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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 August 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 8

Technology and Productivity

Series: Removing the Stress from iOS: A Blueprint for Incorporating Touchscreen Products Into the Classroom, Workplace, and Community

Part IV: Creating, Editing, and Sharing Information

Probably one of the most difficult subjects to write about regarding access to iOS devices is the concept of creating, editing, and sharing information with our sighted peers. To be sure, it's the most practical and alluring argument for those of us who operate within educational or professional capacities to move away from traditional notetaking and embrace the manner by which these devices, when used with other utilities and applications, enable us to easily share information throughout a predominately sighted classroom or workplace. Despite this truth, it's equally true that the manufacturers of today's dedicated notetakers have done a fantastic job of providing to us instant, robust word processing capabilities.

Without question, today's dedicated notetaker applications trump any iOS application when it comes to taking notes and creating, reviewing, and editing large documents. However, what happens to this information when it's to be shared with other sighted friends and colleagues who do not use such devices? Also, are the astronomical costs of these devices worth the convenience they provide?

I'll attempt to provide some guidance as you try to answer these questions, for they are important to ask and will shape the direction of your own access technology journey. I'll begin by discussing how information is shared via iOS technology and how it differs from the methods of notetaking technologies, enabling users to share information. Secondly, I'll discuss two types of tasks associated with word processing. I'll address the challenges of creating and editing text on iOS devices and conclude with some advantages and disadvantages of using iOS and notetaker options.

How Information is Shared

There are a couple of different ways individuals share information when using iOS devices. Keep in mind that when I refer to "sharing" information, I'm addressing the act of sharing information between or among multiple devices that the user may own as well as sharing information with other individuals who use similar devices. Undoubtedly, the most fundamental need had by those of us who use multiple devices is to keep all of our contacts, appointments, e-mails, favorite websites, and multimedia (such as music and documents) up-to-date on multiple devices. As much as I enjoy using my iPad, I still use a PC, which is common for many users. Even amongst those who have consumed an ocean of Apple "Kool-Aid" and have sworn off all things Microsoft, I'm willing to bet that they also use a Macintosh computer in conjunction with their iPad.

Sharing with iTunes

The most traditional means of sharing information between iOS devices is via the iTunes application, which can be loaded on a PC or a Mac. In the past, this application has been lacking on the screen reader accessibility front, but with each passing release, today's leading third party screen readers have done an adequate job of enabling us to access iTunes. The great thing about iTunes is that, when your iOS device is connected to your desktop computer via a USB cable, you're able to select the device within the iTunes application, navigate to the "Info" tab, and select which types of information you wish to synchronize between your computer and portable device. Unlike Microsoft's alternative utilities, there is no need to set up any complex partnerships between devices before synchronization can occur. I personally keep all my appointments, contacts, bookmarked websites, notes, e-mails, and music up-to-date on my iPad, and in Internet Explorer 9, and Microsoft Outlook 2010, and this method works fairly seamlessly.

Operating in the Cloud

There are other means of sharing information besides the traditional method of a connection via iTunes. We are witnessing a trend by which users of both access and mainstream technologies are beginning to operate within the "cloud," a term used when referencing cloud-based applications that enable users to share information. Historically, users have been forced to save shared information on complicated servers that have been managed by the well-meaning network administrators who maintain these servers. In more recent years, we have benefited from portable storage media like USB flash drives and portable hard drives that could be easily connected to different devices. However, these items are often susceptible to damage or to being misplaced.

When one operates from within the cloud, it simply means that the user is taking advantage of applications designed to run via a virtual server that takes up no space, is not susceptible to damage, and cannot be misplaced. The only concern associated with using cloud-based applications is users forgetting log-in information used to access these applications. These applications can also be hacked (as can any server), but security measures are ongoing to minimize this risk.

iCloud is Apple's means of taking advantage of this cloud-based technology. By means of your Apple User ID and password, you can share all of the aforementioned information through iCloud and access this information via all of your devices. It's a fantastic way to automatically keep all of your information current thus allowing you to access your most recent information on a device of your choosing in real time. Apple's iCloud application may be accessed onboard any of Apple's desktop or portable devices as well as Windows Vista and Windows 7 PCs, but the devices must be connected to a wireless Internet connection for information to be accessed and manipulated through iCloud.

