Picking up the pieces
in the last part, I covered much of the core Android experience. This included initial setup, the differences in user interface elements, and a clear demonstration of how both players in the mobile market differentiate their operating systems. There certainly exists a stark contrast, one which most people do not seem to recognize. This should not be the viewpoint of “which platform is better” or “more accessible”, since Android is maturing at an alarming rate and can offer some benefits which iOS cannot. Similarly, iOS has already matured to the point of only receiving less major accessibility tweaks on a yearly basis. As we will see throughout this section of the review, Android’s major hurtle right now is a clear lack of independent-living focused apps. While iOS has a wealth of camera, OCR, book reading, and productivity choices, Android is just getting started. A large problem is a chicken or the egg game, where the visually impaired community does not buy Android devices thanks to a fear of inaccessibility, and developers have a small target to create apps for. Consequently, neither side benefits, and a bias is developed which places Google at a disadvantage thanks to the promotion of Apple products as a superior manufacturer. This is one reason for my writing of this series; I wish to highlight that there is no clear winner when it comes to choice, and the only time one exists is if we fail to look beyond ourselves and see both sides objectively.
a large aspect to Android inaccessibility also comes from a lack of developer contact. As an example, I recently wrote the maker of an app called XM Play, which allows for the playback of xm and mod file extensions. The buttons in the application were unlabeled, and only guesswork could help with figuring out which button did what in which order. A day or two after my message, I received a response, ensuring me that the app would be made usable with Talkback, and that he will inform other developers of what I mentioned. Sure enough, two to three weeks later, XM Play became a fully usable product, and it only took a simple, kind e-mail and a willing developer to make it work.
Apps which have major accessibility issues exist on iOS as well. Spottify, while usable with VoiceOver, is not an ideal music playback solution, thanks to confusing sidebar menus and VoiceOver cursor tracking problems. As we will see, this app is a lot more usable on Android, so much so that with Talkback, it beats Google Music hands down. Similarly, in its current 6.0.1 version, Foursquare is only good for checking in and viewing one’s profile, not even reading the result of a check-in once complete. Yet on Android, checking in and reading the screen is not as complicated, making it a lot more useful. There exist good Twitter apps for both – Tweetings and Plume for Android, Twitterific or Tweet List on iOS – which offer a decent experience tweeting and reading tweets. The awesome part about Android is that you have a fifteen minute refund policy, thus buying an app and then promptly returning it is not an issue. This means that you can venture out and explore hundreds of paid apps for accessibility, and if it doesn’t work as you thought it would, returning it is a breeze. GPS solutions are also a lot more advanced on Android in terms of features, and it is easier to create solutions tailored to the blind, such as the vOICe. Other times, including in the case of Evernote, iOS wins hands down. I use Evernote on my iPad on a daily basis to sync notes across my devices, and while the app is usable on Android, a smatter of unlabeled buttons make it confusing to the point of being unusable.
Google Voice makes Android shine when it comes to integration and the power of a more transparent OS. Unlike the iOS counterpart, you are able to integrate the service directly into your phone application, allowing you to make calls through Google Voice and keeping them synced across your devices and the web. It can even help forward your voicemail to Google Voice, allowing for a visual voicemail experience for some. This sadly did not work for Verizon customers, but it might for other U.S. and international carriers. Since Apple limits iOS developers on their abilities to integrate into other core system apps, those users are at a clear disadvantage. Asides Google Voice, the Fleksy keyboard is another great example, as well as other useful tools which can gain access to deeper parts of the system. With great freedom comes great responsibility, however. Let’s take a look at how Google handles apps, and compare this to the model used by iOS. Our first stop is…
what is the Launcher?
Taking into consideration that this is the start of our journey, our first point should be the launch one. I know I know – you probably wanted to see something more exciting here.
