This post continues a tradition I started when I founded Mosen Consulting in 2013, where just ahead of the big iOS reveal at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, I write down my wish list for the latest iOS and open up the discussion to read what you’re hoping for.
Just as writing this post each year has become a tradition, so too has watching the Apple event live. This year, it’s going to be on 8 June at 10 AM Pacific, 1 PM eastern, 6 PM in the UK, and bright and early on 9 June in New Zealand at 5 AM.
Recently, Apple has thankfully become consistent about streaming the event live, so gone are the days where I would have up to a dozen live blogs and a special Twitter list open at once, just to read what was going down. You should be able to find the live stream in the Apple Events channel on Apple TV (read my Apple TV book to learn more), and iOS and Mac users should be able to stream it too.
It’s become quite the event for my family. Bonnie and I get up at 5 AM to watch, as does my oldest daughter who is a technology buff and an electrical engineering student.
When it’s over, developers are likely to be able to get their hands on the first developer build of iOS 9, with all the lovely quirks and frustrations of software at that early stage of development. If you want to learn about how you can be on the cutting edge and help squash the bugs, I’ve done an audio presentation on how to beta test iOS as a developer.
All being well, members of the Apple Seed programme should at some point also be able to get their hands on public betas at no cost. This will allow more blind people than ever to put the software through its paces prior to release, and provide constructive feedback to Apple.
I look forward to the WWDC keynote each year very much. The iPhone is my primary consumption device. It’s my digital talking book player, my eBook reader, my music player, my radio, my news source, my portable recorder with a high-quality stereo microphone attachment, my accessible portable games console, my TV, my primary means of interacting with social media…and those are just the things I wrote down without pause for thought. It has simplified my life, replacing many blindness-specific products that now add no value to me. I have fewer chargers to carry around, and I don’t need to worry about on which device I stored something I want to read.
The 128GB iPhone 6 Plus gives me plenty of capacity with incredible battery life, and the Synology Cloud apps mean I have access to every piece of music, every old-time radio show, every document I have at home, no matter where in the world I am.
So when I know my iPhone is going to become even more capable than it already is, yeah, I’m really excited about that.
It’s satisfying to go back and look at the posts I’ve made in past years to see that a number of the items I put on my wish list are now in place, even a keyboard API, which I never really expected Apple to do.
Last year’s WWDC was significant because of the myriad of APIs Apple gave developers. Who’d want to go back to a world without Notification Center widgets or easy sharing of data between apps?
I’m hoping Apple builds on this success this year, and learns from a few recent mistakes.
My list is influenced by the fact that I’m totally blind, using VoiceOver, the screen reader built into iOS. It’s not exclusively about VoiceOver features though.
So, here’s my top 10, and I look forward to reading about your own hopes for iOS 9.
iOS 7 was a little rough around the edges at release time. iOS 8 was appalling. When users lose all screen reader functionality just because of how status cells are configured in Braille, you know there’s a serious quality control issue.
Some people interpreted the initial significant iOS 8 bugs as a signal that Apple’s commitment to accessibility was waning. The repeated references by Tim Cook and other Apple executives to the difference Apple products are making in the lives of blind people should allay those fears. If not, the fact that Apple Watch was accessible from day one is a signal that should satisfy even the biggest sceptic.
No, the problem isn’t commitment in my view, it’s poor quality control across the board. That poor quality control hit all customers, blind and sighted alike, very hard when Apple released an iOS update that disabled cellular access on some devices.
No software is ever bug free, and Apple has done an excellent job of releasing timely and often significant iOS 8 updates that have fixed bugs and added new features, but my hope is that iOS 9’s initial release will have no show stoppers so serious that they leave some people’s phones literally speechless.
I upgraded my iPhone 4 to the 4s in 2011 specifically because of Siri. It was pretty cool for its time, but now it could be argued Siri is the least intelligent of all the mobile personal assistants. In some respects, it even seems to have regressed. Features like Siri are only truly useful if they can allow for the fact that one question or instruction can be phrased many ways. Siri seems to have become more finicky about how a question is asked or instruction given than it was in 2011.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Dictation seems to have improved markedly, both in terms of responsiveness and accuracy. The responsiveness improvements are thanks to better infrastructure, and dictation now being streamed to Apple’s servers rather than sent all at once at the end of transmission. So those improvements are welcome.
I still use Siri a lot to set alarms, add reminders, add and check appointments, launch apps although I have apps with some names that Siri never understands, and a bunch of other system-related functions. But when it comes to asking for information, Google wins by a country mile.
A while ago, I produced a quick audio comparison of Siri and Google. Since then, the gap has widened further in Google’s favour.
Here’s just one example of many I could use. Earlier this week on my Internet radio show, The Mosen Explosion, I was musing about how long Queen Victoria’s reign was, and when Queen Elizabeth will have reigned longer than Queen Victoria. I asked Siri, “how long was Queen Victoria’s reign”. Siri responded by saying, “I found something about Queen Victoria on the web, take a look”. Somewhere buried in the information on the screen was the information I was after.
I asked Google the same question. Google’s text-to-speech replied immediately with “63 years and 7 months”.
And I could go on for many screens with dozens of examples.
It seems that Google is doing some highly intelligent, very fast scraping of Wikipedia and other sources to give people the precise answers to questions they are asking.
If you have an Android device, Google has an API, so app developers can add further intelligence to voice search. I want to be able to tell Siri to play a specific radio station on TuneIn, to open a particular book I have in Voice Dream, to play a piece of music from my Synology Nas. We need a Siri API.
