In writing this post, I do so fully recognizing that I’m on a hiding to nothing, and I should probably leave well alone. There is an ugly mob mentality that can easily get going when social media turns on an individual or organization, and it’s a phenomenon that has been the fascinating subject of entire books.
But after initially deciding to sit out the latest NFB Resolution controversy, I decided I was being morally complicit in the mob mentality by not having the courage to share my own story and views. I was also encouraged to write this because of an amicable and reasonable Twitter exchange I had with someone whose views are not identical to mine. It made me realise that there still may be reasonable people who might appreciate a different perspective on this issue. So, for better or worse, here goes.
In case you’ve been fortunate enough to be under a rock and off the grid, the National Federation of the Blind has just concluded its 2016 convention. NFB are a consumer organization that also provides services, now extending to the development of assistive technology that runs on a range of platforms including iOS.
Resolutions can be proposed by any member. They are first discussed at the Resolutions Committee. The Resolutions Committee then votes on whether they should be discussed by the Convention, which is the supreme governing and policy-making body of the organisation. So if you pay your subscription, you too could propose a resolution next year.
The following resolution was proposed, and ultimately adopted by NFB.
Regarding Apple’s Inadequate Testing of Software Releases
WHEREAS, Apple, Inc. has made VoiceOver, a free and powerful screen-access program, an integral part of many of its products, including the Apple Macintosh, iPhone, iPod Touch, Apple TV, and iPad; and
WHEREAS, when a significant software update for one of these products is released, there are often accessibility bugs that impact the usability of the product by blind users, causing them to lose their productivity or their ability to perform certain job duties when the use of Apple devices is required; and
WHEREAS, recent updates have included a large number of serious, moderate, and minor bugs that have made it difficult or impossible for blind people to perform various tasks such as answering calls, browsing the internet, entering text into forms, or adding individuals to the Contacts Favorites list; and
WHEREAS, for example, after iOS 9.0 was released, some iPhones running VoiceOver occasionally became unresponsive when getting a phone call, and there was no way to choose any option on screen; and
WHEREAS, although this issue was fixed in a new release of iOS, it would not have occurred if Apple had conducted more thorough testing with VoiceOver; and
WHEREAS, another example of inadequate testing by Apple involves VoiceOver failing to render the contents of the screen when a user attempts to add a contact to the Favorites list in the phone app and has multiple contact groups from which to select; and
WHEREAS, because Apple products and its accessibility tools are built by the same company, there is no need to share confidential information with partners that may affect the normal development of the software; and
WHEREAS, we recognize the efforts made by Apple to inform developers about the accessibility features built into Apple products and encourage the company to keep working in that direction; however several accessibility issues still appear with new software releases even when they have been reported during beta testing; and
WHEREAS, it is vital that Apple give priority to addressing bugs that have an impact on accessibility before releasing software updates: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this fourth day of July, 2016, in the City of Orlando, Florida, that this organization call upon Apple to make nonvisual access a major priority in its new and updated software by improving its testing of new releases to ensure that nonvisual access is not limited or compromised; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization call upon Apple to work actively to incorporate feedback from testers who use VoiceOver during the beta testing phase of software development to ensure that accessibility for blind individuals is fully and properly addressed.
Quality control problems are rampant within Apple, not just where accessibility is concerned, but with software in general. If you take even the most cursory of glances at the technology news, you’ll have seen a number of examples. Most recently, some units of Apple’s latest pride and joy, the 9.7 inch iPad Pro, were bricked by what was supposed to be a minor software update.
Some Sprint users couldn’t connect to LTE after iOS 9.3.
You may remember that a minor update to iOS 8 broke LTE functionality, causing massive problems for those who were unfortunate enough to upgrade before the update was pulled.
The issues with VoiceOver and iOS 9 were just the latest in a series of significant problems over the last few years.
I could go back further, but let’s just look at iOS 8 on release day. There were serious issues affecting the two-finger double-tap when an incoming call was received. Answering a call would not always pause audio that was playing, and the phone could get itself into a state where it was difficult to stop audio without hanging up a call.
