Tuesday, February 22, 2011

My quest for a New Mobile Phone

Disclaimer: This is primarily based on my own personal experience. Also, this all happened last year, so some of the finer details are a bit vague now.

Early last year, my trusty 6 year old Nokia 6600 was finally starting to die and I decided it was past time to move on. (Amusingly, that phone even survived being accidentally dunked in a glass of wine.) My aim was to satisfy all of my portable technology needs with one device, including phone, email, web browser, audio player (standard 3.5 mm audio socket essential), synchronisable calendar, synchronisable contact manager, note taker, ebook reader and portable file storage. And so the quest began.

Making the (First) Choice

My ideal mobile platform was Android. Aside from satisfying all of my needs, it is an open, modern platform. Unfortunately, although I seriously entertained the idea, a great deal of research and playing with the Android emulator led me to realise that Android's accessibility was at an unacceptably poor state for me.

I considered the iPhone. I've written about the iPhone's out-of-the-box accessibility to blind people before and have played with an iPhone several times since. Although I was pretty impressed, especially by the fact that VoiceOver comes out-of-the-box, there were two major problems with the iPhone for me. First, I dislike the closed nature of the iPhone environment, commonly known as the "walled garden" or "do things Apple's way or not at all". Aside from the principle (you all know I'm a big advocate for openness), I would be unable to play ogg vorbis (my audio format of choice) in iPod, I would have to transfer music and files with iTunes (which I detest), I couldn't use it as a portable file storage device, and I would be limited to apps that Apple permitted (unless I wanted to jailbreak). Second, I wanted a device with a physical keyboard. In the end, I decided against the iPhone.

I briefly considered another Symbian Series 60 phone. However, based on past experience (both mine and others'), I didn't think I would be able to play audio and use the screen reader simultaneously, which immediately disqualified it for me, although I've since been informed that is no longer true on some newer phones. I also feel it is a dying platform. There are probably some other reasons i discounted it, but i can't remember them now. If nothing else, I wasn't entirely happy with it and wanted a change.

Finally, I settled on Windows Mobile, specifically the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1, with Mobile Speak. I guess Windows Mobile is a dying platform too, but at the time, I felt it was perhaps less so and provided more functionality for me. While the operating system itself isn't open, you can develop and install apps as you please without being restricted to a single app store. There are several ogg vorbis players for Windows Mobile. I also had the option of buying Mobile Geo for navigation if I wanted to later. I was warned by someone who played with an older phone that Mobile Speak on Windows Mobile was fairly unresponsive, but unable to test this myself, I hoped that it might be better with a less resource intensive voice such as Fonix and/or a newer phone or that I'd get used to it.

Frustration, Pain and Misery

A bit less than $800 later, I got my new phone and Mobile Speak in June. I expected and accepted that it would take me some time to get used to it. I loved finally being able to access the internet from my phone and play audio through proper stereo headphones. However, despite this, the next few months were just downright painful and frequently induced rage bordering on violence. I often had the urge to throw my new phone across the room several times a day.

Primarily, this was due to Mobile Speak. I found it to be hideously unresponsive, unstable, unreliable, inconsistent and otherwise buggy as all hell.
  • The unresponsiveness proved to be unacceptable for me, often taking around half a second to respond to input and events, even using Fonix. Aside from the general inefficiency this caused, this made reading text incredibly tedious, and despite the physical keyboard, typing was painful due to the slow response to backspace and cursor keys.
  • Mobile Speak crashed or froze far too often and there was no way to resurrect it without restarting the phone.
  • In Internet Explorer, working with form controls was extremely inconsistent and unreliable, especially multi-line editable text fields. Quick navigation (moving by heading, etc.) was very slow and failed to work altogether in many cases. On my phone, Google services (including Google Search, even the mobile version, of all things!) refused to render at all.
  • I encountered problems when reading email as well. Sometimes, Mobile Speak wouldn't render emails. Others, it wouldn't let me navigate to the headers of the email, which is essential if you want to download the rest of a message that hasn't been fully downloaded.
  • Reading text in Word Mobile was even slower than everywhere else, which made reading ebooks infeasible.
  • Braille display scrolling is either broken or unintuitive. On my 40 cell display, Mobile Speak only seemed to scroll half the display and I couldn't find a way to change this.
  • Definitely quite a few other bugs I can't remember all of the details about...
It's worth noting that I'm not saying that this is all entirely Mobile Speak's fault. I suspect Windows Mobile and other applications may play a part in this dodginess.

