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Thursday, March 30, 2006

The iPod and Apple's Barriers to Accessibility

Yesterday, I engaged in an email conversation with an old buddy from the blindness community with whom I hadn’t communicated in well over a year.  We got a bit into the old Windows v. GNU/Linux/Macintosh discussion and which may emerge as the next accessibility leader.

We agreed that, today, with an excellent collection of AT products in all categories, Windows had a substantial lead.  We then commiserated over the recent announcement that UI Automation (UIA) would not make it into the first Vista release and that AT products must continue to rely on MSAA.  As new applications will use various Vista enhancements for which there will be no MSAA, the first year after the Vista release could be pretty rocky for those of us who depend upon AT to do our jobs, get an education or just enjoy computing.

The GNU/Linux discussion went a bit differently.  We agreed that the gnome accessibility API certainly could provide an excellent amount of information to an AT product but as few applications exist to really exercise the framework, how will we know if it is usable – another chicken and egg problem.  We also questioned why it seems that, at every CSUN, the open source people have a few new demos of AT for gnome but never seem to release anything beyond an alpha test version.

This year, both IBM and Sun showed off new alpha test screen readers for the GNU/Linux platform.  Sun has ORCA and IBM has a program described by three initials which I can’t recall at the moment.  Neither talked about gnopernicus so I guess that project died on the vine.  This leaves me with the question, “Because both programs are open source and both are targeting the same platform, why do we have two alphas and zero betas?”  Why can’t we all just get along?  How many more years until we hear something described as a “released” screen reader for the gnome desktop must we wait?  How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?

The open source world seems to have more screen readers than users.

Finally, we get to Apple.  I really like some of the people working on their screen reader very much and don’t want to trash it as I don’t want to continue to stamp on the toes of old friends.  I will just suggest that anyone interested in it read Jay Leventhal’s article in Access World (I think it appeared in the December edition) and try to give it a whirl at an Apple salon shop at your local mall before committing to using it.

Thus, the recent future seems pretty murky.  Personally, I’ll stick with JAWS on Windows because it will not require me to learn a whole new platform and the idiosyncrasies associated with it.  I know which applications I can use and I know who I can call if I’m in a bind.

The discussion of the major platforms led us to talking about handhelds and, specifically, the “no blind person need apply” iPod.  With a variety of different accessible portables ranging from talking cell phones to the iPAQ to PAC Mate, BrailleNote and some others with accessible interfaces that can play most, if not all, multi-media formats, why does Apple remain so completely bigoted against us blinks?  Don’t the hipster blind kids have the right to destroy their hearing by playing 50 Cent at an ear shattering volume?

So, why is the iPod Inaccessible?

Let’s start by looking at some of the highlights of Apple’s history.  In 1984, Steve Jobs walked out onto the stage at a Boston Computer Society (BCS) meeting.  He placed an original, 64K, single floppy disk Macintosh on a table, clicked a few things and then stood back.  Although I lived in Boston at the time, I did not attend this event but I’ve seen it on video many times.

“Hello, I am Macintosh,” said the robotic speech synthesizer inside this oversized lunchbox with a screen.  The Macintosh, through what we later learned was the MacTalk synthesizer, continued to describe itself as Jobs stood proudly on the stage next to his baby at its first public performance.

The attendees at this general meeting of the BCS sat silently, awed by a computer who could describe itself.  Jobs went on to show the audience a WYSIWYG word processor, a paint package and a few other little doo dads that he could launch by swapping a few floppies and clicking his mouse.  The 1984 audience found his performance vexing and, by the following day, the buzz about Jobs’ new miracle machine had conquered the entire Boston/Cambridge nerd scene and the gossip grew louder each day until a few people got their hands on actual first run Macs.

To those of us with an interest in accessibility, Steve Jobs’ performance at the BCS meeting had an entirely separate impression.  The Macintosh that Steve showed the world that night included the first standard issue software speech synthesizer.  This, we thought, would rock the world.  The earthquake of excitement slowly dwindled to a mild vibration and then to silence.  While the Mac had a major screen reader component built in, it exposed so little information as to render the synthesizer useless for most real blindness applications.  I know, outspoken for the Mac came along but the screen reader later to be acquired by Alva and, more recently, permitted to die a lonely death, felt like using JAWS with only the JAWS cursor or Window-Eyes with its mouse cursor.  

