An open letter to Tim Cook, about those Blindfold Games. Surely one of your departments has gone rogue?
Note, this matter has concluded with an excellent outcome. As Marty from Blindfold Games writes on his blog, Apple has put things right.
Dear Mr Cook, a few days ago, I mentioned you in a tweet in which I praised your team members who had clearly put considerable thought into the Face ID user experience from a blindness perspective. The fact that you saw, and even liked, the tweet pleases me. I think that being an informed and engaged consumer means offering well-deserved praise, and constructive criticism when warranted. Sadly, on this occasion, I feel moved to offer some of the latter. It’s about Apple’s decision not to approve any further Blindfold Games titles, or even updates, in their present form.
Having conducted a quick social media scan, I see a lot of anger is being expressed on this issue, and I can only hope that if your accessibility team, which isn’t responsible for this decision, is receiving a lot of feedback, that it’s written respectfully and clearly.
But here’s the thing. Every day, I open the iOS App Store, and I note the dedicated games tab. Most of those games are not accessible with VoiceOver. Some of that is due to ignorance, some of it’s due to laziness, and some of it is due to certain games just not being optimal for non-visual play.
So, when a game developer goes out of their way either to make a mainstream game accessible, or to build a collection of titles that are optimised specifically for VoiceOver users, I’m sure you can appreciate just how much that means to us.
That brings me to Marty Schultz. A few years ago, Mr Schultz was teaching software development to a bunch of kids. They wanted to develop a game, but he was keen to get them out of their comfort zone. The idea crystallised to develop a game for iOS that blind people could play. This innovative teacher and his students learned about VoiceOver, which they did not know of before. They began engaging with the blind community, and ultimately, it led to a series of games for VoiceOver users that Mr Schultz calls Blindfold Games.
On average, Mr Schultz has been churning out a game a month. The cool thing is, there’s something for just about everyone in his catalogue. Board games, card games, dice games, action games, even games that are auditory in nature of particular interest to those of us who make our way in the world non-visually.
Mr Schultz is not getting rich with these games. His largest title has sold 10,000 units, but in the context of the blind community, for whom paying for an app can often take serious contemplation because of socio-economic factors, he’s done well, and they’ve brought joy to those of us who play them.
You would be right in calling this a success story for Apple. If you wanted to do public relations on the impact that Apple’s products are having at play, what Mr Schultz has done would in my view even be worthy of a mention at WWDC.
But instead of a PR triumph, Apple seems to have turned the Blindfold Games success story into a PR disaster.
When Mr Schultz tried to do the responsible thing as an engaged developer, and submit a couple of updates that would improve iOS 11 compatibility, they were rejected under a policy that as I understand it is designed to prevent multiple versions of what amounts to the same app.
It’s a good policy that in my view has been misinterpreted in this case. Tech-savvy users who opt for iOS do so knowing that there are restrictions, that one of your team will review every app before it goes into the Store, and we appreciate that this is just one of the strategies you employ to keep us free of malicious code. I also understand Apple’s desire to have apps in the App Store that truly perform valid functions that are not redundant. But I just do not see how Apple can fail to approve app updates and new titles from Blindfold Games under this policy.
All of Mr Schultz’s games are distinct. Sure, there may be a range of board games, card games etc, but they’re unique games that have unique rules. He cannot, by any definition, be accused of somehow spamming the App Store.
I understand that Mr Schultz has been told by an Apple employee that he should consolidate his titles into fewer apps. Why? How does that make us any better off in any way? If he were to offer a series of games as in-app purchases, there are two risks as I see it. First, family sharing would not be available for them, and in a community with rampant high unemployment and low income, that will make these accessible games available to fewer people.
Second, Mr Schultz vigorously tests each title as it is developed, ensures it’s robust, then submits the app. There are occasional updates, but usually his code is solid. You will know better than most of us that consolidating apps will result in regular changes to the code to add new games, and when you change working code, there can be unintended consequences.
Most important, this guy’s not making masses of money. The recoding that has been suggested to him by an Apple employee is a massive undertaking for 80 distinct and much-loved titles, for no end-user benefit at all.
How will he recoup the cost of his time? By selling his games a second time to a cash-strapped community, just to satisfy an Apple policy that has been applied overzealously?
This punitive interpretation of a policy that has good intentions could be putting one of the prime providers of accessible games out of business.
I hope you will consider this matter, appreciate the joy that these games have brought thousands of blind people, and intervene to get the updates approved and future titles reviewed without the application of this policy, which in my view should never have been applied to Mr Schultz in the first place.
Of course, I acknowledge that at this stage, we have only been privy to Mr Schultz’s perspective on this matter, and that leads me to my second request. It’s great to see the App Store, Apple Support, Apple Education and other official Apple accounts on Twitter. I hope that Apple Accessibility might also establish a Twitter account, so we can better interact with Apple concerning these products that have such a positive impact on our lives.
With best wishes,