Remember the dial pad bug in iOS 8? If you tried to do something as simple as call a number using the phone keypad, it would often get stuck emitting a DTMF tone. Each key you pressed would cause one tone to pile on another.
On iOS 8 release day, Bluetooth keyboard support with VoiceOver on was so unreliable that it was useless for practical purposes.
If you had a Braille display and no Bluetooth keyboard, QuickNav was stuck on, and there was no way you could disable it unless you were able to borrow someone else’s keyboard and pair it, or buy a Bluetooth keyboard expressly to get around Apple’s bug.
When VoiceOver was enabled, Siri would often be cut off in its responses.
And the really big one, VoiceOver was completely broken if you had a Braille display and had chosen a particular configuration for status cells. There was no way to recover from this one without sighted assistance.
Let’s move onto iOS 9. This was the release that the tech press said would be lighter on features because there was a need to make the OS more stable.
Do you remember how flaky Bluetooth keyboard support was for some of us, only when VoiceOver was running? There were times when entering text into an edit field did absolutely nothing. If you were really lucky, turning VoiceOver off and back on again got things working for a while. If you were a little less lucky, but still a bit lucky, rebooting the device would get things working. Still others couldn’t get Bluetooth keyboards working at all, no matter what they did. I remember long, convoluted Twitter discussions as many of us tried to find the variable that would make Bluetooth keyboards work.
Remember the famous iOS 9 focus bug? This was a particular problem in apps where you’d want to return to your previous place, such as Twitter and podcast apps. It made using apps like Twitterific, Tweetings or Downcast a miserable experience, because you couldn’t pick up from where you left off.
There were numerous other ones, but let me be clear that every piece of software ever written has bugs. So I want to focus on the really big one.
As the NFB resolution mentioned, there was the call answering issue, a show-stopper if ever there was one. It saddens me that many of those who were not affected by it trivialize the impact that it had on those of us who were.
To recap, when you received an incoming phone or FaceTime call, VoiceOver became unresponsive. It wasn’t possible to answer a call or navigate the screen. I can tell you that as a business owner and a dad, this was a very high-impact bug, and it was totally unacceptable that the software was released in this state.
Don’t agree? Well, let’s take blindness out of the mix for a bit. What do you think would have happened if even 20% of the entire iPhone user base found after installing iOS 9 that they couldn’t take phone calls anymore? It would be Apple Maps all over again. Apple would have been a laughing stock for making a phone that doesn’t even let you…answer the phone! The blind business owner who relies on their iPhone to get their sales leads, the blind attorney who needs to hear from their office, the blind parent who needs to be able to pick up a call from their kid, they’ve all paid exactly the same money for their iPhone as anyone else. And if it’s unacceptable for sighted people to be unable to answer their phone, not just occasionally but always, then allowing software to go out that makes it impossible for numerous blind people to answer the phone is an act of discrimination. It’s not deliberate, it’s not wilful, but discrimination need not be deliberate or wilful for discrimination to have taken place. We have enough barriers and ignorance to overcome without these sorts of preventable barriers getting in our way. These devices aren’t toys, they’re now an essential tool in our productivity armoury for many of us.
I have seen it suggested that this serious call answering bug was introduced late in the beta cycle, too late for Apple to do anything about. This is unequivocally false, and I’m going to give you dates to back that statement up. First, a bit of background.
I believe in trying to make constructive, positive contributions where that’s an option. All the way back in iOS 7, many of us had become troubled by the dwindling quality control of Apple’s accessibility offerings. To try to make a positive difference, I set up a private email list of registered blind Apple developers. The idea was, and is, that we compare notes and try to find steps to reproduce a bug, so we can lodge the most accurate bugs we can with Apple. Incidentally, the very accessibility of lodging bugs has varied a lot over the years from the excellent to the near impossible.
