be posted.
Mobile Accessibility essentially replaces your phone's default screen with a launch pad for a suite of 10 homegrown and completely accessible apps, including a phone dialer, contacts manager, alarms, Web browser, mail client, calendar, and a simple GPS app. Other applications on the phone can be launched from the program as well.
Mobile Accessibility uses Nuance Vocalizer as its speech engine. Currently, there are only two voice options—male voices for U.S. and U.K. English—and you must choose your desired voice upon purchase; there is no way to switch between voices. Code Factory has stated that versions of the software for other languages are planned for the near future. Overall, the speech was very responsive when pressing keys or navigating among menus. The pitch, speed, volume, punctuation level, and other voice settings can be adjusted from within the app.
The suite provides access to the majority of day-to-day mobile device functions and is designed so the same gestures and commands work across all apps.
You navigate using the phone's touchscreen or by using the d-pad or arrow keys, and you explore the current screen by simply sliding a finger around it; Mobile Accessibility announces the item under your finger as you move. Tap the screen twice to select an item. A variety of gestures (specific movements by a finger or fingers) on the touchscreen can be used to navigate around the screen, and for tasks such as moving between menus and lists, jumping to the top or bottom of a list, or selecting items. A triple-tap gesture (tapping the screen three times in rapid succession), opens a special pop-up menu of commands. These include options pertinent to the current screen as well as global commands like adjusting settings or viewing system notifications. This is also where you can check the phone's status, including battery and signal strength and the current date and time. If you ever get stuck, the Home button can be pressed to return to the Mobile Accessibility main screen.
Making and Receiving Calls
With all of the advancements in smartphones in recent years, we often forget about the original purpose for the phone: to make calls. The Mobile Accessibility phone dialer allows you to input numbers by using either the touchscreen or a physical keyboard. If the touchscreen is used, you simply slide to the desired digit and then lift up your finger to select. Slide to the "Dial" button and then double tap to place the call. Alternatively, the phone's list of contacts can be browsed in order to find a person to call. While on a call, the phone's touchscreen can't be accessed, so it's recommended that you buy an Android phone with a hardware keyboard in order to work around this limitation.
When receiving calls, you can double tap anywhere on the screen to hear the name or number of the person who is calling. Then, slide your finger from the bottom of the screen to the top to answer the call, or do the reverse to ignore it. Mobile Accessibility also presents an accessible log of recently received, missed, and placed calls.
The Contacts Manager includes a basic array of options for creating, editing, and viewing contacts. Android contacts also sync with your Google account, so you can enter contacts through the phone or Google's website. Navigation between contacts is straightforward, and a physical keyboard can be used to type a few letters of a name you are looking for to quickly retrieve contact information.
Web and E-mail
One of the places where Mobile Accessibility for Android shines is its built-in Web browser. The app presents webpages using a virtual buffer, similar to the technique employed by Windows-based screen readers. You use a variety of commands to navigate pages and it's possible to move forward and backward through a webpage by headings, links, tables, or other common elements. Forms can be filled in by selecting the appropriate fields and choosing Enter to type in the required information. Overall, the Mobile Accessibility browser experience is polished, and most of the sites visited for this evaluation were navigable. There was some difficulty when handling downloadable content such as MP3 files or streaming video; hopefully, this will be addressed in a future update.
Mobile Accessibility also includes a built-in e-mail client that allows you to browse through your inbox, send mail, and navigate folders. While this works well for those using a Google-hosted e-mail account such as Gmail, it is currently incompatible with other mail providers. For those affected by this limitation, an accessible and free third-party alternative e-mail client called K-9 Mail is available from the Android Market.
The Mobile Accessibility Calendar can sync to Google Calendar and allows for adding, removing, and viewing events. This is an important addition as the default calendar included with Android is largely inaccessible for most users with visual impairment or blindness. The SMS app allows for sending and receiving text messages while the alarm app allows for setting one-time or repeating alarms.
A basic GPS app called Where Am I offers a simple way to determine your current location. Once the app is launched, the current address (or approximation), is spoken. By default, the app will speak every time your location changes, providing a method for knowing when it is time to get off the bus, for example.
The Screen Reader
The second part of Mobile Accessibility for Android is a screen reader for the phone. The screen reader provides access to hundreds of apps available on the Android Market, offering advanced users numerous possibilities for exploration. Due to Google's accessibility implementation, however, the screen reader is not able to overcome some limitations in accessing the touchscreen. While this lack of access is unfortunate and certainly needs to be addressed, many Android applications also allow for navigation and input using the keyboard or arrow keys, which is largely why we recommend a phone that includes these features.
Mobile Accessibility's screen reader offers a few advantages over free alternatives such as Talkback or Spiel. First, some may prefer the Nuance voices over the options available with other screen readers. These voices only work from within Mobile Accessibility and can't be used with another screen reader. Mobile Accessibility also includes a virtual keyboard for entering text using the touchscreen and direct access to Google's speech recognition service. These features can be utilized from third-party apps for quickly entering information.
Though Code Factory should be commended for the number of features included in this version of Mobile Accessibility for Android, there is certainly some room for improvement. Third-party applications frequently launch a Web browser for presenting information and it's not possible to set the Mobile Accessibility browser as the default for those pages; you can only use Mobile Accessibility's browser within the app suite itself. It would also be nice if a user dictionary could be included to correct mispronounced words, and a way to label unlabeled graphics and buttons in third-party applications would be helpful. Also as stated above, the e-mail program would be more useful if it supported a wider array of e-mail providers.
The Bottom Line
It's quite evident that Code Factory put a lot of thought into developing a product for the Android operating system, and many of the innovative approaches they've taken are useful and well-designed. For those looking for a simple Android accessibility solution with a consistent interface, the Mobile Accessibility suite is a good solution.
With the use of Mobile Accessibility, it's possible for blind and visually impaired users to independently use an Android phone, though it's not possible to set up the phone independently. While Google has certainly made strides toward improving access to the Android platform, there is still progress that needs to be made, including a way for screen reader users to access the touchscreen and review on-screen content. Without these improvements, features like braille support or a review cursor will not be possible for Mobile Accessibility or any screen reader.
Given the tools available to them, Code Factory has done an admirable job in this first version of the product, and since they have a history of frequent free upgrades, it's reasonable to expect that they will continue to improve on Mobile Accessibility for Android. Future improvements from both Code Factory and Google would serve to make Android a robust and complete accessibility solution. While Android does not include the out-of-the-box accessibility found in the iPhone, it may be worth a look, especially for users who prefer a physical keyboard or don't want to switch to a carrier offering the iPhone. In other words, Android's far from perfect, but with Mobile Accessibility, the proper tools, and a bit of patience, it's now a viable mobile device platform for users who require accessibility functionality.
Product: Mobile Accessibility 1.2.
Price: 69 Euros, about $99 U.S.; available from the Android Market on your Android device, or through the Android Market website.
Code Factory S.L.
Address: Rambla Egara, 148, 2-2
08221 — Terrassa (Barcelona)
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