When you first turn on a device, whether iOS or Android, you are placed on a home screen. This is known in the iOS world as the springboard, whereas Android calls it a launcher. They both accomplish the same task: Presenting a view of your content in some form, whether apps or other information. The home screen on iOS cannot be replaced, whereas Google’s users have a plethora of choices to go for. Some of these, such as the Facebook home screen, place the social network’s content on this screen, while others such as Apex Launcher provide a more accessible way of accessing apps. A launcher does not necessarily have to be a screen of apps. Take Mobile Accessibility by CodeFactory, which provides an interface tailored specifically to the blind. The app contains its own launcher, which is the starting point for the suite it offers. These include messaging, contacts, calendar, web browser, an alarm clock…
One launcher I personally used for a while, especially back in the gingerbread days, was launcer7. The name comes from Windows Phone 7, as it provides a grid of icons which is scrollable from a left-to-right fashion. At the time, this was very useful, because I had an iOS-esk home screen, where all apps were on one single page that was scrollable with the arrows. The main launcher of Android does not place your app collection front and center. Instead, you drag apps to the home screen, and can have up to 5 pages of applications. The apps button, located in the center bottom portion of the screen, opens up an “app drawer” which contains all of the apps you own.
Talkback users, beware!
those who use Talkback should pay particular attention to the customizations made by companies on their experience. Some, such as Samsung and HTC, often use their own overlay. As of this writing, HTC seems to have major accessibility issues with their Sense user interface, while Samsung is actually very accessible with their Touch Wiz. For those who have problems, using a different launcher is a major relief, because it is a central part to how a phone feels.
The Google Play experience, versus Apple’s tunes
as mentioned in Part I, both Apple and Google offer a store where users can buy into the ecosystem of apps and content. For Google, this is collectively known as the “Play Store”, and for Apple, the iTunes store. Curiously enough, while there are two apps on physical Apple devices separating the two, the iTunes store is integrated into one massive website which includes apps, music, TV shows, movies, books, tones, Google takes a more unified approach, providing only one single play store application where content can be purchased. They also offer a “Play” series of apps to compliment the store: Google Play books for books, music for music, movies and TV for… Well, I’m sure the rest is predictable. Apple tends to use iTunes in front of their brands, evidenced by the recently released iTunes Radio which is coming in iOS 7. There are also major differences between the ways both operate when using them.
don’t like it? Get your money back! For a limited time!
this is one advantage Google does have over Apple’s store, and it applies to installing apps. Often times, developers will not create an accessible application. This problem can occur on iOS and Android, and results in unlabeled buttons, unclickable buttons, or worse yet, apps which only present one giant blank screen. Should you encounter such tragedies, you can uninstall it after fifteen minutes of your purchase and no charges will be applied to your account. This is enough time to at least see the basic navigation of something, and know if it is worth the precious $5 price tag.
Apple has a more complex policy. You can call them if you encounter an inaccessible application, and in most cases they will refund it if it sounds legitimate. This requires that you uninstall the app, call Apple, wait, and hope that you talk with someone who is willing to provide a refund for your purchase.
Button 79, unlabeled.
when it comes to inaccessible apps, Android is clearly ahead of iOS. They have the greatest selection of unlabeled buttons for you to choose from, coming in different numbers and sizes. When Talkback encounters such elements, it automatically assigns it a number. Some might say that this is not completely “inaccessible”, as even on iOS there are apps with odd labeled buttons or images. The problem for Google comes in with the way they are assigned. Each time you switch away from an app or even go to another part of it, the button number is re-assigned to a different one. Don’t like that your unlucky number was assigned to the play/stop button in Winamp for Android? Simply open up a list, such as the settings screen, and watch your unlucky number turn into maybe a winning lottery digit. To be clear, this is a problem with Google’s Accessibility framework, not with the apps themselves. Talkback users have long sought for a graphic labeling option such as the one in VoiceOver, where you can double tap and hold with two fingers to reassign a label with the button.
