Archive for the ‘Applications’ Category

Osito

Osito looks like an interesting iPhone app, which pulls together important information about your day-to-day life so you have easy access to things like calendar events, traffic, weather, etc, tied together so that it’s relevant to what your doing.

They call it “predictive intelligence”:

Unlike other applications, services or even personal assistants, Osito learns what you need to know based on the information you provide it — including your location, updates from your calendar, email and your daily routine. This means that Osito can provide you useful, personalized insights like a heads up there’s a traffic jam 20 minutes before your usual departure time or a weather alert before you leave for a lunch meeting.

I love this kind of move towards providing intelligent, relevant information in order to assist you, rather than having to dig into individual apps and resources to find relevant information. There are massive accessibility gains to be had from this kind of approach, as anything which acts as an assistant can be so, so helpful. As a low vision mobile user, I find it really frustrating to have to dig around and find information while on the go. Standing in a busy street hunting for information on my phone is a horrible experience.

Shame I don’t have an iPhone at the moment, else I’d be all over this. And Google Now promised a similar productivity gain, but that’s not supported on my particular Android brick at the moment. It’s a shame that this kind of stuff is only available on high-end devices — a web service which does the same thing would be brilliant.

Apple continuing to innovate for accessibility in iOS6

Apple announced the feature-set of the upcoming iOS release yesterday, and I’m always interested to see the new accessibility features. And like with everything else Apple do, they’re not standing still in this area at all:

iOS 6 comes with even more features to make it easier for people with vision, hearing, learning, and mobility disabilities to get the most from their iOS devices. Guided Access helps students with disabilities such as autism remain on task and focused on content. It allows a parent, teacher, or administrator to limit an iOS device to one app by disabling the Home button, as well as restrict touch input on certain areas of the screen. VoiceOver, the revolutionary screen reader for blind and low-vision users, is now integrated with Maps, AssistiveTouch, and Zoom. And Apple is working with top manufacturers to introduce Made for iPhone hearing aids that will deliver a power-efficient, high-quality digital audio experience.

It’s easy to be cynical when Apple make a song and dance about how empowering their technology and software can be, like in this video aired at WWDC yesterday — but the fact is, this kind of thoughtful and inclusive application of technology does improve people’s lives.

The blind shooting the blind

If you were ever in doubt about how empowering technology can be for people with disabilities:

I simply gawped when one blind woman pulled out an iPhone then snapped a perfect shot, guided by the built-in Camera app.

Eventually a common theme became apparent: Apple’s applications — Calendar, Messages, Mail, iPhoto, even Maps and most surprisingly Camera — are completely usable by blind people. These applications aren’t using any kind of secret API sauce. They’re using the same UIAccessibility framework you and I have access to.

The meat of this article si less inspiring though, as it discusses the failure of so many app developers to pu the powerful APIs at their fingertips, to good use for creating accessible apps.

This seems to be a common theme, and something which desperately needs to change. I love this little snippet from this post:

Here, then, lies the answer to how to tell whether some developer you’ve just met (or are interviewing) is serious about their craft in five seconds flat: borrow their device, and triple-click the home button. If you don’t hear “VoiceOver on”, or get prompted about VoiceOver, consider that −3 points on the Steve Test.

Inspiring videos edited by kid with cerebral palsy

A lovely little article from the Verge about the videos created by a young boy who has cerebral palsy:

This is Christopher Hills. He’s an Apple fan. He also has cerebral palsy, and as you’ll see in the first video below, he can’t control his muscles easily. The incredible thing about Christopher, though, is despite that, he edited these three videos himself. Not unlike Stephen Hawking, he uses a single button to manipulate his computer, which he presses with his head, connected to a device called a Discover Switch.

As well as being very inspiring and life-affirming, these videos also highlight the fact that with the appropriate assistive technology and software which is accessible, wonderful things can be created by people who are severely disabled. Remember, this is a kid who uses a single switch to work with a video editing application: technology proving to be truly empowering.

