For many of us, Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference, WWDC, evokes the same kind of excitement and anticipation that birthdays used to when we were kids. Things have changed a bit now, of course, but even post-Jobs, Apple are still masters of the big reveal.
Tomorrow, Apple will release the first build of iOS7 to people who are part of the Apple developer program. Those who pay to play will be able to have the latest bleeding edge iOS tech on their devices, with all the thrills and pitfalls that come with it. I was sceptical about how committed Apple would be to improving VoiceOver on iOS. But with every major release of the operating system, they’ve delivered significant enhancements, and I’m confident this year will be no different.
While many blogs covering iOS from a mainstream perspective seem to have no issue disrespecting Apple’s NDA, this one is not going to join in. So, here are some of the things I want to see in iOS7, before I have a clue what’s in it. Let’s hear yours in the comments.
1. Improved braille back translation. The iPad is revolutionising the classroom, but as an assistive technology consultant, I cannot recommend the iPad as a viable tool for a student learning contracted braille at the moment. Adults can work around the quirks, but we shouldn’t be teaching kids bad braille habits. The iOS back translation, the process by which contracted braille is converted to standard text, is unorthodox and clunky. Let’s walk through an example to illustrate the problem.
Braille the word “Aple” into an edit field using a refreshable braille display connected to your iDevice. Clearly, we meant to write “Apple”, but we accidentally omitted a P. To correct this, route the cursor so you’re in the correct place to insert the second P. Braille the P with contracted braille enabled. Just by inserting that second P, iOS has come back with the word “appeoplele”. What happened? What happened is that the second letter P was fully back translated to the contracted Braille single letter abbreviation for “people”. There are ways around this. You can insert a letter sign before you insert the letter, or you can prefix the inserted letter with the computer braille symbol. You could also toggle contracted braille off. But these steps are not necessary in any other company’s contracted braille support. They’re counterintuitive and simply not correct in terms of braille conventions.
Apple has always prided itself on things being super-intuitive. It all just works. For the most part, they deliver on that promise. Braille support is presently not worthy of the Apple name.
2. Improvements to Notifications.
If you do a lot of reading on your iDevice, you’ll have come across this scenario. You’re reading away with your two-finger flick down, and a notification comes in, interrupting what you’re hearing. One the notification has finished speaking, the text you were reading resumes. However, for the remainder of the present paragraph, the text is now littered with characters such as %\100\ for a comma, and %\300\ for a full stop. These are supposed to be characters sent to the text to speech engine, to tell it how much to pause when it sees punctuation. But this bug, present since the initial release of iOS6, means reading can be a frustrating experience.
While we’re dealing with the way VoiceOver handles notifications, let’s introduce an option not to be interrupted at all when doing a continuous read. If you’re reading a book on your phone, you may want to hear the alert tone, but check Notification Center later to find out what the alert said. It would be less intrusive and make book reading a far more pleasant experience.
3. Alternative keyboards
There are many ways we can now get text into a device running iOS, one of the many things that have improved since VoiceOver was introduced in 2009. We can connect Bluetooth keyboards and refreshable braille displays, and touch typing has been added as an option in the virtual keyboard. We’ve also seen a number of apps offering alternative methods of text input. The most popular of these are Fleksy and BrailleTouch. Their utility is impeded by Apple’s sandboxing approach, a practice Apple needs to relax even a little, either through the provision of new API technology, or an even more radical overhaul of the structure of iOS. The bottom line for users is that they should be able to choose a third party keyboard to replace the stock Apple one. Fleksy did some pretty major lobbying of Apple through a request feature in their app, so let’s see if it’s worked.
4. Safari Improvements
I’ve been using Google Chrome for iOS more and more, because of general flakiness navigating on certain pages reliably. It will be of great benefit to see these issues tidied up.
5. Keyboard Shortcuts
It shows how far we’ve come that in 2013, we as blind people can say that there are some things that are just more efficient to do on a touch screen. Locating the “Reply” button in the email client is far easier by touch, than by grabbing your Bluetooth keyboard and navigating by element. There’s really no reason why we can’t have the best of both worlds. For example, on the bus, or the plane, I’d like to be able to keep my iPad out of harm’s way, and just use the Bluetooth keyboard with a set of headphones. Continuing with our mail example, there’s no reason why Command+R couldn’t reply, and the delete button delete. It would also provide a way to perform some features efficiently with the keyboard that are tedious for a blind user to do now, such as deleting all the email in a folder, or all your text messages.