Accessing Dropbox

A second popular cloud-based application used for data sharing is Dropbox. Users can sign up for a free account that nets them two gigabytes of storage by visiting the Dropbox website. There are also free applications for both Android and iOS users, making Dropbox an amazing cross-platform file sharing application. Dropbox is not designed to keep contacts and appointments current for personal productivity, but it is a first-rate collaboration tool allowing its users to create folders within their Dropbox account and access files, photos, and multimedia from any device on which they can either log in to Dropbox or install the Dropbox app. Users may also grant other users access to specific folders within their Dropbox account, which makes the sharing, accessing, and editing of information between others instantaneous!

Colleges, universities, and corporations are moving toward Dropbox-like applications because implementing them requires little to no space, and information can be shared and accessed among all parties on a device of their choosing. Lastly, those who use Dropbox can acquire more free space by referring their friends to Dropbox via the Dropbox website. Dropbox offers extremely competitive pricing for users wishing to purchase space for corporate use.

Before moving away from sharing, it's worth noting that there will always be those who wish to access hard copy print versions of information stored on an iOS device. You may print from all of these iOS devices providing that you are in range of a wireless, iOS device-enabled printer when you select "Print," which is most often found when accessing the "Share" button from within specific word processing applications. The iOS device will scan for such printers and present a list from which you may choose.

Two Types of Word Processing

Before undertaking the process of creating and editing data on an iOS device, it's important to ask yourself this question: What do I wish to accomplish? There are many different types of tasks associated with word processing, ranging from taking a simple note to writing for the next Pulitzer Prize. I categorize word processing tasks into two general categories: notetaking and file or document management. There are a couple of iOS applications that I use to accomplish these two groups of word processing tasks.

A great free application for taking and sharing notes is the PlainText application. As its name suggests, PlainText is a very simple text editor designed for the Dropbox user to share files among an iOS device and other computers linked to the user's Dropbox account. Once PlainText is installed on the iOS device, a PlainText folder is created within the user's Dropbox folder. Any file created by PlainText and saved in this folder can be accessed and edited by the user using any handheld or desktop computer able to access the Dropbox account. For example, when I was in a government agency in Washington DC, I used my iPad and refreshable braille display to take notes during a series of meetings that lasted about six hours. I flew home that evening, and when I logged into my Dropbox account on my computer, all of the PlainText notes on my iPad were waiting for me to review, edit, and even share with others if I so desired.

PlainText is nothing fancy. It is a basic editor that saves files in .TXT format, but for taking notes, isn't that all one truly needs? I've spent time showing vision education teachers and their students how they might set up folders within PlainText by class subject and label their notes for these specific classes by the dates the lectures are given. This is just one example of how this basic yet powerful technology can be used. To reiterate, both PlainText and Dropbox are free apps, providing that you do not wish to exceed Dropbox's free storage capacity.

What do we have at our disposal when simple text editing isn't enough? Unfortunately, I haven't found a great number of iOS apps that provide seamless compatibility with Microsoft Office products. I found out the hard way last year how inaccessible QuickOffice is for Voiceover users.

So far, the best app that I can find that enables a user to import Word documents and edit them is the Pages app, which costs $9.99. Pages allows the user to create a file and export to Word, but it's not an intuitive process. Pages provides the ability to create and edit files and even has a fairly accessible toolbar to alter the fonts and positions of text, which the user selects within the open file. In short, I use Pages to review and edit documents, but I'm still not a proponent of doing all of my word processing on an iOS device.