Later on, as my vision deteriorated, I didn’t know about programs like JAWS and the accessibility on Windows but I did remember that Macintosh had a built in magnifier (CloseView) and a synthesizer.  So, with the help of a Mac hacker friend of mine, I set out to create my own screen reader-like utility that, with CloseView running at 10-16X magnification, I could actually use (very inefficiently) the Internet, WordPerfect and Eudora.  My utility wouldn’t win any technology awards as it simply copied selected text to the clipboard and then spouted it out through the synthesizer.  This solution, crufty as it may seem, provided me with good enough computer access to take creative writing classes at Harvard University and to keep in touch with friends and family via email.

Then, a friend of my family who also lost his vision to RP, told my dad about JAWS, Window-Eyes and the Windows solutions.  Bob (my dad) bought me a Gateway laptop, a copy of Window-Eyes and sent it up to our house in Cambridge.  My wife struggled, with the excellent assistance of Mike Lollar on the telephone, for about three hours to get Dec Talk Access 32 installed without bothering the pre-installed virus protection too badly.  I thought I had found heaven.  Within six months, it was bye-bye Harvard and hello Henter-Joyce and my full time pursuit of access technology.

So what happened to Apple between the time it showed off the first computer to ship with a standard speech synthesizer and the release of its iPod?

If you have followed the business side of the computer industry, you probably have noticed that Steve Jobs got fired and replaced by that guy from Pepsi.  The soda guy got fired and was replaced by Gil who, in turn, got fired and replaced by Steve Jobs.  Throughout all of this, Apple would create some really innovative concepts and then kill them before letting them hit the market.  They built things like the Newton about a decade before the technology had matured to a point it could be commercially viable and they floundered listlessly without a real leader at the heart of the organization.  Thus, the return of Steve meant joy in Macville, ding dong the corporate witch was dead and the dreamer had returned.  The rainbow colored Macintosh logo glowed brightly once again.

Steve Jobs, though, had learned a lot about business while in exile at NeXT Corporation and other disasters.  He had learned about saving money, cost cutting and not going too far from the path to relatively certain dollars.

One of the first moves Steve made upon his return furloughed the speech team.  Some of the most talented people in speech technology lost their jobs (none had trouble finding employment elsewhere) because, according to an official statement issued by Apple on that day, “Speech technology is superfluous to our mission.”  I remember reading this article and feeling my heart fall into my stomach.

More recently, in a move typical of Apple, they reversed direction and started a reconstituted speech team and the synthesizer and voice command control in OSX is really quite good.

Why, then, can’t an iPod talk?

Because Apple doesn’t want it to.

Why doesn’t Apple want the iPod to talk?

Ask Steve.

Is it technically feasible for an iPod to talk?

At last, the crux of the biscuit, from the very first iPod released a few years ago to the fanciest one out there today, all had more than enough compute power and storage (with zillions of bytes left over) to run a speech synthesizer.  Having walked through the iPod interface with a sighted guide, I can also state quite clearly, that offering the interface as a self voicing application would not challenge the talented Apple engineers to much.  Including a full talking interface, would definitely add to the “cool factor” of the device as sighted and blind users alike could keep the iPod in their pocket and navigate to their Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd folder quickly and easily without diverting their mind numbed, 120 decibel charged gaze away from whatever they had been staring at.

Effectively, the iPod has no accessibility features because Apple thinks of accessibility well after anything else they design into their products.  Speech in an iPod would have been relatively cheap and easy but Apple thinks of “cool” first and nerdy ideas like universal design just isn’t cool.

So, I cringe every time I hear the term “Pod cast” on a blind person’s web site.  Well before the iPod, an Apple trademark, we blinks enjoyed all kinds of streaming audio on the Microsoft platform using Windows Media Player, Real Player, WinAmp and other programs.  Today, we have the PAC Mate, Braille Note, iPAQ, a whole pile of cell phones on which screen readers run and probably other products I’m forgetting to use to listen to music, books and other information while out and about.  Why then do we insist on giving Apple a free advertisement for a product that might as well have a sign saying, “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” hanging on it as far as we blinks are concerned.

I’m also dubious of anything containing the word “pod” that doesn’t refer directly to food.  This comes from the classic Sci-Fi thriller, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” not the remake but the 1950s original.  In the movie, the townspeople disappeared one at a time to be replaced by replicants (who had that zoned out look of an iPod user on their faces) who, perhaps not coincidentally, grew out of giant pea pods.  Are Steve Jobs and Apple snatching the portable music lovers of the world and replacing them with mindless servants of their corporate goals?  Am I one of the last townspeople left running around to spread the information that Apple employees come from outer space and intend to conquer our planet?