“Accessibility is not a right; it’s a feature”

This .net opinion piece by Drew Neil is the most disappointing thing I’ve read about web accessibility in a while. The central argument is based around the idea of abandoning progressive enhancement to advance the evolution of modern web apps. I’m not opposed to exploring alternative development models to build online apps — after all, web apps can be very different beasts from a traditional web sites — but Drew takes it a step too far:

The web is composed of documents, mostly the written word. Accessibility comes practically for free, but only because of the intrinsic nature of text, and the accessibility features of the software with which we consume it. Since text documents are so readily accessible, we’ve come to think that everything else should be too.

Applications and documents are different. Accessibility is not a right; it’s a feature. The first features to be implemented are the ones that define an application and determine its success.

“Accessibility is not a right”.

Really? Are we still thinking like this?

I’ve watched the web community spend years working for good standards and improved access for people with disabilities, and when I read this kind of thing it really disappoints me.

Javascript and all sorts of other emerging web technologies can work so well in tandem with progressive enhancement, providing granular and selective control over content and features for different display and input devices. Not everything needs to be implemented, not everything needs to work the same. But by excluding accessibility as a feature entirely, you exclude the people who rely on accessibility standards and progressive enhancement to navigate the online world

By taking the view that accessibility is just a feature, you’re saying that people with disabilities are just not important. In my view that’s a very dangerous standpoint.

The distribution of iBooks 2 content

Yesterday, Apple announced the launch of iBooks 2, and an audacious initiative to modernise the textbook industry. As part of the launch, they also announced the release of iBooks Author, a free tool for creating and publishing eBooks.

I’ve not had a chance to play with it myself yet, but it looks like a very slick, well-made and easy-to-use tool for creating interactive books — something which has been missing from the market for far too long.

I’ve seen a fair bit of negative talk on Twitter though, mainly about the terms of Apple’s SLA and how books created with iBooks Author can be distributed. The short story is that if you’re planning to sell your publication, you have to distribute it through Apple’s store — you’re forbidden from distributing through any other means. Seems to many like a dictatorial move from Apple, but David Smith has an interesting take on this:

The real story here today shouldn’t be that Apple has ‘audaciously’ claimed ownership of the books make with iBooks Author but that they have created an avenue for non-commercial distribution that would exclude thementirely. That is actually unprecedented.

If I create a textbook using iBooks Author and then decide to made it freely available to the world (à la Khan Academy) I can do that without any restriction. Simple click ‘Export’ within iBook Author and the resulting file can be distributed by any means I choose and then loaded in iBooks. The mind boggles at what things may come out of this.

All Apple is doing with this restriction is saying that if you directly profit from this free tool and platform that we have created, then we deserve our cut. Which seems entirely fair to me.

And John Gruber has followed up on this with an interesting point about the HTML5 foundation of this iBooks format:

Second, it’s about not wanting iBooks Author to serve as an authoring tool for competing bookstores like Amazon’s or Google’s. The output of iBooks Author is, as far as I can tell, HTML5 — pretty much ePub 3 with whatever nonstandard liberties Apple saw fit to take in order to achieve the results they wanted. It’s not a standard format in the sense of following a spec from a standards body like the W3C, but it’s just HTML5 rendered by WebKit — not a binary blob tied to iOS or Cocoa. It may not be easy, but I don’t think it would be that much work for anyone else with an ePub reader that’s based on WebKit to add support for these iBooks textbooks. Apple is saying, “Fuck that, unless you’re giving it away for free.”

Worth noting that Apple pitched their launch event at the education market, and they’re probably already a long way down the road with making deals with educational institutions (Apple has a track-record of quietly making individual, private deals in the education sector). Amazon et al have had a massive head-start in the ePublishing sector, but none of them have been audacious enough (or powerful enough) to make these kinds of bold moves into education.

Apple are doing a very clever thing here: they’re making efforts to put iPads into the hands of young adopters. Talk about brand exposure!

