Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Touch Screen Keyboard Difficulty for the Blind: A Potential Solution

There's been a lot of talk about VoiceOver on the iPhone 3G S... and so there should be. I suspect (and others seem to concur) that Apple's model for touch screen accessibility ought to be quite useable under most circumstances, but that typing on the touch screen keyboard could be rather challenging, perhaps the most challenging aspect of the interface.

Thinking about this, I had a brainwave: perhaps a Braille touch screen keyboard could be a nicer solution for blind users. A Braille keyboard doesn't require you to shift your fingers horizontally or vertically, which eliminates the challenge of finding characters. Instead, you only need to raise or lower your fingers in various combinations. I'm guessing that the multi-touch touch screen should be able to detect these combinations. I can't remember how big the touch screen on the iPhone is, but I suspect it is probably large enough to allow for the fingers to be placed in Braille typing formation. I can't type as fast on a braille keyboard as I can on a QWERTY keyboard, but I'm a hell of a lot faster on a Braille keyboard than on a phone keypad. In fact, I'm wondering whether this method of input would actually be faster (assuming a proficient Braille typist) than a sighted user using the normal touch screen keyboard.

Surely I'm not the first to wonder about this... or is this really a new idea?

Friday, June 12, 2009

EU Objections to Microsoft's Bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows: My Thoughts

In January, the European Commission sent a Statement of Objections to Microsoft expressing their preliminary view that the inclusion of Internet Explorer in Windows has violated European competition law. Subsequently, Microsoft announced that Windows 7 will ship without Internet Explorer in Europe.

First, let me emphasise a few points. I've certainly had some negative things to say about Microsoft in my time. They're certainly no angels. I'm a huge advocate of free, open technologies and software. I'm a Mozilla Firefox user and advocate it strongly over Internet Explorer. All of that said, I can't fully support this case. It's certainly true that, given the dominant position of Windows, bundling Internet Explorer with Windows has given it an advantage that no other browser could have achieved, thereby allowing it to markedly dominate the browser market. This has undoubtedly caused a great deal of damage to innovation and competition. However, as argued by Jean-Louis Gassée concerning the earlier United States case against Microsoft, given the increasing prominence of the internet, consumers expect to have a browser packaged with the operating system. Apple bundle Safari and many other applications with Mac OS X - one of the strongpoints of the Mac is that everything is so tightly and nicely integrated - yet no such complaint has been made about Apple. There are many other platforms that bundle a web browser also.

Microsoft's domination of the desktop computer world obviously makes the impact of bundling much greater. Even so, I can't help feeling this is at least a bit unfair. It could be argued that the removal of Internet Explorer from Windows actually puts it at a disadvantage when compared to Mac OS X, which still includes Safari. Furthermore, without a bundled browser, a user can't connect to the internet to download a browser, which impedes internet usage. In the end, will Windows be the only platform which doesn't bundle a web browser?

New Apple iPhone Accessible to the Blind: My Thoughts

Apple have just announced that the soon-to-be-released iPhone 3G S will include the VoiceOver screen reader, among other accessibility enhancements. Although I'm still uncertain as to the efficiency of a touch screen interface for the blind, this is fantastic news. For the first time, an every day mobile phone/PDA will include a screen reader as part of the core product at no extra cost. Apple's inclusion of VoiceOver into Mac OS X was revolutionary news, and they've now done it again with the iPhone. I'm sometimes rather cynical towards Apple, but I am continually impressed by their commitment to incorporating out-of-the-box accessibility into their products.

It's worth noting that the iPhone is not the first touch screen phone to include accessibility for the blind. A suite of self-voicing applications called Eyes-Free is available for Android which enables blind users to use many functions of the phone. While this is great to see, it's disappointing that this is what I call isolating (or isolationalist) accessibility; i.e. blind users must use a different set of applications to everyone else to access the phone and are thus isolated from the experience of other users. This appears to be a (in my opinion disappointing) trend for some sections of Google, as demonstrated in the separate, so-called "ARIA enhanced" and "accessible" versions of some of their services, wherein they often present a different interface for blind users instead of integrating accessibility right into the existing interface. I think that isolating accessibility certainly has its place - it can sometimes make for a more friendly and easier learnt interface and is the only practical option in some extremely visual scenarios - but in general, I believe it is extremely limiting and inflexible. Admittedly, a touch screen interface is inherently visual and thus presents a new set of challenges. Not only does the user interface need to be spoken or brailled, but the method of input needs significant adaptation to be used by a blind person. This is probably why the Android Eyes-Free developers chose the path they did. However, Apple have taken a better, more generic approach similar to that of most modern operating systems, allowing blind users to use the same applications as everyone else. The new iPhone incorporates accessibility into the core of the operating system and VoiceOver modifies the input method as well as reading the user interface, which allows any application to be accessible with VoiceOver, including all of the in-built applications.

Experience will determine whether Apple's implementation is optimal for blind users. Regardless, they've truly raised the bar for mobile accessibility.

Disclaimer: I have not had any personal experience with either VoiceOver on the iPhone 3G S or Android Eyes-Free. These thoughts are solely based on the information I have gleaned from various internet sources.