This email list means that I can tell you exactly when I became aware of the serious call answering bug. Bonnie and I were married on 27 June last year. I therefore refrained from installing the iOS 9 beta on my main device until we were back from our honeymoon. On 4 July, I first reported issues with answering calls. By that stage, we were only at iOS 9 beta 3. I suspect that if the bug was present early on in the cycle like that, it was present from the beginning. Certainly it was present in early July, a full two-and-a-half months before iOS 9 was officially released.
When I lodged the bug, I gave it the highest priority I could, stressing emphatically what a show stopper this one was. I was also able to make it clear, because of the private email list I run, that it was affecting some people, but not others. Some people with the same model phone as I had were affected, while other users of the very same model were not. I have huge empathy for the Apple quality assurance folks, because a bug like this that affects some people but not others is the absolute worst to track down.
Nevertheless, the software was released in the full knowledge that there were going to be some blind people for whom a core function of the device they paid for was useless. And I would be surprised if I had been the first person to log the issue in early July.
As the resolution also pointed out, Apple is in a unique position, and it’s something they market as a strength. They have full control over all the hardware and the software. They’re not trying to provide access over the top of an operating system, it’s part of the operating system.
iOS 9 was also the first iOS release to go into public beta. As I blogged when that move was announced, having more data to draw from isn’t going to help if quality assurance isn’t resourced appropriately.
And really, this is all the resolution is saying. I can’t speak for its drafters, but I can say that I’m not for one second suggesting that Apple is lessening its commitment to accessibility, far from it. If you’ve got your hands on iOS 10 already, you’ll know that it’s packed with some cool new accessibility features, some of which I’ve been wanting for years.
I don’t question for a single second that everyone at Apple has a deeply entrenched, profound commitment to accessibility, and through it, to making the world a better place. They sure have changed my life for the better, and chances are, if you’re reading this, they’ve changed yours too.
But surely dialogue in our community hasn’t descended to the notion that unless you’re totally for Apple, you’re against them? Clearly, Apple continues to have quality control issues across the board. You’d have to be pretty blinkered not to acknowledge that. In my view, it’s not that anyone there isn’t truly dedicated or competent, but there clearly seems to be a resource shortfall in quality assurance.
Many users of Apple’s tech, from a range of perspectives, have said similarly, and I for one am glad that the NFB has reminded Apple and the wider public of how vulnerable we blind people are when quality assurance is under-resourced. We’re a small population, and bugs that have a tiny impact on the user base overall can have a debilitating impact on us.
It’s been said by some that NFB seems to be picking on Apple, perhaps because Apple doesn’t engage with our community in the same way other companies do.
I don’t always succeed at this, but I find that not much good comes from attributing motive and that it’s best to take an argument on its merits if possible. As someone very badly hit by the phone answering bug, I felt heard, understood, relieved that finally someone was speaking up for me. It’s also natural that with Apple having done so well, more blind people are using Apple mobile devices than any other type. With that success inevitably comes greater scrutiny.
However, I’d like to have been spoken up for in other ways as well. I’m an Android user now, and would use Android more if it weren’t for the abysmal state of support for my primary medium, Braille. NFB has championed Braille over the years, and a resolution letting Google know in no uncertain terms that they must do better would be both welcome and overdue.
Technology plays such a big part in all of our lives now, that I suspect there are a number of cases where we’d like to see tech companies do much better. Perhaps Americans who feel this way will put forward their own resolutions next year. I don’t believe that the absence of these resolutions in any way invalidates the strength of the resolution that was adopted, but when we as blind people call for truly equitable access, I do think that such calls should also be equitably distributed.
NFB said something that clearly needed to be said. The impact of unresolved accessibility bugs has been dire for three consecutive major releases now and is symptomatic of a wider software QA issue. In constructively pointing out the need for meaningful dialogue and timely resolution, that doesn’t preclude us from celebrating the revolution Apple has brought about, for which they deserve warm congratulations.
And despite the strong market share of mobile devices Apple enjoys in our community, it is critical that we also focus on other players who are not doing so well, so that like everyone else, we as blind people truly can choose the technology we use based on preference and need.