Access all areas — why even Apple needs to rethink regarding accessibility

The recent Flipboard discussion and my ongoing issues with OS X Yosemite and accessibility brought to mind a piece I wrote for the dearly departed MacUser last year. It’s still very relevant (sadly), in part relating to major accessibility issues I’ve been writing to Apple’s accessibility team about since 2012, and so I’m republishing it here.

 

Apple might be a tech champion when it comes to accessibility, but it still has blind spots and a propensity to frustrate by using accessibility settings as a fix for contentious design

Perhaps the most laudable goal throughout Apple’s history has been a desire to make its products accessible to everyone who wants to use them. A combination of technological leaps and advancements in understanding wider user needs has resulted in astonishing accessibility controls lurking at the heart of OS X and iOS. Chances are, if you’ve poor vision, hearing or motor control, you’ll still be able to use Apple’s products. Given that you interact with an iPhone by pawing at a pane of glass, it’s quite something you can do so even if you’re unable to see the interface.

But for all of Apple’s success in terms of accessibility, the company still has work to do. It stubbornly retains an odd and frustrating tendency to erect barriers that make the going tougher than it needs to be for many users. It’s unclear why this is the case, but recent changes to iOS and OS X suggest a combination of ignorance and arrogance.

With iOS, Apple created a mobile operating system second-to-none when it comes to accessibility. A quick glance at relevant options in the Settings app compared to the equivalents in vanilla Android show just how far ahead Apple is. And yet when iOS 7 appeared, many users found it made them feel sick and dizzy, because of excessive zooming and swiping animations that could not be disabled; others complained of headaches, due to the brighter, starker interface.

On OS X, similar balance/motion concerns have existed since OS X Lion, and elsewhere the ‘iOSification’ of OS X has introduced further problems: ditching scroll bar arrows has made things tough for some people with motor issues; the upcoming OS X Yosemite includes transparency that dramatically reduces contrast for many interface components, bringing to mind ‘trendy’ (i.e. unreadable) grey-on-grey early-2000s web design; and several updated apps boast toolbars with tiny hit areas, meaning they can only be dragged if you have the dexterity to precisely aim and grab.

But perhaps the most disturbing trend is Apple’s inclination to seemingly use accessibility settings as a kind of band-aid for questionable and divisive design decisions. Not happy about iOS using a spindly font? Change that in accessibility! Hate the fact you can barely read menu items in OS X Yosemite’s dark mode? Change that in accessibility! And so on.

It’s hard to argue Apple should adjust the default state of everything that could potentially reduce accessibility. The swooping, zoomy nature of iOS 7 provides a sense of place if it doesn’t make you throw up, and Yosemite’s revamp has generally gone down very well (at least with anyone who’s forgotten about Mac users laughing at Windows Vista’s transparency seven years ago).

However, if Apple won’t make smarter design decisions and avoid giving into the temptation to sometimes push the shiny over the usable, it should make the means to adjust irksome pain-points more readily available and not bury them in a System Preferences pane or Settings section relatively few people are aware of. For remaining issues, Apple must be faster to address concerns. It’s great iOS now boasts a ‘Reduce Motion’ option, but unacceptable OS X doesn’t after several major revisions, nor properly old-school scroll-bars for those who truly need them.

If accessibility is a checklist, Apple still ticks more boxes than most, but the list is huge, and some of Apple’s nagging reminders date back to 2011. It’s time ‘access for all’ really meant that, especially when the changes would barely affect the majority yet improve the OS X and iOS experience for many thousands of people beyond measure.

February 18, 2015. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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News from the future: iPhone 7 and #straightgate

TechRadar reports that curved phones are amazing. This baffles me slightly. Perhaps this is the point where I’ve hit number 3 from Douglas Adams’s rules regarding people’s reactions to technology:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things

The arguments in favour of curved displays are that they’re more comfortable for your hands and face, and, according to TechRadar, more immersive for video. Although quite how immersive the latest Hollywood blockbusters can be even on giant smartphones is clearly up for debate.

The author adds:

The general public might still need some convincing, it might even need Apple to jump on board before curved screens really become popular

I’m sure many tech blogs are eagerly hoping Apple does this. The all-new iPhone 7, “now with a beautiful curved display”, which Jony Ive can talk about while locked in his white room. And then, approximately eleven seconds after someone gets their hands on one, #straightgate, where it’s shown that bendy iPhones become entirely flat when introduced merely to the slightest breath (and possibly also a car’s tyres and the weight of said car).

Sounds great.

January 12, 2015. Read more in: Apple, Technology

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Brits: no you’re not being ripped off by revised App Store pricing (yet)

Predictably, I’ve seen some whining and entitlement online today as people react to Apple’s ‘rebalancing’ of EU pricing, which was presumably done to fall in line with revised EU tax laws. I’ve seen commenters say the new prices put them off, make it so it “might be time to start jailbreaking”, and, naturally, are a huge rip-off compared to US prices.

I don’t have a complete ‘before and after’ list of tiers and pricing in front of me, but here are some of the changes at the lower end of the scale in the UK store:

  • Tier 1: 69p > 79p
  • Tier 3: £1.99 > £2.29
  • Tier 5: £2.99 > £3.99

Some of the changes aren’t small, and this isn’t the first time the UK’s seen price rises, but Sterling is currently quite weak compared to the US dollar, and UK VAT (20%) is higher than the flat rate Apple was previously using for apps in the EU (15%).

So how do these prices compare to the USA?