Cases where apps are more Accessible on iOS
this is one of those must-have apps for me, and perhaps for many others. Skype allows you to have conversations with millions of users, often across the globe. It is quite enjoyable to be able to call someone in a different country, or even talk to your professor sometimes. It also has options for purchasing subscriptions, which can be used with calling others on the phone. You can even buy yourself a phone number to call others from inside the application and use it as a phone service.
the interface of Skype is quite simple on iOS: You have tabs for people, recents, profile, and for calling phones. Everything works as it should, and dialing numbers to call is a breeze. You can also accept contact requests and handle chats very well. I do not wish to provide a full review of Skype or every app I speak of here, as that would be time consuming and might even drive you, the reader, crazy. Still, basic information is useful, especially when it comes to the accessibility aspects of each.
On Android, Skype is a disaster. I have come close to throwing my Nexus 7 across the room in frustration because finding the buttons is so difficult. Unlike its counterpart, the tabs are not on the bottom, but seem to be near the top right corner of the screen (at least on the tablet). Here, you have 3-5 buttons to choose from, one of which is a call phones button, another that lets you search for a contact, and one more which allows you to add a phone number you enter into your contacts when you do manage to activate the “call phones” button. Which, depending on your memorization skills, could take up to a hundred years. On top of this, when an incoming call does arrive, the answer/decline buttons are unlabeled. Hint: Don’t hit the first one, it’ll drop the call. When swiping, you can swipe right and choose the second one to accept your call.
this is less ideal, and it makes Skype be a chore on any Android device. Skype has not returned my e-mails and tweets mentioning the issue, however I sincerely hope that someday in the near future, we will see this one work the same on both platforms.
The Kindle app
Ah, the most favorite part of my college career. Reading textbooks. Most of the time, my office of academic Access does provide me with my books after proof of purchase, sending them in PDF or HTML formats. Other times, I either have to use audio books or a Kindle/iBooks version. This has only happened to me one time, so it is not a frequent occurrence, however it is worth mentioning for those who do need to use such e-text providers.
Recently, Kindle was made into an Accessible application on iOS, and Amazon has committed themselves to providing accessibility not only for their app, but also for their Kindle device. Which, I should point out, do run Android. Yet the Kindle app is still unusable with Talkback. From my experience, you can access the store and even make purchases, but when it comes to reading books… Good luck.
Doing this on iOS is very simple. Once you begin reading a book, you can move your finger through the text just by sliding it around on the screen through each line. You can even highlight text, which is very intuitive and can come in handy when creating annotations you wish to come back to. This is done through a double tap and hold gesture near the area you want to highlight, after which you can flick up/down to select text edges. VoiceOver will even repeat your selection if you pause for a moment. This shows a true dedication by Amazon to the blind, one which I hope will transfer over to the Kindle app on Android. Carrying a seven inch tablet versus my iPad 2 would be so much nicer during those times when I’m on vacation or just want to relax in the sun.
What other alternatives are there on Android?
if you are just looking for ePub and Mobi books to read, there exist several accessible applications which can provide you with a good experience. This is provided that they do not just include pictures of pages, as many Epubs tend to do. They have to be DRM protection free, and sadly Kindle books are tied to your account with this mechanism. The good news is that you can illegally strip the DRM out of Kindle books, with such tools as… Uh, wait, should I be encouraging this?
Either way. Whether you managed to strip a Kindle book of the protection or have your own Epub/Mobi/PDF text, you can use Go Read to access it. It also has Bookshare support, and was designed specifically to be accessible by that company. Other apps include Moon + Reader (which also supports .mobi formats), Cool reader, PDF To speech, and mantano reader. All of these appeared to be mostly accessible from my testing, and are good alternatives for any student wishing to use an Android Device for their work.
my favorite note-taking application is sadly not accessible on Android. Evernote is a great tool, which allows you to create notes and sync them across all of your devices. This way I can have my schoolwork push to my Android tablet, iOS iPad, and iPhone, and can even export them to an e-mail form if I wanted to. I can add such cool things as voice memos inside a note, along with geotags so I know which college building I took them in. It is nothing short of a stellar creation, and I have ditched the default notes app in iOS for it. Everything is very VoiceOver friendly, including the recording of memos, sharing of notes, and even some of the formatting tools. It really shines on the iPad, where things such as popup menus are used to present available choices.