The old print model just doesn’t work

In an article comparing the latest crop of paid-for newspaper apps, Rory Cellan-Jones picks up on what is lacking from a traditional approach to publishing on digital devices: He says of The Times iPad app:

What it does not do is take advantage of those things that online products can deliver which a paper cannot. Search, for instance, is absent – trying to find out whether today’s Times has an article on a particular subject means flicking through every section.

More seriously, the app is not a “live” newspaper – what you get each morning is the edition that went to bed about the time you did. Take today’s iPad Times for instance. There is a long article about Apple and the challenges it faces from rivals now that Steve Jobs is taking sick leave.

But not only does it quote a share price that is way out of date – the 6% fall at Tuesday’s NASDAQ opening – it also fails to mention the startlingly good results published at 2130 GMT on Tuesday evening.

This shows exactly why the old print model just doesn’t translate effectively to the digital world — modern-day journalism needs to be responsive; be more relevant.

News groups appear to be groping in the dark, unsure of what readers want from an app.

What readers want from an app is what readers have been getting from the web: searchable, relevant, up-to-date journalism and content. But they want that experience to be enhanced through the use of intelligent, intuitive design which digital devices can provide.

Publishers aren’t learning from the web

Oliver Bothwell ponders the current state of publication apps on tablets, concluding that publishers just aren’t learning lessons from the web:

And now it is quite easy to see why the media apps are failing. They are all difficult to navigate requiring too many swipes, flicks and scrolls to find things. Eureka has a lovely opening navigation and the magazines have contents pages but where are the search bars? Have they learnt nothing from the web? Where are the related articles, tags and comments. They are not taking advantage of the fundamental tools available to them. Instead they are creating gimmicky apps without any real substance. Media companies are changing but without realising what is their best asset, their quality journalism and ability to edit, which they sacrifice to fads and pointless interactive content. Newspaper and magazine sales are down because the internet allows easy consumption and access to lots of information; the only way to start making money is by championing this in their apps and combining with excellent user-interface and editorial design. At the moment there isn’t an app which is better to use than the newspaper or website equivalent and this should be worrying to an ailing industry. The approach is entirely wrong; it is not the content that is the problem, it’s the way it’s being presented.

I’ve, personally, yet to find a media app which feels “right” — even the very popular and innovative Flipboard doesn’t fit the bill, for the may of the reasons that Oliver flags up: too many swipes, no way to effectively filter and search.

Native iPad accessibility: is it enough?

I’m writing this on a shiny new iPad, having finally made the leap from laptop to tablet. I’m finding the experience generally wonderful & it’s certainly proving a much more comfortable and convenient way to navigate online spaces. I’ve yet to really get to grips with using the keyboard for any serious amounts of writing – touch typing is a while new learning curve – but I think practice will make perfect in the department.

One of the reasons I was keen to give this device a proper road test was to explore the accessibility features. I need to work up close a lot of the time and regularly use the built-in zoom tool on my desktop and notebook Macs. I also tend to vary the screen brightness depending on the task at hand and the lighting conditions. So seeing how I could adapt my iPad experience to make it as comfortable as I could was top of my priority list.

Being able to selectively zoom the whole screen using simple three finger gestures is great, and is a welcome complement to the two finger pinch-and-zoom functionality found in Mobile Safari. And being to invert the screen colours can be a helpful aid when contrast is making my reading or writing experience uncomfortable or tirimg.

Here’s an example to help you understand what I mean.

I’m currently writing this with the WordPress iPad app, which would ordinarily look like this:

The WordPress iPad app as it appears by default

I’ve tweaked the UI though, by switching to “White on black” through the accessibility settings – so my screen actually looks like this:

The WordPress iPad app, with the native "White on black" setting activated

It’s a simple, but really useful feature, which eases the strain on my eyes and makes for a more productive and comfortable experience. It’s not perfect though: the setting simply applies a filter to the whole screen to invert all colours. So although black on white, or greyscale interface elements like the keyboard translate well, the contrast of other UI elements is actually reduced. Just compare the “Save” and “Publish” buttons in the top of those previous screenshots for an example of what I mean.