  • Tier 1: $0.99 or 65p (compared to 79p)
  • Tier 3: $2.99 or £1.97 (compared to £2.29)
  • Tier 5: $4.99 or £3.29 (compared to £3.99)

That does indeed look like a bit of a rip-off, but US prices do not include sales tax. Here’s what happens when you add on 20% VAT:

  • Tier 1: $0.99 US / 78p (compared to 79p)
  • Tier 3: $2.99 US / £2.37 (compared to £2.29)
  • Tier 5: $4.99 US / £3.95 (compared to £3.99)

So unless Sterling rallies and manages to claw itself some way above $1.60 any time soon, UK iTunes prices are now basically the same as US ones once VAT is taken into account. And given who’s currently in charge of the UK’s economy, that seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

(Note: last night, the App Store in the UK was kicking out some seriously weird pricing for a lot of apps. This was apparently due to an App Store bug that was applying two lots of VAT for a short period of time. Additionally, devs apparently have to accept new terms and conditions for the price changes to happen, and so some apps in the EU remain with old pricing.)

January 9, 2015. Read more in: Apple

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The new MacBook Air rumour is the new iPhone 6 rumour

9to5Mac has got the Mac world talking about the new MacBook Air. Its report says the new laptop will be thinner and ditch all but two ports: USB and headphones. The former port will be a USB Type-C connector that almost no-one’s using at the moment. 9to5Mac adds:

Additionally, the latest specifications from the USB foundation indicate that USB Type-C can actually be used to power computers, which makes the standard MagSafe plugs unnecessary on this new device.

By contrast, the current MacBook Air has two USB 3 ports, Thunderbolt, a headphone socket, and MagSafe 2. (The larger model adds a slot for an SDXC card.) So if 9to5Mac is to be believed, Apple is going to remove one USB port, Thunderbolt, and MagSafe 2, in order to thin the thinnest laptop that’s ever thinned.

Although Apple’s never been shy in ruthlessly ditching ports and the like (both ADB being replaced by USB on the original iMac, and also getting rid of optical drives spring immediately to mind), this seems like a step too far. One USB port for everything—charging, connectivity—seems over the top, even for Apple. And ditching MagSafe is effectively a downgrade, given that Apple laptops would once again potentially be hurled across the room if someone stumbled into the charging lead when it’s plugged in.

So there are three possibilities here:

1. Apple’s decided no-one really needs to plug anything in any more, because Wi-Fi and Bluetooth is everywhere, and too bad for those that do. And it doesn’t care if your laptop gets a free flying lesson while it’s being charged.

2. The same as 1, but Apple will also announce a ‘magical’ new version of MagSafe that combines USB Type-C and some sort of magnetic attachment doohickey, assuming that’s possible.

3. The rumours are all utter bollocks, like the one last summer that said Apple would ditch the headphone port from the iPhone 6 and force everyone to use Lightning port headphones instead.

I know which of those options I’m putting my money on.


 

Update: Judging by the response on Twitter, quite a few people reckon this is a legit ‘leak’. Of my options above, I’m not discounting #2, but reckon that would be a big jump, even for Apple. If we get #1, that says things about Apple that aren’t at all positive.

January 7, 2015. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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The Panic report — on App Stores and revenue

The latest Panic blog post provides insight into the previous year at one of the best developers for Apple software. In 2014, Panic released a bunch of new things, including Transmit iOS — an app I believe defines the platform.

However, the more interesting part of the post goes into some depth about the challenges Panic faced, most of which were down to Apple. Without iOS upgrades, the company felt forced to issue Prompt 2 as a brand-new app (and was relieved there was no backlash); Coda left the Mac App Store, because Apple’s restrictions are too severe; and Transmit iOS lost and then got back iCloud export, in part due to a PR shitstorm — countless sites helpfully pointing out how asinine Apple’s decision had been.

Apple always argues “running to the press” is just about the worst thing a dev can do when an app is hobbled by a rule Apple might have just made up without really thinking it through, but Panic’s not alone in saying

the “bad PR” version of the app dispute process is monumentally more effective [than dealing with it offline]. Which is a shame.

And it is. This should be food for thought for Apple, as should Panic’s final challenge: low iOS revenue. Although units sold in November 2014 were roughly even across OS X and iOS, the revenue split was 83/17 in OS X’s favour. Panic had some thoughts about why:

1. We’re not charging enough for our iOS apps. Or Mac users are simply willing to pay more for apps. Or both.
2. We’re not getting the word out well enough about our iOS apps.
3. The type of software we make just isn’t as compelling to iOS users as it is to Mac users. Our professional tools are geared for a type of user that simply might not exist on the iPad — admins and coders. We might have misjudged that market.

I’d agree with 1 — although this is common with cross-platform devs, given that most price iOS apps way lower than OS X equivalents, even if they’re broadly similar —but make an addition to 3: yet. As in: “Our professional tools are geared for a type of user that simply might not exist on the iPad — yet“.

It strikes me that an iPad and keyboard remains a great set-up for doing website work, especially when away from home. But Panic’s trailblazing — the iPad still hasn’t really found its place for a lot of people, and many professionals inevitably drift back to Macs after flirting with the iPad for a while. (Personally, I want to use mine more, but I’m simply more efficient on the Mac, and with writing rates having been stagnant for a decade now, the speed at which I can write and edit copy is important. I do far less web work these days, but the same’s largely true there as well.)

I’m not sure what the solution is to Panic’s complaints and grumbles, but it should worry Apple that one of the best OS X and iOS developers is pulling away from the Mac App Store, rolling its own solutions rather than using the likes of iCloud, and mulling over the feasibility of any further ‘huge’ iOS projects.

January 6, 2015. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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