Afterward

Sorry for the fairly lame posts the past two days.  I had little time to write so I depended heavily on material I could draw from other news items.  I do think both items described important events but I didn’t do much to add any color or useful commentary to improve on their value.


8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent article Chris! Most of your observations and conclusions are quite insightful. I would, however, like to offer counterpoints to others in the near future. For today, please note that the Jay Leventhal article you cite has so many factual errors that I, personally, do not find it to be credible. So much so, that at the time it was written, I made the effort to objectively document some of the mistakes. http://home.adelphia.net/~bmss/vo/aw060505fix.html

11:55 AM  
Anonymous DanC said...

Apple has dropped the accessibility ball so many times over the last ten years that I believe they're not interested in playing the game.

I also wouldn't worry too much about the near future of Vista accessibility. The corporate world will not rush to adopt the new OS for quite some time, and that should give the AT vendors enough breathing room to catch up. I'm pretty sure. Maybe.

2:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article!
May i suggest the iriver h series of mp3 players, the discontinued h120-h140, with 20 gig and 40 gig hard drives respectively and the i think still available h320 and h340. I own the h340 and the folder layouts similar to windows explorer, thus buttons could be memorized to go to different folders, tracks etc. There is also an open source software program being worked on called rockbox, a replacement for the player firmware that lets you use pluggins to play other file formats as well as wav/mp3/ogg. The h140 version of rockbox is very very good in terms of accessibility, you can add voice files so that the menus speak. Unfortunately the h340 version which is what i have is a little less developed then the 140 ver but is still quite good. You can also choose to use the iriver firmware if you don't like using rockbox which is a nice choice and a good feature to have.
Just my thoughts, thanks!

9:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The irony of the whole iPod/iTunes thing this is that it is all so simple. Adding voice prompts to an iPod will not require redesigning the hardware or changing the distinctive and very effective user interface which is very good and the primary reason for it success. Here is what needs to be done.

Port the Mac TTS software to run under the iPod OS, This can be done, they got the thing to play video; they can do this.

On a software upgrade install this software and a single voice.

When you first start up the iPod after the software upgrade, or if you buy a new one it asks you if you want to hear voice prompts, If you answer no, they go away. Hearing voice prompts would be just one of the preferences. If yes, then each time you highlight a menu option with the controller the unit would speak the words that were highlighted.

There is another very good reason for having a voiced interface to the iPod. People use these things all the time while driving. I know they shouldn't but they do and they will and we all know it. As it stands now a driver has to take his eyes off the road to control the iPod. With a voiced interface a driver could control the iPod while still paying attention to the road. Having a voiced interface is a safety feature.

Perhaps a better lawsuit would be that the iPod caused and accident resulting in the death or injury of someone, all because there was no voiced interface. Some ambulance chasing lawyer could have at that.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Rob said...

Hi Chris, unfortunately there is one error that I caught in your post.
Microsoft's new UI Automation accessibility model IS part of Windows Vista. It is supported by their new Avalon developer framework and is already included in the alpha releases of Vista.

1:05 AM  
Anonymous Danny Iland said...

Through the iPod Linux project, there is a way to get a port of the program flite from Linux running on iPod, known as portable flite or pflite.

This allows an iPod to read selections.

The downsides:

Requires an installation of the admittedly beta iPod linux.
Difficult for a VI user to install initially.
Slow, and decreases the iPod's battery life when used.

Apple could easily impliment a text to speech engine on iPod, but as you said don't seem to care...
If you want to know more, email me @ dannyiland@gmail.com

11:08 PM  
Anonymous AlastairC said...

I'm not convinced that an iPod does have sufficient power for a text-to-speech function that computers and phones have.

Also, it seems that Apple are investigating (in fact, patenting) methods of creating a text-to-speech interface.


Probably not for accessibility reasons, granted, but it's an interesting approach (using the computer to create the speech, which is simply read out by the iPod).

4:13 PM  
Anonymous Jacob said...

Hello you all. I would like to add that Rockbox does have a limited text to speech reader implemented for all generations of the ipod so, therefore it is plausible. It does exactly what you mention, and reads menus as well as song titles. The problem is, Rockbox as well as ipod linux not only is difficult to install (on a 5g ipod, it requires erasing your hard drive), they have limited or nonexistent support for DRM meaning the ipod music store. This is annoying because as a musician, I support the theory of DRm, but in implementation it means, that certain features are not fully implemented because the creators of the content don't want it to be open source for fear of hacking (or at least that's what they say).

10:17 AM  

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