On Android? Nothing. There are numerous unlabeled buttons, and I struggled to find the one which allowed me to create a new note. I have also contacted Evernote to see if they would be willing to resolve this problem. Similar to Skype, memorizing the numbers of the buttons is impossible, because every time you hit one and are brought into a different dialog, backing out will cause them to change once more.
What other Alternatives are there on Android?
this is a tough one. I have tested Google Keep, and can echo several people’s opinions of how well it works. Google Keep is similar to Evernote, and allows for the syncing of notes between devices and through a Google account. This makes it a bit more integrated than Evernote, as you can use one account for the service. Notes are backed up to Google Drive, which means that if you map a Google drive in Windows as a network one, you can access notes right from Windows Explorer. I will not go into detail on how to do this, however you can take a look at SME Storage for more information on the service.
Keep also allows for the transcription of Voice Memos into text, which is a very nice feature. Unfortunately, there is a time limit on this. This means that as a professor is speaking, the note will be transcribed to the best of the server’s ability. I found this feature to be a bit less ideal in lectures, because of the echoes which make things distorted.
The interface is well labeled, however there are a few things which make me only recommend this app as a low alternative. You can only delete notes from the main screen, not inside the note. Selecting multiple ones is a bit difficult, as whether one is selected is not announced. The worse part of this is a lack of Bluetooth Keyboard support. While you can attach one, I experienced a great disappointment from a lack of talkback’s announcement of what is being typed. Moving the cursor left to right or up and down also yielded no results.
Apps which are more Accessible on Android than iOS
Good news to those who like letting the world know where they are at all the time. Foursquare has a greater chance of usability on Android. With iOS, it contains an “open menu” choice, a button that needs to be hit every time you wish to move to a different part of the app. Want to view your profile? You must push that annoying button before you can click on the profile choice. Furthermore, the screen’s contents are not announced after checking in. This aspect of inaccessibility also migrated to Android recently, and in general Foursquare is at a landslide with respect to screen reader usage. On Android, finding the check-in button is nearly impossible, however accessing your notifications is easy to do when you hit the button near the top with a number (typically this is how many notifications you have). There is no odd menu you need to open.
By far, this is one of the strengths which makes me come back to Android for music listening. Although Spotify is not terrible on iOS, the Android version is very accessible. So much so that I canceled my Google Music subscription. This is another app on iOS which decided to use the weird “open sidebar menu” choice, where you have to tap just to get access to what you would like to do. On Android, this also exists, and you have to tap an unlabeled button which is located after your menu choices (Friends, settings, Playlists, what’s new, radio). Unlike the iOS app, the android one lets you tap a song (once you find one), and add it to a queue of songs you wish to hear. This is an awesome feature which is also present in the desktop client.
what did you expect? Google’s own application is a lot more accessible on Android than iOS. On an iPhone, I experienced crashes with the new hangouts app, along with many unlabeled controls. This is what replaced Google Talk. Furthermore, VoiceOver does not read incoming messages in conversations, unlike Talkback which announces these as they come in. Everything about this could be an iMessage/Facetime competitor, if only if it would work on Apple’s devices as well.
Solutions to commonly missing Apps on Android
while it is great to have a breakdown of apps which work on one platform but do not on the other, it is also important to take a brief look at those which exist on both in different forms.
