Accessibility Report on Apple's Latest iOS Update for iPhone, iPod, and iPad
Judging by calls from AccessWorld readers and the response I get from people when I demonstrate one of Apple's devices, the built-in accessibility of Apple's iPhone, iPod, and iPad product lines is a huge hit with our community. It is certainly a hit with me, so I began writing this article to report on my experiences with a handful of third-party applications (apps) on my iPhone. However, while I was writing this article, Apple released iOS 4.2.1 for its iPhone, iPod, and iPad devices on November 22, 2010. Therefore, I will begin this article by reporting on some of the new features and functions of this upgrade for these popular devices, followed by my review of a few apps.
What's New with 4.2?
Apple's iOS 4.2.1 is a free upgrade available on the iPhone 3GS and 4, the iPod Touch 3 and 4, and all versions of the iPad. To install this free upgrade, you need to connect your device to your Mac or Windows computer, and use iTunes 10 or later to complete the process. The continuing good news is that Apple did not neglect accessibility with this new software release, and all of the built-in access features, such as VoiceOver and Zoom, are still included. That means that all of the features and applications on these devices are still accessible to people with vision loss right out of the box with no extra costs. There have also been some enhancements with this release that make using the VoiceOver screenreader more effective and efficient, and I will now briefly discuss some of those enhancements as well as some other general improvements.
Enhanced Table Navigation
In earlier versions, navigating through tables was a bit tedious because you were limited to flicking to the right to move from column to column, down to the next row, and continuing column to column one cell at a time. Now, the rotor, the unique gesture used to quickly navigate through webpages and apps, has an option for navigating tables by row. This allows you to flick up or down to move by row and left or right for columns, making it much easier to visualize the data and information in the table. Also, if the table has been coded with proper row and column headings, VoiceOver will speak the proper heading followed by the cell content as you navigate. If the table headers have not been coded properly, Voice Over will speak the row number followed by the cell content as you move row by row.
Searching for Text on Webpages
One of the great things about browsing the Internet with a computer is the ability to search for a word or string of text on a page so you can find it immediately without having to read through the entire page. The iOS 4.2 update now brings us the ability to search the entire text of a webpage using Safari's search field. The documentation is not exactly clear on how to do it, but basically, you enter text in the Safari search field and then tap on a button that is labeled with the word "Find," followed by your search term. VoiceOver will then speak the first instance of your search term on the page along with the surrounding text. Also, a little window appears at the bottom of the screen with a Next button and a line of text indicating how many matches were found and that the first of those matches is currently being displayed.
Although this can be a very helpful tool, the problem is that VoiceOver's focus is on the little window and not on the actual match, so you still have a little work left to do to focus on your match. The matches are displayed near the very center of the screen, so you have to tap as close to the middle of the screen as you can and perhaps move around a bit to find your match.
Better Responsiveness to Gestures
Several comments I have read online regarding iOS 4.2 claim better VoiceOver responsiveness to taps and other gestures, and I would have to agree. I certainly have noticed that I am typing faster with this new version, and it seems to work with even a very light touch.
Enhanced Ability to Adjust VoiceOver Speech Rate
The rotor now has an option for adjusting the rate at which VoiceOver speaks. This saves the time involved in going into the settings app to adjust the rate and is very handy when doing demonstrations of these devices. Also, the speech rate can now be adjusted by 5-percent increments instead of 10-percent increments. Go to the VoiceOver section of settings to add this option to the rotor.
Improved Ease of Adjusting VoiceOver Volume
You can now disable the physical volume buttons so that they work only to control VoiceOver's volume and not the device's regular volume. That is handy because you used to have to have it speak first and then quickly press the volume buttons to adjust the VoiceOver volume while it was speaking. To adjust the volume, go to the Sounds section of settings.
Most new software product releases have a bug or two that has to be worked out, and we always do our best to find them and point them out to manufacturers. However, the first thing we discovered in our lab was that the bug that appeared in iOS 4.0 when choosing the phone number type for a new contact has been fixed. Before, the button for choosing the type of contact, such as home, mobile, or work, did not work with VoiceOver. Now, the button labeled "mobile," which is the default type, does work with VoiceOver, and VoiceOver says "Activate to choose type." If you do that, you get a list of phone number types from which to choose.
As far as new bugs, we have only discovered one so far. If you receive an incoming call while on an active call, there are three buttons that appear to let you deal with the new call. The three buttons are as follows: Ignore, which sends the new call to voicemail; Hold Call + Answer, which puts your current call on hold and answers the new one; and End Call + Answer, which ends your current call and answers the new one. The Ignore button is labeled properly, but VoiceOver just says "answer" for both Hold Call + Answer and End Call + Answer. We always communicate our findings to Apple, and they have done a good job of fixing bugs, so please contact us at AccessWorld if you find any other bugs.
Enhancements to Apple TV
Apple also released a software update to its second-generation Apple TV device, and the important news is its support for AirPlay, which is an app that allows devices running iOS 4.2, as well as Windows computers and Macs running iTunes 10, to stream video to a television. This is all accessible using VoiceOver, which speaks the menus for controlling the video and can also access the descriptions of the movies or TV show episodes. You can also use it to send your music to your stereo speakers.
Apple TV is a $99 piece of hardware. You can see a video of Apple TV and AirPlay in action on Apple's website (click on "See Airplay in Action").
