Long-term Blind Confidential readers and those who know about my work
with the League for Programming Freedom, an organization I co-founded
with my friend Richard Stallman largely to fight against Apple
Computer and its assertion that the user interface, look and feel if
you like, of a computer program could be copyrighted. As much as
automobiles all present the basics of their user interface: steering
wheel, gas pedal, clutch, etc. in the same places , it only makes
sense that commonly used functions and features of computer programs
(cut, copy, paste, for example, all reside beneath the edit menu and
use the Control C, X, and V keystrokes respectively). We won the “look
and “feel battle when the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor
of Borland in its battle with Lotus Over common keystrokes between
Quatro Pro and 1-2-3.
More recently, I have written about how I feel that Apple has sought
patent protection for inventions that fall beneath my opinion of a
standard of uniqueness and, because, on principle, I oppose virtually
all software patents (readers interested in the subject should search
on “software patents” on this blog as I’ve written extensively on the
matter). Apple is by no means the worst offender in the world of
intellectual property law abuse But one patent in particular, the one
that covers synthesizing speech on a desktop type computer and moving
it on to a portable media device, effectively gives Apple a monopoly
on the techniques used to make the iPod nano accessible. As I’ve also
written about Freedom Scientific, there is far too much work to do in
order to eat more of our elephant . Thus, I find that these
intellectual property filings and battles waste time, money and
bandwidth that could be applied to actual innovation in this field.
Also, maintaining priority over a novel concept that would benefit
numerous other access technology products punishes the users for
having selected one brand of product over another.
Apple has not entirely changed its ways nor has it entirely satisfied
my perfectionist do you product accessibility. To whit, the incredibly
popular iPhone was released to the general public without a single
feature that I could find of value to a person with a severe, profound
or total vision impairment. More than annoying me, this phone stands
in direct violation of Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act.
Apple is not alone in releasing new handsets with little or no
accessible features but as I said above, I take a perfectionist few
and want all products to be released to the general public in
compliance with the laws of our nation without requiring a legal
battle or months of negotiations between an advocacy group and a
handset manufacturer. With the iPhone, Apple released many highly
innovative features – unfortunately nothing to comply with 255 as
regards people with vision Impairment.
The cost of a long history of squabbling with Apple over the issues
above and because they got into the screen reader game fairly late, I
felt the need to preface this article by listing and explaining how I
have made the jump from disliking Apple almost purely unprincipled to
now using my Macintosh for most of my daily tasks. Plain and simply, a
Macintosh running its native voiceover screen reader , in many places,
outperforms its cousins on the Microsoft Windows platforms.
I have yet to find a single application written for Macintosh Leopard
edition that did not work mostly if not entirely with voiceover. The
problems I have encountered, including in Mac Speech, the software I’m
using to dictate Blind Confidential articles these days, has some
bugs, mostly unlabeled buttons and such, with regard to how they
communicate with voiceover. MacSpeech has a few other bugs that are
very annoying but have nothing to do with how well it works with
voiceover and open office.
For years, the Office suites have been a major battleground in the
screen reader wars. I am happy to report to you my readers that
OpenOffice.org works tremendously well with voiceover and, excepting a
few of the very cool JAWS features, can be considered as a full
replacement for Microsoft Office in most situations. Open office can
read or write to about as many file formats as ‘Ive ever seen in a
single program which makes sharing files among coworkers who may elect
to use a different office program easier than ever.
Those of you who know me, also know I spent a tremendous amount of
time writing. For years, I believed that Microsoft Word was the only
writing tool with enough horsepower to handle everything I need. MS
Word indeed possesses a huge array of really excellent features for
people who write, edit and format large documents the Open Office word
processor, however competes strongly with Microsoft Word on features
and, when using voiceover, it is much faster than Word with JAWS on a
Windows box. As a matter of full disclosure, all the writing I do on a
Macintosh is done using the bottom of the line, 13 inch MacBoOk; ‘Ive
used JAWS on literally dozens of different computers and on my
fastest, a 64-bit Vista desktop, Microsoft Word along with JAWS is
profoundly slower than open office with voiceover on my Macintosh.