I had two other major gripes with Mobile Speak.
  • Despite years of experience with screen readers, I found the Mobile Speak commands, especially the touch interface, to be tedious and difficult to learn. The touch interface is inherently slow to use because you need to wait after certain taps to avoid them being construed as double or triple taps.
  • Mobile Speak's phone number licensing model was a major annoyance for me when I went overseas for a few days. Mobile Speak allows you to use it with a SIM card with a different number for 12 hours, but you have to reinsert the original SIM card after 12 hours if you want Mobile Speak to continue functioning as a licensed copy. Also, I seem to recall that this also applied if the phone was in airplane mode.

There were other things that irritated me about my phone and its applications.
  • I found Windows Mobile in general to be very sluggish. Even something as fundamental to a phone as dialling on the phone keypad or adjusting the volume was incredibly laggy, sometimes taking several seconds to respond to key presses.
  • Far too many apps, including Google Maps and both of the free ogg vorbis players I tried, had significant accessibility problems.
  • Windows Media doesn't have support for bookmarking, which made reading audio books infeasible. There was a paid app that provided this and other functionality i wanted, but i wasn't willing to pay for it in case I discovered it too had major accessibility problems.
  • Windows Mobile doesn't have enough levels on its volume control.
  • If the phone is switched to silent, all audio is silenced, including Mobile Speak.
  • Internet Explorer doesn't support tabbed browsing!
  • Windows Mobile only supports one Exchange Active Sync account, which meant I couldn't maintain separate personal and work calendars.
  • More...

The Snapping Point

In the end, after less than 6 months, I just couldn't take it any more. I tried to learn to live with it for at least a couple of years, as I'd already spent so much money on it, but it was truly unbearable. It's worth noting that a close friend of mine had a very similar experience with Windows Mobile and also gave up in equivalent disgust around the same time. It particularly angers me that I paid $315 for a piece of software as buggy as Mobile Speak. I started playing with Jen's iPhone a bit more, and finally, I gave in and got my own.

The iPhone: Peace at Last

For reasons I mentioned above, I felt like I was going to the dark side when I made the decision to switch to the iPhone. Among other things, it's a bit hypocritical of me, given my belief in and advocacy for openness. Nevertheless, I have not looked back once since I got it. It has truly changed my life.

The in-built accessibility of the iPhone is amazing. I strongly believe that accessibility should not incur an extra cost for the user and Apple have done just that. VoiceOver is very responsive. Usage is fairly intuitive. All of the in-built apps and the majority of third party apps are accessible. Once you get used to it and start to remember where things are on the screen, navigating with the touch screen becomes incredibly efficient. The support for braille displays is excellent; I can see this being very useful next time I need to give a presentation. The triple-click home feature means that I can even toggle VoiceOver on Jen's phone when needed, which has been really useful for us when she is driving and needs me to read directions.

I still hate iTunes, but thankfully, I rarely have to use it. I manage music and other audio on my phone using the iPod manager component for my audio player, foobar2000, which is excellent and even transcodes files in unsupported formats on the fly. The iPod app is great, supporting gapless playback for music and automatic bookmarks for audio books and podcasts.

Other highlights:
  • Very nice email and web browsing experience.
  • Push notifications for mail, Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging.
  • Multiple calendars.
  • Skype on my phone, which is far nicer than being tied to my computer when on a Skype call.
  • Voice control, which works well most of the time.
  • Smooth reading of ebooks using iBooks.

Resultant to all of this, I find I spend far less time in front of my computer outside of work hours. Also, when I'm away from home, even on holiday for a week, I often just take my phone. Previously, I had to take my notebook almost everywhere.

Like all things, the iPhone isn't perfect. I still dislike the walled garden, and I have to live with transcoded audio and can't use my iPhone as a USB storage device because of it. I am definitely slower at typing on the iPhone than I was on the numeric keypad on my old Nokia 6600, although perhaps surprisingly, I'm probably faster on the iPhone than I was on the Xperia X1. There are definitely bugs, some of which I encounter on a daily basis and are very annoying.

Even so, I love the iPhone. I'm willing to make some sacrifices, and I can live with bugs that are at least consistent and easy enough to work around. On the rare occasions that VoiceOver crashes, I can easily restart it with a triple click of the Home button. I wish I'd gone for the iPhone in the first place and not wasted so much money on the Windows Mobile solution, but ah well, live and learn.


  1. Jamie, to me the most striking point of this saga is the difference in attitude between Apple and the vendors of Windows Mobile.

    Accessibility is built into the iPhone at no extra charge. In the world of Windows Mobile, Mobile Speak is $315 extra and requires ridiculous measures to keep the license in force. (Reinsert the SIM card every 12 hours? Are you kidding me?)