My AFB TECH colleague Brad Hodges is investigating using Apple TV and third-party hardware and software products, such as those from Elgato. These products allow for real-time viewing and recording of both over-the-air and satellite/cable TV, and Brad is investigating how well it all works with VoiceOver.
With the MobileMe app, you now have a feature called "Find My iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch," which helps you to find your device and protect its data. It displays your device's location on a map and allows you to set a passcode lock. You can also display a message on the device's screen or even wipe out all of its data. If you are lucky enough to find your device later, you can restore your data from your last backup.
Because the iOS 4.0 upgrade released for the iPhone last summer was not available for the iPad, the 4.2 release now brings the 4.0 enhancements to the iPad. Some of these enhancements include the extra items available in the rotor when navigating webpages and the ability to organize your apps in folders you have created. You can also take advantage of the multitasking capabilities introduced with iOS 4.0, making it quick and easy to switch between the apps you are using. Also, iPad users can now take advantage of the fully accessible iBooks app with full access to the dictionary and the ability to navigate by word and by character. The AirPrint function now allows iPad users to print documents from productivity apps such as iWork, and the iPad is also now compatible with several wireless braille displays. Of course, all the other enhancements I have mentioned in this article are also available on the iPad.
Now I will briefly describe my experiences with a handful of third-party apps I downloaded from the App Store.
Around Me, a free app, is a great GPS-based tool for locating points of interest, and I have found it to be very useful when I'm traveling. It has a list of 20 categories, such as restaurants, theaters, gas stations, and hospitals, and you can also do a key word search or just scroll through nearby points of interest. If, for example, you find a restaurant you want to visit, you can get directions or call the restaurant for a reservation by simply double-tapping on the phone number that appears.
Priced at $49 for the U.S. version, Navigon is a more robust location-based tool than Around Me. In addition to the points of interest features of Around Me, Navigon can also provide real-time turn-by-turn directions. Although VoiceOver sometimes stutters, and there are a few unlabelled buttons to get used to, Navigon is for the most part accessible. I found the turn-by-turn directions to be pretty accurate, but Navigon is a huge battery hog. It drains a full charge in about 3 hours. For more information on GPS apps for the iPhone, see "GPS on Your iPhone" in the December 2010 issue of AccessWorld.
Priced at just $0.99, iTreadmill is an app for tracking your workout, either on a treadmill or off. You just activate the start button and start walking, and it displays your average speed, minutes per mile, calories used, and your step count. Although it is mostly accessible, if you use a flicking method to read the screen, it can be difficult to associate each numeric value with its label. However, you can use a direct interaction method and just point to the various labels on the screen and find its value directly beneath it. For example, you can find the "Step count" label near the bottom of the screen and find your number of steps just below it.
IEP Checklist is a very useful free app for a parent or advocate who is developing an individualized education plan (IEP) for a child with a disability. It has a large hierarchical database of information about all of the factors that need to be considered, as well as the legal requirements involved with IEP. It is mainly accessible, but the buttons you activate to choose a category, subcategory, or topic are not identified as buttons. They have proper labels that are spoken by VoiceOver, so as soon as you realize they are in fact buttons, you can activate them as you normally would.
Priced at $0.99, AidColors is a color-identification app that is fully accessible. However, this product's accuracy can be a bit sketchy. It is highly dependent on lighting, and I probably wouldn't use it to pick out my clothes in the morning.
Pet Rescuers is a free app developed by Home Again, one of the companies that make the implantable identification tags that help people to recover lost pets. It allows you to send out an alert if you find a lost pet, and you can also use it to see if your lost pet has been found. Unfortunately, it is too inaccessible to use with VoiceOver.
HeyTell is a free instant voice messaging app similar to texting, but you send short voice messages instead of typing text messages. It is accessible and it worked very well during limited testing. However, the person with whom you are messaging also has to have HeyTell installed.
Pronounced "la dee da," this $2.99 app can be a barrel of laughs. Promoted as a "reverse karaoke" app, it lets you sing or rap into the phone, and it picks music to match. It even improves the sound of your voice. You can then listen to your song in different pop or rap music styles. I had a ball listening to my nephew's three-year-old create music with LaDiDa, and I had some fun with it over the holidays, especially with those relatives who visited the punch bowl more than once. Although it is not totally accessible, you can figure out how to use it with a little practice. However, you should use a headset, because VoiceOver will be part of the recording if you don't.
L5 Remote is a free app that turns your iPhone or iPod into a remote for all of your various television sets, DVD players, and other video equipment. However, you also have to purchase a $54.95 gadget to connect to your iPhone or iPod. Even worse, it is totally inaccessible, so I cannot recommend the L5 Remote.
A free app, oMoby is an object identification app that uses your device's camera to capture an image and tell you what it is. I was definitely skeptical at first, but I first tried it while waiting for my ride home. I took off my shoe and took a picture of it. In a moment, VoiceOver was saying "brown leather shoe," and it brought up a link to the Zappos.com website to purchase the shoe. I haven't had the chance to test it on a large quantity of objects, but it hasn't done a bad job so far of identifying objects generically.
There is a wealth of information and resources on the Web regarding Apple products and accessibility, so you can get on your favorite search engine and find plenty to learn about. For starters, here are three pages that may be useful to you.
Apple's official accessibility site
The Mac-cessibility Network is a great site for information regarding Apple and accessibility.
Apple Vis, a website for vision-impaired iOS users, has a list of accessible apps for Apple devices.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Marshall University intern Zach Coakley in developing this article. Funding for this paper was provided by the Teubert Foundation, Huntington, WV.
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