The Accessible iPhone 3GS


On 19/June/2009, Apple Inc. released the new iPhone 3GS, the third iteration of its popular wireless handset and mobile computing platform. Most of the countless reviews from journalists and the technically savvy have praised it as a solid and welcome evolutionary release, but not necessarily a revolutionary one. For one group, though, this is unquestionably a revolutionary device.

As touch screen technology has continued to infiltrate modern life, vocal members of the visually impaired community have had mixed reactions. Some have decried the technology as inherently discriminatory, and that it should not be used in consumer electronics. Others have simply been concerned that, with the snail’s pace at which access technology innovations come, low- and no-vision users would find themselves left behind. And still others, like myself, have vocally voiced the opinion that, sooner rather than later, this technology would be available to the visually impaired, and that, like it or not, we will have to adapt to it. A virtually identical debate arose twenty years ago with the advent of graphical user interfaces, (GUI), and a large percentage of the VI community feared being left behind then, too. Today, the vast majority of blind computer users are happily productive in Mac OS X, Windows, or Gnome LInux.

With the release of the iPhone 3GS, Apple has released not only the most powerful in its line of iPhone handsets to date, but also the worlds first gesture-based screen reading solution, as well as the first screen reader that relies solely on touch screen user input. VoiceOver, first available for the version of OS X that runs on modern Macs, has been integrated with the iPhone with elegance and style, and with every decision of its usage carefully considered.

Going In

Before receiving my iPhone 3GS, I carefully read and reread the information provided on Apple’s web site, both on their Accessibility pages and the iPhone How To pages. Doing so before receiving my iPhone was the best thing I could’ve done. Touch screen technology, let alone a gesture-based screen reader, are entirely new experiences for the visually impaired. Understanding how the phone and VoiceOver operate before using one can eliminate most of the frustration a user might encounter when sitting down with the phone for the first time. Of course, you need an open mind as well. As with anything else, if you go in having already decided you can’t use the iPhone successfully, chances are you’re setting yourself up for failure. This is a mistake many made with GUI’s, and that some are making again with the iPhone.

So How Does It Work?

VoiceOver on the iPhone works remarkably well. Responsiveness is virtually instantaneous, and the spoken announcements do not lag behind your fingers touch. Intuitive audio cues offer additional feedback that further increase the speed at which you can operate the device.

There are two basic methods of operation for VoiceOver. One involves sliding your finger around the screen and allowing VoiceOver to announce what you’re touching. Double tapping the item you are touching, or else tapping a second finger down on the screen while touching it, will activate that item.

The second method involves quick flicks of your finger toward the left or right to move systematically from one item to the next on the screen. VoiceOver users on the Mac will find this method similar to the very basic VO-Left/VO-Right navigation commands. When navigating this way, simply double tap anywhere on the screen to activate the item that currently has focus.

After nearly a week with the iPhone, I’m finding that I use a combination of both methods, depending on the situation, though I lean heavily toward the "touch and tap" style. While the interface is strange at first after more than two decades on a PC keyboard, it quickly becomes second nature. The usage and interface are very fluid, and layout conventions are often quite similar from application to application, so once you understand the common screen configurations, you’ll find that you are able to use new apps more and more quickly.

For example, most applications that want you to have instant access to several different screens of information provide a row of buttons across the bottom of the screen that act much in the way that tab controls would on a desktop computer. In the Phone app, these include "Favorites", "Recents", "Contacts", "KeyPad", and "VoiceMail". Tapping any of these will take you to the relevant screen, and VoiceOver will even indicate which is currently selected. This type of layout extends into many third-party applications as well.

There are a number of other gestures available to the VoiceOver user, two of the most useful of which are the flick up and down ones. These can act differently depending on the current situation and the VoiceOver rotor setting.

The rotor is a virtual dial which can be…well, dialed…anywhere on the screen. Imagine that you have placed two fingers on a physical dial, one on each side, say at the nine o’clock and three o’clock positions. If you were to turn that dial, one of your fingers would naturally move up, while the other would naturally move down. This is the motion you will use to move the rotor control. THe nice part is, you can use fingers or thumbs from both hands, which is sometimes more convenient.

Turning the rotor allows you to change the setting for the flick up/down gestures. If you’re editing text, for instance, this will switch between moving character-by-character or word-by-word through the text. However, if you are on a web site, you will be given a whole hosted of options to move via headings, form controls, links, and more. Regardless of the setting, the left and right flicks will always move you from item to item on the screen. This only applies to the up and down flicking gestures.

What About Typing?

Typing is certainly the one area that will require the most getting used to. There are a variety of methods one can use for typing effectively on the iPhone, and it will largely come down to personal preference. This is true for phone with physical QWERTY keyboards as well, though, and not a drawback by any means. Early on, I found myself gravitating toward the landscape keyboard in the apps that had it available, due to the fact that it was larger. Now, I am typing almost exclusively on the smaller portrait-style keyboard.