Oh, by the way, did I mention that Open Office comes with no cost
beyond the time it takes to download, install and familiarize oneself
with the software. Using voice over, open office functions similarly
to Microsoft Word with JAWS on a Windows machine. Thus, the Office
suite transition from PC to a Macintosh is quite simple in this area.
Other programs with analogs on Windows machines perform equally well
or better ˆƒ on a Macintosh running voiceover than they do with JAWS.
This is due at at least in part to the excellent accessibility API
built into Macintosh OSX that effectively makes any standard control
accessible to voiceover. Programs like Skype and various other
programs that I use on both platforms work straight out of the box
with Macintosh but, as a JAWS user, I often have to wait for a
volunteer to write scripts to make a bit of software usable in a
comfortable matter. Some people have told me that one can use
AppleScript to automate voiceover and to enhance its ability to
communicate with other applications; I only know of this through
anecdote and have not seen any demonstrable evidence that this is
possible. There are a few places, especially in the open office
spreadsheet or I would like to make some of the dialogues available in
JAWS work with voiceover as well. Anyone who knows of how AppleScript
can be used in this way, please write to me privately so we may figure
out how to make these augmentations available to Macintosh users.
The strength of the Macintosh Accessibility API shows up all over the
place. On both my Mac and my PC, I use VMWare to run my Ubuntu
distribution to get my job done. VMWare with JOBS requires a lot of
poking around with the review cursor as buttons and other things one
needs to control the program are not recognized as anything more than
a graphic with some text on it by he When news screen readers. On the
contrary, though, I can use this virtual machine host with voiceover
without ever having to resort to some kind of kludge.
After using voiceover for a while, one learns to expect nearly
flawless performance in most applications that one throws at it. In
fact, when one encounters a dialogue, control or other elements with
which they want to interact and find that it does not work properly
with voiceover they tend to feel a bit surprised. In nearly every
application ‘Ive tried so far, accessibility problems are quite rare.
This is, however, not to say that voiceover hasn’t its faults.
One area in which JAWS, Window-Eyes and System Access all outperform
voiceover is in their interfaces to Web browsers. Voiceover uses an
object navigation model which, in applications, works tremendously
well. In some websites and other HTML content, the voiceover
navigation paradigm performs admirably ;Unfortunately, these sites are
outnumbered by those that are less well behaved. The Windows-Based
screen readers handle frames in a number of other common Web
constructs in a manner far better than does the current version of
voiceover. Having watched the tremendous pace THAT the voiceover team
improves the product, though, I feel confident that their web
interface will catch up and possibly even surpass interface’ses we
have grown accustomed to on Windows as, for all intents and purposes,
the “virtual “buffer technique of screen reader Web browsing ‘hasn’t
changed in nine or 10 years – an eternity in the world of high
I could go on with a laundry list of things that I really like about
voiceover and also present a much shorter list of bugs and other
annoyances but that would take up time and space that I can better use
for other purposes.
We should also spend a little time considering the newly accessible
iPod Nano. I picked up one of these at Best By for something around
$150 and find that I use it far more frequently than I had
anticipated. It takes a bit of practice to grow accustomed to gliding
‘ones finger on the device to scroll through menus, playlists,
podcasts, etc. once you get the knack of it you will appreciate a
feature rich and very well-designed portable media player. One of the
‘iPods strongest features is its tight integration with the iTunes
program on both Macintosh and Windows. To go into all of the features
available in this combination would have to be an article of its own
but suffice it to say that there is very little that one would want to
do with the media player/media software combination that is not
available with a Nano and iTunes
How does the ascendancy of Apple accessibility help us eat more of our
For one, we have the price performance ratio compared between the
Windows platforms and the Macintosh. A frugal consumer can find his
way to the Dell Outlet store on their website. Here, a blind consumer
who ‘doesn’t care about high-speed graphics were any of the other
expensive new features necessary for heavy-duty multimedia use, can
buy a very usable computer for under $400. Adding in monitor, printer,
scanner and/or other peripheral the user may want will add to this
price but only in so far as the user feels the need for such extras.