OCR and scanning tools: A win for iOS
this is one area in which iOS wins, hands down. Android has very few apps which allow for text recognition. For iOS, we have Prizmo, Tap Tap See (which does very cool object recognition), Text Detective, and more. Each of these gets the job done fairly well. Text detective will continue to re-scan with the camera until it finds any form of text, whereas Prizmo uses a more standard camera interface for taking the picture. Tap Tap see, on the other hand, was able to even recognize handwriting when the camera was directly pointed at it. This opens up an exciting arena for text recognition, because handwriting has always been a challenge for many programs. It also provides descriptions of objects, such as food and boxes. In theory, it could open up a way for independent grocery shopping, provided that you wait the extra 5-10 seconds for it to recognize text.
For Android, we only have Google Goggles for the scanning of objects. It brings up results after it takes a picture, and does have a neat feature which will bring up a textbook in Google books if the text is recognized to be from part of one. Its object recognition is very limited, however. Only barcodes are scannable, which can be difficult to find for a blind user.
the vOICe for Android: A win for Google
One wonderful multipurpose tool is the free vOICe app, developed by SeeingWithSound. It uses tones to create a soundscape of the camera, where color and brightness are represented by volume and tone pitch. The application also features face detection, where pictures can be taken similar to the way they work on iOS with the announcement of faces. There is also a GPS and Compass built in, which will announce street names as you pass them. Muting the camera feature is possible by double tapping the center of the screen, and this way it could also be used as a simple GPS application.
GPS on both platforms
Android does have more choices when it comes to using navigation apps, and for some this might be a good deciding factor. Asides the mentioned vOICe, Walkie Talkie (by the Eyesfree project) provides pedestrian directions through the Google Maps service. It will also run in the background and alert you of street name changes, though I have always found the vOICe better at this with timing. A full-blown solution does exist on Android, called Nearby Explorer. This combines even navigation functions, location, and very powerful mapping features. One of these is the ability to point your device in any direction and find out what is nearby in that area up to a certain distance, making the understanding of the environment much more simple and intuitive. Unfortunately, it does cost around $100, as it includes maps for offline use. This means that it can even be used when a data connection is not available.
on iOS, there exist both mainstream and blind-specific products. I have used Navigon in the past, which provides the turn-by-turn solutions and offline maps for use with VoiceOver. With the new turn-by-turn directions in both Google and Apple maps, this might not be a necessity, however it can come in useful as a more full-fledged GPS application. It costs anywhere from $20 and up, depending on the region you wish to purchase. In conjunction with Ariadne GPS or Sendero’s lookaround app, the combination could be a pretty decent GPS solution for these users. Those who are transitioning from Windows Mobile or Symbian, where there existed blind-specific tracking products might not be satisfied with this answer. When it comes to GPS accuracy, the built-in chips on both the iPhone 5 and most new Google devices will support very accurate location feedback. Glonass, the latest satellites created by the Russian government, is supported on the iPhone 4S and above, along with most android devices from 2012 onwards. My Droid 4 had this capability, and it offers for quicker and more accurate information, since there are many more satellites to work with.
Text to speech Voices
Tired of Google’s low-quality voice? While the default engine (called Google Text to Speech Engine) is very audible, it does have the disadvantage of not being the highest quality or fastest. Android does allow for developers to create their own engine, and for this reason, we have 4-5 choices on the market. Acapela is a well-known maker of TTS engine, and their voices are available for $3 a voice, which is a very reasonable price. Ivona also offers their voices, though from my experience these tend to be more unstable and slower in responsiveness when compared to acapela. The SVox classic TTS is most prone to crashes, but also has natural sounding synthesis. Finally, for those who are a fan of open source, ESpeak can be installed, allowing for the use of over 70 languages.
in stark contrast, iOS does not offer voices to be replaced. Nuance’s vocalizer is used for VoiceOver and other application which use text to speech. In iOS 7, Vocalizer Expressive will replace these, allowing for somewhat more natural voices (though similar sounding to iOS 6). Some applications allow for the use of built-in voices. Prizmo is a great example of this, as well as other book and text readers. Neither iBooks nor Kindle allow for the purchasing of different voices. These come in the form of in-app purchases, and can be only used inside that application. Thus, if you have 4 apps each with its own purchased voices, space limits could become a problem quickly.