There could be two approaches to implementing better keyboard support. Apple could lead the way by example, putting a great range of keyboard commands into their standard apps. It would be a popular feature for efficiency nuts who happen to be sighted. I can imagine the Lifehacker article now about these new features for power users.
In addition, how about a utility allowing you to assign keyboard commands to certain gestures on an app by app basis. This would see the introduction of Activity Manager, a feature already on Mac, to iOS.
6. Braille Keyboard manager
If you’ve ever sat down and talked with other blind people about their braille reading technique, yeah I know I need a life, you’ll know that braille reading styles vary a lot. When using my braille display with my iDevices, I know I’d be a lot more efficient if I could reverse what the thumb keys do. My braille reading style suits having the left panning button advance the display, and the right one reverse. This is the opposite of how Apple have chosen to implement things, and there’s no way of changing it unless you jailbreak. While Apple tends to be pretty minimalist when it comes to settings on iOS, if it’s deemed appropriate to offer brightness and wallpaper settings, then giving us more flexibility over the functions each control performs on a braille display is a reasonable request.
7. Siri wants to be Free
I bought the iPhone 4S, even though I had the 4, because of Siri, and I don’t regret it. It’s a great interface to the Calendar, Reminders and many other practical tasks. In New Zealand, it can’t look for businesses, so I find myself using Google voice Search quite a bit too. But I want to be able to use Siri with other apps. It would be great to tell Siri to play a podcast in Downcast, start reading me that document in Voice Dream Reader, or open a document for editing in AccessNote.
8. More Choice of Voice
This one comes back again to the whole sandbox approach, a stance which I think Apple will find it harder to be so rigid about in the face of competition. You can get a range of other voices on your iDevice, but they are tied to a specific app. Voice Dream Reader, which has become one of my favourite iOS apps, has an excellent range of voices available. In some cases, those voices may be on your device two, three or more times, taking up valuable space. For example, The Read2Go app uses Ryan and heather, and Voice Dream Reader can use it too, so you may end up with two, three or more copies of the same voice. If you have an 8 or 16GB iPhone, that’s a big deal.
But equally important, these voices should be available to VoiceOver as a whole, giving us much more choice over how our device sounds. Text to speech is a personal and subjective thing. The clearest, most wonderful voice to some is unintelligible or annoying to others, so choice is the best option.
When thinking about accessibility, I also try to think about whether there are any bigger picture wins as well. The more users who can benefit from a feature, the more likely it is to be adopted. There’d certainly be benefits to sighted users if they could personalise the voice of Siri, making the digital personal assistant reflect their personalities and preferences.
9. Pronunciation Dictionary
This is such a fundamental screen reading feature that I really don’t know why it isn’t there already.
10. Lose the Clicks when Braille is Enabled and Speech is Silent
I regularly use my iDevices with Braille enabled and speech off. When I do this, I want to hear the regular alert sounds the device makes, such as for notifications and when a call comes in. Since iOS6, Apple has forced me to hear the clicks VoiceOver makes when I navigate. I can see why some users may want this, for example someone could inadvertently do a three-finger double tap and find that their phone has stopped talking. Those clicks would give a user some confidence in that scenario that the phone hasn’t locked up. But please, if there is a use case for this, make it a toggle. In fact, maybe the solution is to allow users to toggle these clicks on and off even when a Braille display isn’t active, since when reading in iBooks and other long passages, it can be kind of distracting. The bottom line is that I shouldn’t be required to mute my phone just to get rid of these click sounds when working with Braille.
So there you have it, my top 10 wish list, a few of which don’t have much hope of coming to fruition tomorrow. But it’s fun to just dream about your ideal WWDC.
Every piece of software has bugs, and any product could be improved. But I have huge admiration for what Apple have done in this space. The experience is polished, constantly improving, and innovative.
How about you? What do you think of this list, and what new features would you like to see that aren’t mentioned here? Share your views in the comments.