This would all be a great price for her system from a company that
provides a full warranty to the items in its Outlet store if the user
did not also have to purchase their access technology. JAWS, the de
facto standard on Windows systems, costs between 900 and 1100 dollars,
depending upon whether the user needs the professional version or not.
Window-Eyes Runs about $900 and System Access comes in at below $500.
So, a person with vision impairment needs to spend at least $1000 to
run a $400 computer purchased an outlet store. If this user wants a
laptop, they can add 252 of $300 to the overall price system.
The lowest priced new Macintosh is a desktop model they call the
“Mini” which retails for approximately $600. One must then also
purchase a monitor and possibly a keyboard as the Many ships in a
fairly bare-bones configuration. There are various places online where
one can find a used or refurbished Macintosh with a guarantee that can
run the Leopard version of OSX with plenty of horsepower a screen
reader and lots of other applications , making the overall cost
benefit of a Mac even greater.
Once one gets their new Macintosh and plugs it into an outlet, they
can press the on button and simply wait. A sighted person would see
the welcome dialog and can start interacting immediately; on the other
hand, we blinks only need to wait a few seconds and the Macintosh will
launch voiceover and start talking immediately. Microsoft Windows has
Narrator, a minimalist screen access program that, if one knows the
appropriate keystroke, they can launch it during the installation
process. The automatic way the Macintosh handles the situation,
however, is as ‘we’ve come to expect from Apple, a really elegant
We should also not overlook that voiceover is a fully featured screen
reader and can be used in virtually every application the user may
want to employ in the future. Narrator is designed to help the user
through the installation process and provide enough functionality for
them to install one of the pricey Windows screen readers.
The combination of really excellent accessibility to most programs at
no extra charge means that voiceover moves our elephant digestion a
bit further as he tosses down the gauntlet to the other operating
system vendors to put up or shut up as regards out-of-the-box
I would like to especially thank my friend Gabe Vega, the blind
Macintosh guru, who first got me interested in trying a Mac with
VoiceOver and, since then, has been a terrific source of information
whenever I had difficulties along the learning curve. Gabe runs an AT
consulting company and he will hopefully post his business contact
information as a comment to this article so others can avail
themselves of his services.
I rarely edit a BC post after it has been put online. As I’m using
MacSpeech, though, I find that I get a lot more errors than I do with
Dragon Dictate on XP or the native dictation facility built into
Vista. Some of this has to do with my Windows based dictation
solutions having been better trained but other mistakes are bugs in
MacSpeech (for instance, for no reason apparent to me, everytime I use
a contraction, the apostrophy appears before the rest of the word so
“didn’t” becomes “‘didnt” which is pretty ugly). So, I’ve smoothed
out as much of the text as I could without changing the article much
from its original post yesterday.
This month’s AccessWorld from AFB has a review of VoiceOver featured.
It is a nicely written article and one I would recommend to BC readers
interested in learning more about Mac accessibility.
12 thoughts on “EATING AN ELEPHANT PART II: APPLE RISING”
While the iPhone may not comply with Section 255 of the Telecommunications act, Apple has released a VPat for the iPhone which documents compliance with some of the provisions. The degree of accessibility that is provided to blind and visually impaired users is so scarce that it makes the product independently unusable, but at least Apple is doing their due diligence to give the public sector reasons to procure their products.
I’m also looking forward to getting a mac as of the new year.
As far as web navigation goes, have you given group mode a try? I perfer this approach much better than Voiceover’s default DOM navigation model. Open Voiceover utility, select the web category, and change the navigation type to group navigation if you haven’t already, and give that a try.
I’m actually of a much different opinion, I absolutely love Voiceover’s web navigation especially with group mode, which gives a pretty accurate visual approximation of the web page to a blind user. I never liked the virtual buffer concept, disliked it profoundly in fact and much preferred the way screen readers such as Outspoken handled the web. I’ve been using Voiceover for three years, I was a pretty early adopter when it came out. To be honest, after getting used to Voiceover’s web navigation, I find using a virtual buffer even more cludgy and awkward than I did before–I can certainly still use it effectively, but it just feels like a hacked approach to the problem, as it always has.