On Android, voices are changed through the settings>Language and input> text to speech settings. The changes are applied universally to all apps which use TTS, including talkback. You can change rate, from very slow to very fast. Pitch control is not possible, and in most cases, the engine itself will provide for settings in its own way. This can take the form of a “settings for Acapela TTS” in the tts options screen, or through a dedicated app on the home screen.
other apps and considerations
what a long journey and review. I hoped to have provided enough information here which highlights the accessibility of apps and services on both of these platforms. Some, such as Pandora for music radio playback, Shazam for music tagging, and IM+ for instant messaging work well on both of these platforms. Others have problems and require alternatives. As a student, it is very important to me that I receive productive benefits from both Android and iOS. It is quite possible to do so, as apps exist on both side which can allow for at least note taking and data input, along with reading of text material. In either case, neither can be used for “serious” writing, such as the creation of research papers. The Pages app on the Apple side is not perfect for this from my experience, and its lack of document syncing makes it more inconvenient when trying to access information on multiple device types. Similarly, no fully functioning note taking software exists for Android. For shoutcast broadcasting, there is now Coala-san for iOS, which allows for a full-fledged system for being a semi-professional DJ. Android is not in the dust, however. Broadcast myself does the same, and even allows for content from an SD card to be streamed. This highlights a potential negative in iOS, which is the lack of file management and for apps to access common database for everything, such as music. This is where Apple is still improving with each iOS version, however Android’s use of SD cards allows for a more desktop-like experience. Astro File manager is decent for browsing content on both SD card and internal memory. At the same time, hiding the file management experience from a user can help for some who just want to get things done.
For Twitter, Tweetings is a very good client on Android, along with Plume. The ladder has many more unlabeled buttons, and some report an inability to log in to the Twitter site through it. Twitterific, Tweet list, and the official Twitter client all work on an iPhone well. There certainly exist more solutions for iOS in this area, though maybe other Android clients could be usable if people tried them.
Conclusion and final observations
why did I exhaust myself and write this over 5000 word review? Combined, I have just written over 7000 words on the subject matter of accessibility in Android and iOS.
My answer is simple. I would like people to realize the strengths and weakness of both operating systems. For some, my covering of apps the way I did might not give justice to this; For others, this is enough material to help in making a decision. What I have written here is not even close to covering a wealth of content and apps usable on both, nor is it meant to be a replacement for app reviews. Such material will never exist, because apps change so rapidly that accessibility fluctuates between working and being broken every week for each. This is why I did not want to go into great detail and condemn something, only to have it take a complete turnaround the next week.
Ultimately, Android is facing a major problem with a chicken or egg scenario, as mentioned before. Google has finally invested a lot into making accessibility decent, when it comes to accessing on-screen elements and touch gestures. Companies such as Firefox have improved on this by adapting the Firefox browser to work very well with talkback, making it even better than Chrome which ships by default on most devices.
iOS is also facing a problem, with having too many users who rely on it only because of accessibility. People have higher standards for it, and if something breaks, those bugs impact many more users. This is why VoiceOver is only seeing minor tweaks in iOS 7, since making a complete change or instability update would cause a large group to complain and feel hurt. Google, being the “infant” when it comes to starting with their accessibility roadmap, has an advantage of being able to experiment and shape usability directly from feedback given to them on the eyes-free list or other sources. They do seem to take this feedback seriously, and respond to large outcry of feature changes by altering or reverting an act. This is, of course, one disadvantage Apple has.
I truly hope that writing this has given you, dear reader, and a greater perspective on which platform is right for you. I will continue to provide smaller reviews, should the game of accessibility change.