In accessibility. (UPDATED)

Ideologues of the two groups with the worst taste in computing – open-source and Microsoft – assail Apple for its “closed” system. (To these critics, truth and accuracy, like design, are frills: Windows is also closed; Apple isn’t entirely closed; both use open-source software. You can’t actually root or hack every piece of Android code, so it too is functionally a closed system.) Those ideologues have long since lost in the marketplace (also that of ideas). Consumers rightly value a beautiful, stable, safe, pleasant system that just works.

Even if you’re blind.

As of this week, the sole Apple product remotely resembling a computational device that is not accessible to blind people is the iPod Classic, which exists mostly for classical-music lovers with massive libraries of recordings saved in lossless format. The Classic is so old its operating system probably cannot actually be upgraded to include VoiceOver. The second-last holdout in its lineup, Apple TV, is new enough that it can be and was.

As it stands now, every Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad has VoiceOver and other accessibility features built in. (So does Mac OS X Server.) A blind person can use any of those immediately without sighted assistance, with the proviso that iPods and iPhones first have to be synced to iTunes – an admitted weakness, but iTunes is already accessible via VoiceOver, Jaws, and Window-Eyes.

What’s the competition doing?

  • Android phones have some accessibility software, some of which you have to download from your carrier’s online store. (But how, if you’re blind and can’t use the phone, let alone the store?) There is no built-in screen reader and Android phones are not accessible out of the box. They aren’t very accessible at all no matter what you do, it is claimed.

  • Windows Phone 7 has a few trifling accessibility features but no built-in screen reader. “Keep pushing for accessibility[!]” one desperate critic exhorted.

    Windows Phone 7, we were told, is a “fundamental top-to-bottom rewrite from previous Microsoft mobile operating systems.” […] Microsoft told us it was not technically feasible to build the infrastructure needed to support screen-reading software – no multi-tasking capability, no inter-process communication, and no user-interface focus.

    The biggest software company in the world could not build a screen reader into a brand-new system with no legacy code. (UPDATE [2010.12.14]: At a meeting with blind organizations, “Andy Lees, president of Microsoft’s Mobile Communications Business, accepted responsibility, saying, ‘We were incompetent on this.’ ”)

  • Windows 7 isn’t accessible by default (Narrator notwithstanding), nor was any version of Windows, nor will any version of Windows ever be.

    Some defiant Stockholm-syndrome blinks continue to insist that “Apple isn’t accessible,” having apparently accepted the genteel apartheid of spending money on a computer you can’t use only to spend more money on a screen reader to remedy the issue. (Then the screen reader crashes.) These are the kind of blinks who appear on endless episodes of BBC’s In Touch complaining their iPhone or iPad doesn’t work like Jaws, hence must be broken.

  • Is this a systemic problem at Microsoft, a company with a giant accessibility department and a senior vice-president of accessibility? Yes, it is. Even after hosting a not-very-secret Kinect accessibility “roundtable,” you can’t use a Kinect if you’re in a wheelchair. (“Something for Everyone [sic]: Controller-free gaming means full-body play.” Apparently not.) And you can just forget about using the Kinect if you’re a Microsoft employee in an iBot.

(Fun fact! microsoft.com/kinect 404s. This too is emblematic of Microsoft’s design philosophy.)

Only one thing guarantees across-the-board accessibility

A commitment to it and an insistence it happen. Android and Windows have neither. Apple has both.

We can’t crown a winner in the accessibility race. There never was a race; only one company ever showed up at the starting line.

Now try convincing me that your righteous Freedom Zero principle, or handy shell access, or Outlook on your phone, or easy integration with an Exchange server somehow trumps leadership from the top. Bad taste has a cost people with disabilities pay.

UPDATE (2010.11.27): Microsoft employee Michael Kaplan says somebody somewhere told him that one time that Apple really isn’t hot shit in accessibility. Why do we even bother trying to talk to these people?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2010.11.25 13:37. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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