These little quibbles are bearable when it’s just text-related content, but it becomes a very disorienting experience when it comes to using apps which feature more graphical and illustrative elements. Browsing my Twitter stream, as an example, shows everybody’s avatars in a strange, inverted x-ray fashion:

The iPad Twitter app, with the native "White on black" setting activated

Notice too that because the whole screen is inverted, the subdued dark background which frames the central stream is now hemmed in by two large zaps of light, which detract from the high contrast of the main content.

Page zooming is also great in many situations, but starts to have failings when it comes to creating content, as opposed to just consuming it. Using the WordPress app as an example again, the very clever screen zooming can start to prove cumbersome. The default text size in the app is pretty small, and can’t be changed. Ideally, I’d prefer to be able to zoom in on it while I type – look what happens though:

The WordPress iPad app using the native Zoom controls

Because the entire screen has been enlarged, the keyboard is now practically unusable. So, I just have to guess-type and proofread later on.

Of course, these are just restrictions of these particular assistive tools, and I’m trying to push them beyond what they were designed for. They’re assistive, and can’t be expected to fix the varied needs of different users for every application – one size doesn’t fit all.

But I think it does highlight the number of mainstream apps which are being developed without the consideration of simple, adaptive accessibility features.

Perhaps that’s because Apple have done such a good job of implementing OS-level accessibility: developers don’t see the need to worry about it, safe in the knowledge that at least a basic level of access will be baked right in. I also suspect that in some cases, it’s due to a certain amount of preciousness over pixel-perfect design treatments (and if you remember the terrible trend for pixel fonts on the web at the turn of the century, you’ll know just what kind of route to hell that can lead you down).

But I think it’s important for developers of these apps to consider extra features which allow users to adapt their experience to suit their particular needs or preferences. Simple things like allowing users to choose text sizes, change colour palettes, adjust white space and remove clutter are all simple and effective ways to allow more granular control, enabling the user to adapt their experience so that it’s more comfortable and enjoyable.

Twiiter for iPad is just one example of an app which could quite easily be improved in this respect. Twitter for iPhone allows me to change the font size for tweets throughout the app; but the iPad app is missing that feature, and I would really like to have it. It wouldn’t compromise the design of the app, but with that one simple feature, it would allow me to enhance my experience while using the app.

This post was prompted by the fact that I was considering a purchase of the iA’s Writer app, which is an absolutely awesome distraction-free writing application: simple, elegant and impeccably designed. But when I was trying to find out more about it, I noticed that all of the screenshots showed black text on a White background. I wanted to know if the app supported a setting for white text on black – I really don’t want to spend lengthy periods of time staring at so much whiteness.

Turns out that it doesn’t have that feature, but I bought it anyway because I can use the “white on black” setting built in to the OS – despite it’s annoyances.

But why not include that feature? Why should I have to use generic assistive features when more granular, app-specific settings would do a much better job? The lack of this kind of feature was almost a deal-breaker for me, but when I considered the alternatives, I decided that iA Writer was best-suited to my approach to working, even with the clunky white-on-black compromise.

But I think that summarises my point quite nicely: why compromise? Despite all of it’s little idiosyncrasies and faults, The iPad is a wonderful, enabling device. But I wonder if a lack of imagination amongst the developers of its apps might be stifling that enabling power for a huge number of people looking for a more assistive experience?

Notes

  1. I’m not singling out the iA Writer app for criticism here – I think it’s a wonderful application. I’m just using it as a real-world example of where I’ve had a desire for a feature which would improve my personal experience of their product. And the iA team were very forthcoming with feedback when I contacted them about it on Twitter.
  2. While writing this post, I found that the WordPress app was just too cumbersome and buggy for serious writing, and so switched over to using the iA Writer app in earnest instead. It proved a much more comfortable experience, and the default font size is just perfect for my needs: not too small, not too large. The distraction-free approach really does suit the iPad’s form factor and will prove to be particularly beneficial for many disabled users who are overwhelmed by the usual breed of text editors.
  3. As I’ve written previously, when considering accessibility features, it’s not just disabled users who benefit. Thinking of accessibility as something which only helps people with disabilities is very misguided.