I started out sliding around the keyboard to find the keys that I wanted, then tapping with a second finger to enter the key. This worked well and I found my speed increasing. However, in the last couple of days I’ve found that this is unnecessary, and there is a faster and better way.

While holding the phone in both hands with the device in the portrait orientation, (meaning it is taller than it is wide), I can simply use a thumb to touch the key I want to enter, an use the opposite thumb to tap the screen to enter it. You will rapidly develop the muscle memory to know where the keys are, and find yourself sliding around the keyboard less and less. After switching to this method, I can now type faster on the iPhone than I could on my Samsung Blackjack 2 with its physical QWERTY keyboard. Practice is key. Be prepared to spend some time really becoming comfortable with typing on the phone.

What About the Included Apps

The iPhone comes with a large number of apps already installed on the phone. These range from the relatively simple Phone application to make calls, to the Safari web browser, and beyond. All of the apps are extremely accessible with VoiceOver and are fun to use. Did you ever want an accessible stop watch? You’ve got it. What about a talking calculator? You’ve got that too. The extensive functionality of the phone right out of the box is fantastic, especially given that everything works beautifully with VoiceOver, something that could certainly not be said for any other phone with built-in accessibility features.

Browsing the web with Mobile Safari is a very different experience from browsing the web on any other platform. I recommend resisting the temptation to do so until you’ve become at least marginally familiar with the basic operations of VoiceOver and the iPhone itself. Once you understand how it works, it is a compelling browsing solution that offers both a sense of context and visual layout with the touch-and-tap style of navigation, and also the more linear approach of the DOM, (Document Object Model), style of browsing using the left and right flicking gestures. There is absolutely no question that this is a far superior browsing experience over my previous usage of MobileSpeak Smartphone and Internet Explorer on Windows Mobile devices. In fact, I’ve probably done more browsing in the last three days on my iPhone, than I did in the year and a half I used MobileSpeak.

And What About All Those Third-Party Applications?

It’s still early days for the visually impaired users of the iPhone, but I’ve frankly been astonished by the number of third-party applications that are accessible right out of the gate. Like on the Mac platform, Apple has built accessibility into the operating system, which results in a high likelihood that an app will be compatible with VoiceOver with no special work at all on the part of the developer. Some apps, such as Facebook and Pandora Radio, are even offering visually impaired iPhone users a far superior experience over their browser-based interfaces.

To date, I’ve tried and kept NetNewsWire, the Facebook application, Twittelator Pro for Twitter, IHeartRadio, Fring for instant messaging, and even a few games that, much to my surprise, worked quite well with VoiceOver.

What Doesn’t Work

Like with anything else, there are always going to be things that don’t work the way you’d expect. At present, the iPhone’s new Cut/Copy/Paste functions are not available with VoiceOver. This is not as big of a deal as it might seem. The sighted community of iPhone users didn’t have that functionality for two years, prompting many applications to employ other methods for getting information from point A to point B. After a week with the phone, I have yet to run into an occasion where the lack of Cut/Copy/Paste was an actual nuisance. Some users have written to Apple, and it seems they are aware of this issue, so I expect we’ll see a fix for it in an update.

In some third-party apps, the flick left/right gestures will not always move properly through the controls on the screen. It appear that VoiceOver is not being notified of the changes to the screen. This, too, is easily worked around. So far, every time I have experienced this behavior, the touch-and-tap method of navigation still worked flawlessly. In any case, I’ve only seen this problem in a couple of applications.

Is the iPhone Right For You?

No device is going to be absolutely perfect for everyone. Some will continue to be adverse to the whole idea of a touch screen. Others will insist upon the familiarity of a physical keyboard. If you fall into one of those groups, the iPhone won’t be right for you.

For those willing to take some time to learn an entirely new and innovative interface, the iPhone will likely live up to, and far surpass, your expectations. The number of third-party apps, and the fantastic extent to which they are already accessible, means that the iPhone is a device with virtually limitless possibilities beyond its already impressive feature set.

The Future

In an industry that has been stagnant at best, or years behind modern technological innovations at worst, VoiceOver on the iPHone stands out as an enormous leap forward for accessibility. Apple has embraced the notion of UNiversal Access, and has come to the table with fresh minds and new perspective. I think that a vast array of blind and visually impaired individuals will not only accept and benefit from the iPhone, but find it to be a rewarding and productive platform.

With the world’s first gesture-based screen reader and wholly accessible smart-phone out of the box, Apple is paving the way for the future of access technology. In a few years, I predict that the VI community will agree that the iPhone was the single biggest game changing piece of technology for the assistive tech industry in modern times, just as it has been a game changing device in the mobile phone market.

Oh…and Apple? I can’t wait to see what’s next.