Commentary: iOS versus Android: two models for achieving access

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Thursday, 14 July 2011 11:40am

The release of iOS 5 beta 3 with Assistive Touch has sparked discussion in the social media space about Apple’s ongoing commitment to accessibility. In light of this, we take a moment to look at the different approaches to accessibility that Apple and Google have taken in their mobile operating systems.

Apple has a long history of including assistive technology in its products as standard features, and at no extra cost. This history started with the inclusion of accessibility features in Mac OS X, and has continued through to their mobile operating system, iOS.

VoiceOver, Apple’s screen reader software, first appeared in iOS 3.0 in June 2009, two years after the first version of iOS (and the first iPhone) was released. Apple used VoiceOver to do what many thought was impossible at the time – make a touchscreen interface accessible for people who are blind or vision impaired. Along with this sophisticated gesture-based screen reader came other accessibility features like Zoom (digital screen magnifier) and white on black for increased contrast. Features such as mono audio and support for captioned video also made the device more accessible for people who are Deaf or hearing impaired.

Apple listened to feedback from the community and continued to refine the accessibility of iOS in subsequent releases. There were improvements to the method of typing on the onscreen keyboard when using VoiceOver and larger font sizes for mail, contacts, notes and messages.

The table below shows the progression of accessibility features introduced into iOS from June 2009 to present.

While Apple has focused on a steady progression of accessibility features, Google’s Android has been much more haphazard. There was very little accessibility prior to version 1.6, which was released in September 2009. Initiatives such as Project Eyes-Free and third party support from Apps4Android, Inc. and CodeFactoryhave led to improvements in accessibility.

Today Android devices can support a number of accessibility features, but there is a lot of inconsistency between which features are built-in or need to be downloaded, and some providers include more accessibility features than others. Ultimately, Android users will be able to access their smartphone or tablet to a degree through text-to-speech support and accessible web browsers and e-mail clients, or through the purchase of third-party accessible application suites, but general access across the platform is still limited.

The evolution of the two operating systems side-by-side poses an interesting question: does accessibility require the support of a major corporation, or can open source evolve to the same level? 

Fundamentally, they are two very different models. The model that Apple uses is one of a highly controlled environment where Apple chooses how much effort and how many resources go into making their products accessible. Open source software, such as Android, on the other hand is reliant on contributions by the open source community. There is a precedent though. Linux is a family of free and open source operating systems, and the open source community has developed some sophisticated assistive technology to work with Linux over the years. Android is certainly evolving rapidly, so it makes sense that its accessibility features may become as polished as those found in iOS or even Linux in the future.

But the fact remains that right here, right now, Apple’s iDevices are leading the way in the blind and vision impaired community. And with Android’s patchy accessibility, and access features for other mobile operating systems such as Windows Mobile 7 forecast to be at least a year away, there is very little competition and therefore very little choice.

With an estimated 650,000 Australians having a vision impairment, you might say that the market for more affordable and more accessible devices is wide open to Android... That is, if they can get their accessibility right.

So, as the iPad 2 and new Android tablets like the Motorola Xoom gather pace, it will be an interesting space to watch.

Time period Android accessibility features iOS accessibility features
Comparison of iOS and Android accessibility advances
June 2009 - December 2009

Accessibility support included in Android OS 1.6

VoiceOver gesture-based screen reader; Digital ‘rotor’ to change VoiceOver settings and access commands; Zoom, digital screen magnifier; White on black for increased contrast; Mono audio, combines left and right stereo channels into single sound delivered through both earphones; Speak auto-text, speaks text suggestions that occur when a words is misspelt; Option to practice VoiceOver gestures; Accessibility features can be toggled on/off by triple-clicking the home button.
January 2010 - December 2010

Accessibility support improved in 2.1, 2.2

Project Eyes Free evolved

IDEAL free accessibility tools created, including:

Accessible web browser

Accessible e-mail client

Spoken on-screen keyboard

Third-party magnification software

New way to use the onscreen keyboard (Touch Type) including practice mode; Adjustable font size for mail, contacts, notes and messages ; iBooks app released with VoiceOver support for eBooks and iBookstore; Rotor made visible for sighted users, plus added rotor settings; Search for text on webpage using Safari; Improved web navigation options; New VoiceOver gestures; FaceTime (iPhone 4 only) enables video communication via sign language.  
January 2011 - Present Third-party accessibility product suites available Support for specialised hardware LED flash and custom vibration settings assist Deaf or hearing impaired; Improvements to VoiceOver.


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