For notetaker users, you'll find that it's not as simple as being able to press a key combination and make something happen within your file. You will need to locate and select your desired text before navigating to the Pages toolbar to perform specific actions. Lastly, while users can open and import files from Dropbox into Pages, it's virtually impossible to save these edits back to Dropbox directly. Unfortunately, the best work-around that Pages offers for saving these edits is for the user to e-mail the file as a Microsoft Word attachment to himself and save this file to the Dropbox folder. Users can accomplish this task directly from an iPad or iPhone. Again, it's not pretty, and I'm hoping that Pages decides to play well with Dropbox since I do prefer this app for file sharing over iCloud.

Editing Data

I touched on this in the second installment of this series, but I feel compelled to reiterate the obvious. If you are planning on doing any significant data entry and text editing on an iOS device, use an external QWERTY keyboard or, better yet, one of the numerous wireless refreshable braille terminals supported by VoiceOver. I know countless fully sighted iOS users who echo this sentiment. It's simply too time consuming and cumbersome to do any significant amount of text entry using Apple's onscreen keyboard with either Zoom or VoiceOver. While I'm sure there are exceptions to the rule, for most of us, it's simply not an efficient way of completing the types of word processing tasks that I have described. I'm a strong proponent of using iOS devices to increase productivity and promote inclusion within various circles where we are working with predominately sighted peers. Why not maximize our efficiency and get on with the business of what we have to do by means of wireless QWERTY input or braille input/output?

iOS Devices Versus Notetakers

I'd like to conclude by briefly listing the disadvantages of iOS devices compared to their traditional notetaker counterparts when creating, editing, and sharing information followed by a list of advantages.

Disadvantages of iOS Technology
  1. Battery life: Dedicated notetakers boast battery lives ranging from 12 hours to 25 hours. There is no such luck for those of us who are using iOS devices and struggle to maybe get eight hours of continuous use out of these products.
  2. Instant on/off access: Again, proprietary notetakers get you where you need to be quickly. It takes a bit of time to turn on an iOS device, quickly connect it to an external QWERTY keyboard or wireless braille display, and then proceed with the task at hand.
  3. Intuitive word processing from within an application: I must admit that today's leading notetakers have a very bullet proof way for users to create, access, and edit large amounts of information quickly.
Advantages
  1. Synchronization: There's no question that it's a more seamless and doable process to synchronize data on an iOS device with other devices. In fact, most notetakers will not allow you to sync all types of data present on the notetaker, such as e-mails and mail accounts.
  2. Data sharing: Notetakers currently have not found a way to leverage cloud-based technologies. Best of luck to you if you try to log in and access files via Dropbox using a traditional notetaker's proprietary Web-browsing application, assuming you can actually get connected to the Internet.
  3. Printing: This process from an iOS device is fairly seamless when compared to that of printing from a notetaker.
  4. Compatibility: File compatibility issues between iOS and Microsoft Office are definitely not perfect, but I still give the advantage to iOS apps when compared to the hoops one must jump through to go between a proprietary word processing application and Microsoft Word. Regardless of what manufacturers of notetakers may say in their marketing materials, their legacy word processing applications are not "Microsoft Word for the Blind."

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, you will need to decide what works best for you when accomplishing the tasks you need to complete. For me, I'm willing to connect two devices wirelessly and operate in a similar mode as my sighted peers at a price point at least $3,500 lower than today's notetakers. It's a choice that I have made and a choice that not only works for me but works for the sighted individuals with whom I collaborate and share information.

This concludes our series "Removing the Stress from iOS." I hope that these four articles have been a stress free read for you and that you gleaned something from them, for I thoroughly enjoyed sharing with you my insights and opinions about a phenomenon that is not going away any time soon. Feel free to contact me through AccessWorld if I have not been clear about anything specific or if I can provide additional assistance to you in your access technology journey.

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Copyright © 2012 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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