    Even if Mobile Speak had worked flawlessly, those pain points are reason enough to get the iPhone instead.

    Accessibility shouldn't be an add-on. It should be available to everyone all the time.

    When any vendor doesn't meet that expectation, take your business elsewhere just as soon as you can. If at all possible, do it immediately.

  2. Jamie, I can sympothize. I was a Windows Mobile + mobileSpeak user. At the time I got it (2008) it was the best option. MobileSpeak was actually reasonably useful then, and most crashes seemed more to do with Windows Mobile 6 than it. (on an aside, I got around the muting problem where setting the phone to silent muted everything by using Microsoft VoiceCommand, using that to set the ringer to vibrate allowed the MobileSpeak volume to be unimpacted so I was not locked out of the phone. I mention it in case anyone is still using the platform.)
    But last year when MobileSpeak underwent a major upgrade to version 4, it seemed to take a step back, and my experience with it seems to mirror yours. At the same time my phone was aging and breaking, so I had to go for a new one. I went iPhone, as I believed Windows Mobile 6 to be antiquated, and I am always suspicious of a new Windows OS being accessible immediately. (As it turned out this was well-founded as Windows Phone 7 is not accessible. We could probably write an entire blog post about how this is unacceptable; inaccessible OS's in 2011, accessibility should not be a new concept by now. But I digress...)
    The iPhone has been the most accessible phone I have had. That said, Apple's level of control on it, and closed platform can be a frustration. I do not need to customize every little feature, inreality I want to call, email and text and check the news when traveling. So my requirements are not huge. However, when things do not work right it'd be nice if one could fix it. Case in point, I just got a new iPhone as I changed carriers. The new one running iOS 4.2.6 has an issue where it does not automatically connect to my bluetooth-enabled Braille display. My previous model did automatically connect. Now, to connect, I must go six levels deep into the settings to click the Connect button, each time I press the power button. This makes Braille impractical for what I use it for: reading a recently received SMS, etc., which I like to use braille for especially in noisy environments that drown out VoiceOver. As iOS is so locked down, I cannot fix it myself. I am not sure exactly how I would fix this even on Android, however, I would like the opportunity to try, at a minimum by being able to create a script that runs when the phone is switched on to go reset the braille connection.
    I also have found the touch interface surprisingly efficient for navigation when you know where icons are. And they do not move. When I first heard about the iPhone I thought: well that interface will never work for me. As it evolved and Apple added accessibility I see that yes it can be done. Apple should get points for being innovative and creative. I'd like to see some of the techniques adapted elsewhere such on my Windows machine, as the spacial relationship information could be useful I think there as well. That said, there is still work that can be done, from making typing more efficient (I still think a physical keyboard is the best option but I'd welcome the opportunity to try a version of Swype), to making the Braille auto-connect again.

  3. @3.14159rate: While I mostly agree with the sentiment of going elsewhere if accessibility isn't satisfactory (which is precisely what I did in this case), for me, there are also other principles to consider. Going iPhone was a really hard choice for me because of its closed, walled nature, and as I noted, that's actually one of the biggest reasons I didn't go iPhone in the first place.

    @Travis: Certainly agreed re Windows Phone 7. That's one of the reasons it didn't even get a mention in this post. I may have a rant about that later. :) Regarding your desire for touch accessibility in Windows, you might be interested to know that we've done quite a bit of investigation about how to integrate touch accessibility into NVDA. Unfortunately, despite many attempts and hacks, it seems the Windows 7 touch API just isn't sufficient for that kind of functionality yet. We've contacted Microsoft about this and they acknowledge the defficiency, but have no ETA on when (or even if) it will be addressed.

  4. I just got a new Android less than two weeks ago.

    Accessibility is on it, but you can't do lots of stuff without getting Mobile Accessibility, And still, after you get Mobile Accessibility, the accessibility isn't that great. I'm even more sure I'm gonna get an iPhone - I've heard great things about it. I didn't get it yet because my wireless carrier doesn't have it. I'm thinking about cancelling my contract and switching carriers.

    I agree with all of you. Accessibility shouldn't be something you have to pay for! That's why I support NVDA! Great job with it!

    1. This is one of the best post about accessibility with mobile phone that I have read.
      What is the state of art now?
      I have no experience with android, for now I'm using an old nokia n82 as phone, and an Ipod4g for made all things.
      So I have the power of IOS and the confortable nokia keyboard for make call.
      the difficult thing was having the ipod4g connected without wireless, but I discover that after having made jailbreak, you can download an app that allow ipod to use bluetooth for connecting, so my n82 is becomed a great modem!
      Do you have some news about Android?

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