Longer term, I want to be truly stunned by Siri with a kind of wow factor that only Apple can pull off. I want to be able to say to Siri, “show me the cheapest flights from Boston to Los Angeles between noon and 5 PM on 16 August. I want to be read the list, and to be able to say, “book that one with my business credit card”.
With the help of my supermarket’s delivery app, I want to be able to say, “purchase my usual brand of milk, cheese and a chardonnay that costs less than $15, and deliver it between 6 and 8 PM tonight”.
I’m not so unrealistic that I expect all this to be announced at WWDC 2015. What I’m saying is that when Siri was introduced in 2011, I thought we’d be far closer to this goal in 2015 than we are. Google is getting us ever closer to that day, sadly, Siri is not, at least not in anything publicly available.
Hopefully, the rumours of an API, albeit a restricted one, are correct.
3. Braille Translation
Yes, this one makes my list for the third year in a row. Of the mainstream mobile devices with accessibility options, Apple’s Braille support is the best. Apple continues to make tweaks to Braille with every major iOS upgrade, and that’s fantastic. In particular, the auto-scrolling of pages introduced in iOS 8 is a brilliant feature.
But input for those who prefer to use contracted Braille is still unorthodox. With iPads often being used in the classroom, it’s important those of us who feel passionately about Braille don’t let up on this until it’s fixed. Many tech-savvy adults can learn to work around the idiosyncrasies if we must. We should not be teaching kids bad Braille habits as they are learning.
It should be possible to route the cursor to somewhere in the middle of a word, insert a correction, and immediately read the result without any convoluted work-arounds.
4. Braille Keyboard Manager
While we’re talking Braille, I continue to hope for this feature. I know Apple doesn’t like to have too many options in iOS, but Braille reading styles and preferences can vary. 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 Apple’s implementation, and there’s no way of changing it unless you jailbreak. 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, and it’s something already available in OS X. These issues become increasingly important as we start to think about using our devices for more serious content creation, and not just content consumption or a little bit of note taking.
5. Let’s think about Content Creation
Accessible apps from Microsoft, Google and smaller developers do a reasonable job now of allowing a blind person to create content on their iDevice. But in my view, VoiceOver falls short here, and I wouldn’t dream of sending out an important document, where presentation matters, without first bringing it back to my PC for serious examination in Microsoft Word.
Google and Microsoft have tried to present some formatting information to VoiceOver users, but I’m not convinced this is in our best long-term interests. It’s an appropriate short-term strategy for developers to work around VoiceOver’s shortcomings, but those shortcomings need to be addressed so we can truly be effective content creators on iOS. As the screen reader developer, Apple is responsible for ensuring we can do that in a methodical, consistent way. Otherwise, each app may report formatting information differently. That’s potentially confusing and distracts from the process of content creation.
I’d like to see the OS implement standard keyboard shortcuts for bolding, underlining and other formatting functions. It is also critical that VoiceOver gives us gestures and keyboard shortcuts to query formatting information, as well as a mode where reviewing the document speaks all font and other formatting changes.
These devices have gone well beyond content consumption for sighted people. VoiceOver hasn’t kept up in this regard.
6. Text-to-Speech API
Thankfully, Apple went API crazy at WWDC last year. It was a needed and pragmatic response that sought to deal with the criticism that Apple is too restricted, while not opening up the platform to malware.
The Siri API is important, and so too is an API for text-to-speech. If you install a third-party voice on Android, any application using TTS can make use of that voice. That’s what I want for iOS. I have multiple copies of several voices on my phone because each app must use its own copy of the voice. That wastes precious storage, and it means VoiceOver can’t use any of the third-party voices I really like.
7. Programmable Keys
When I train customers, some of whom have had quite a bit of OS X experience, I’m surprised by how many people don’t realise you can assign a keyboard shortcut to any menu function in any app. This is an absolutely marvellous feature and I use it when a developer hasn’t given me an easy way to access a function I use frequently.
I would love the ability to assign a keyboard and possibly Braille shortcut key to activate particular items in an app. What a boost to efficiency that would be.
It would be a complex thing to get right, but hey, giving us access to this platform at all was a complex thing to get right. I have faith.
8. Read all in Reverse
I like to read my Twitter timeline in proper chronological order. Reading from the most recent tweet backwards doesn’t give you the sense of a story unfolding. When I read my Twitter timeline this way, I need to do it manually, flicking through each tweet, because there’s no way of reading continuously up the screen. This feature would make a real difference in a number of apps that put the most recent item at the top of the screen.
9. Airplay Receiver
In my recent book about the Apple TV, I talked about how you can use Airplay to listen to your Apple TV on your PC or Mac, and using your computer as a conduit to have the sound of Apple TV on your iPhone. But it didn’t used to be that complicated. There was once a bunch of excellent apps in the App Store that turned your iDevice into an airplay receiver. Apple withdrew them all, so unless you got one of them before they got the big flick, you’re out of luck.
There are many scenarios where it’s handy for your iDevice to be an Airplay receiver. I’d like to see it built into iOS 9.
10. Pronunciation Dictionary
This is such a fundamental screen reading feature that I really don’t know why it isn’t there already. It would be nice to have control over the way my speech pronounces New Zealand place names, and the names of friends that the TTS nicely mangles.
There you have it. 10 things I’d like to see in iOS 9, some of them quite big dreams. Maybe some of them will be in there, and I’m sure there will be some features cooked up in the lab that will surprise us all.
Whatever is coming, my next book, “iOS 9 Without the Eye” will be released when iOS 9 itself is released, offering you a comprehensive summary of the new features.
What would you like to see in iOS 9? Share your thoughts in the comments.