Presently, I’m working on an exciting new project. To prepare for it, I bought a Google Nexus 7 tablet. This seems to be the way a number of blind people who want to experience Android have gone. The tablet is reasonably priced, it runs the latest version of Android, it’s the stock Android firmware, and it gets updates quickly because it’s from the OS manufacturers.
I had read reviews and heard podcasts about enabling accessibility on newer Android devices. The latest method involves resting two fingers, slightly apart, on the screen and holding them there until you have the device up and talking. A number of people seemed to have all kinds of trouble getting this to work. Perhaps the gesture has been tweaked since then, perhaps I just got lucky. But for me, it just worked the first time, a very seamless and impressive experience.
A helpful, user-friendly tutorial then got me acquainted with the gestures critical to getting up and running with the device. This is similar to the tutorial that you get on the Mac when you run VoiceOver for the first time, and it’s well done.
There is some excellent material already done on the subject of Android accessibility, which has made remarkable progress since Gingerbread, but is still lacking in some critical areas.
What people want to know, is what kind of device is right for them, what works well and what doesn’t, how does the Android experience compare with iOS. From a functional standpoint, the best writing I’ve seen on this subject is on Marco’s Accessibility Blog. This is one person’s opinion about why he believes he couldn’t be as productive as he now is with his iPhone, were he to switch to Android fulltime. Marco has been using Android devices for over a year in his work on developing Firefox for Android, which has some excellent accessibility features.
We all use our devices differently, so what may be a show stopper for Marco or me, may not be important to you, or perhaps it’s a trade-off you’re willing to make because of the other benefits of Android.
Those benefits are very real. Android devices come in a range of form factors and price points, so you’re not locked into one kind of device. The unemployment rate among blind people is very high, so the impact on your pocketbook is a big deal. Want a physical keyboard? Well phones with them are harder to find now, but they are out there. Want external storage? Many Android devices offer that. Want to be able to carry a spare battery so you can swap it out when you’re having a day of major mobility? It can be done if you choose the right device.
Android is wide open. The OS, and many apps on that OS, are open source. Standards like NFC and Micro-USB are used on Android devices as opposed to Passbook and proprietary connectors.
You can buy your apps on a standard, accessible website and have them pushed to your device, or buy them on your device directly, as opposed to using a special piece of software on your PC or Mac.
On Android, the OS manufacturer doesn’t have a right of veto over what apps you can and can’t install. This is a strength if you know what you’re doing, and a pretty scary weakness if you don’t. There’s no doubt Android has a big malware problem. While the Apple App Store hasn’t been totally free of malware, the number of incidents have been low.
Another strength and weakness of Android is that apps aren’t sandboxed. To put this in a context that will probably ring a bell with a number of readers, let’s talk about an app like Read-to-Go from Bookshare. This app is a pretty big download, and that’s because you are downloading and paying for two voices. You may have downloaded, and paid for, those voices by purchasing some other app. But you’re going to have to buy another copy, because Apple won’t let you install apps that make services available to the OS and other applications as a whole. TTS takes up quite a bit of room, and if all you can afford is a 16, or even 8GB device, this is not a trivial matter. On Android, you can install a range of voices, and they’re available to any application. This makes the cost of selling self-voicing applications much less. That’s good news for blind people on a budget.
One of my favourite iOS apps is Voice Dream Reader. If you have an iThing and haven’t checked this out, I highly recommend it. You can purchase a range of voices for this app, including a couple of Neospeech voices. But because of the sandboxing, you can only use these great voices within the Voice Dream Reader app.
This sandboxing issue affects apps like special keyboards. I’m a big user of Fleksy on my iPhone. I can type very fast, one handed, while on the move. But having to copy what I’ve typed to the clipboard and paste the text into the app I’m working in is a nuisance. On Android, you could set something like Fleksy as a universal keyboard.
Sandboxing can be a strength as well though. iOS is very stable because of it. You can get into a situation on Android where you install something that changes a universal behavior, and find the whole device broken in some critical way.
The openness of the platform and those behind it, means that at least in theory, blind people can have a much greater input into what goes on. It is refreshing to be able to subscribe to the Eyes Free email list, and see interaction between people involved in developing accessibility tools for the platform and end users. This reminds me of the early days of the Windows screen reading industry and it’s refreshing.
Sorry Siri, but Google Voice Search and dictation just eats your lunch. Voice search it very snappy, can answer some quite complex questions sensibly and accurately, and dictation seems to me more accurate. Siri can’t look for businesses in New Zealand, Google Voice Search can. Some people have reported issues with a loop being created, where the speaker of the device picks up Talkback speaking what you’re dictating. I wear hearing aids and have them connected directly to my device, so haven’t experienced this myself and don’t know if it may have been addressed. Talkback is being improved all the time.
All that said, these considerably attractive benefits are, for me right now, theoretical. Apple has created a remarkable mobile experience, and I’m saying this as someone who was very concerned initially about no Bluetooth keyboard or Braille support, and being reliant on the touch screen when you needed to be truly productive. Year on year, they’ve delivered substantial improvements to VoiceOver along with iOS. It’s elegant, it works.
The gestures have an intuitive logic about them. Unlike Android, when you flick through elements on the screen, your view scrolls. The lack of this feature in Talkback is disappointing, especially since if you arrow through items with an external keyboard, you can get the results blind people would expect. There are also no screen reader specific commands with an external or built-in keyboard. There used to be, so I’m puzzled by their removal.
VoiceOver features like the ability to label controls, the item chooser, face recognition, the remarkable accessibility of Apples Maps and more ad productivity and polish to a fantastic product.
As blind people, we have so much to gain from using the best technology to meet our needs, that I don’t think we can afford the luxury of being blinkered about the choices out there. I’m excited about where Android has come from, and where it might be going. Do I think I would give up my iPhone today? No, I couldn’t, for two reasons, one accessibility-related and one not. The accessibility-related reason is that I truly don’t feel Android is there yet, for reasons so well-articulated by Marco. It’s getting ever closer, but I think I would take a productivity hit if I switched. The second reason is one that many sighted people also face. I’ve invested a lot in the Apple ecosystem. I have hundreds of apps, I use iPhone, iPad, iPad Mini, Apple TV and Mac. Many of my friends around the world use iMessage and FaceTime, so I can text and call them for free. Something would have to happen, either negatively with my current technology, or super positively with Android, to make me switch at this point. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t see the many benefits of considering Android if you’re getting into the smartphone or tablet market today, and that’s why Mosen Consulting is happy to provide training on Android. As I said earlier, it’s about trade-offs. For some, the principles are more important than anything else. Just as some people are willing to pay extra to buy free range or organic products, some people feel so strongly about the benefits of Android’s openness, that they’re happy to jump on board and become part of the effort to keep Android accessibility moving forward. Now that I have an Android device, I’ll certainly make my suggestions and am looking forward to it.
You can slice and dice the numbers in a bunch of ways, but if you look at phones and tablets by OS alone, Android is now the leading OS in both categories. And I end this article with that bottom line. I want Android accessibility to succeed, because in the end, blind people should have as much choice about the device they choose to use as do sighted people. For that to be truly viable for more of us though, let’s continue not to be fan boys, or treat technology like it’s some sort of political party or religion. Let’s instead acknowledge the work that’s been done and the work that remains. Let’s point out constructively what we need for Android to meet more of our needs. And you know what is truly amazing? The fact that we’re at the point where we can have this discussion about free access to the two leading mobile platforms is something to celebrate in itself.
Have you switched from one platform to another? Why, and how did the switch work out for you? Do you use Android with a screen reader on a daily basis? How well is it working out? Share your expertise in the comments.