A recipe for iOS 7: revolution with an access flavor

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

As we're approaching Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference which is to be held on June 10th, I thought I'd put together a list of the features I want to see included in iOS 7. After all, iOS 7 is to be unveiled there and everything points to an overhaul. Honestly, it's not really easy to suggest new access-oriented features for a well-polished operating system like the iOS as it already has advanced accessibility offerings. So, with that in mind, let's get started.

1. Please make sure accessibility isn't broken

Even the very mention of this might make some readers cringe. After all, Apple's iOS and its in-house apps have always been nicely accessible without any functionality compromises. Apple has proven that it's possible to integrate accessibility into the core of the operating system and get third-party developers on board without running the risk of lagging behind schedules or taxing developers with extra responsibilities. This is more important if we consider that Apple's competitor, Google, doesn't follow the same guidelines as far as accessibility is concerned -- take a look at this to see what I mean.

But as I mentioned earlier, iOS 7 most probably will undergo major changes and maintaining accessibility here and there will be more of a challenge this time around. Not that it's not doable; rather, it just requires more diligence.

2. The new capacitive Home Button

If we're to believe that the next iPhone is to use a capacitive Home button along with a fingerprint reader instead of the familiar physical Home button, it would be interesting to see how it's to be properly linked with VoiceOver. Essentially the visually impaired depend on this button to enable/disable VoiceOver, go to the App Switcher, move to the Home screen, etc. Not that these functions have been exclusively designed for VoiceOver users; rather, as the button has always been physical, Apple should take extra care not to break its ancillary functions.

3. A TTS upgrade on the horizon?

Let's face it: Apple is now providing Nuance's multilingual Vocalizer with the iOS free of charge -- including all of its important features such as automatic and manual language switching, on-the-fly rate modification, etc. However, to say that the TTS department doesn't need an upgrade is sort of an understatement.

First, I've never been able to get along with Vocalizer's US English voice, Samantha. It has a wide range of extra speech artifacts and strange intonation patterns which make listening to longer passages (such as books or articles) unbearable. Since no TTS engine can match the true multilingual status of Vocalizer, switching to something like, say, Ivona for its superior American English voices might not be feasible. However, Apple can now switch to the updated Vocalizer, Vocalizer Expressive. Nuance describes the engine this way:

Nuance's Vocalizer Expressive is a new generation of text-to-speech solutions that enriches the user experience with enhanced expressivity. Improved multilingual support and optimized readout of long text enable high quality speech output for a variety of applications ranging from automotive and consumer electronics to assistive technologies and industrial applications.
It now has more American English voices such as Ava which, to my ears at least, sounds better than Samantha. This updated engine is also available for NVDA as a commercial add-on.

Second, even if Compact voices are supposed to survive the iOS update, a better mechanism should be provided to manually download Premium voices. The current background downloading of these voices is murky at best. Also, one should be allowed to download two or three Premium voices; in other words, the "one Premium voice" limitation should be abolished to make reading in foreign languages easier.

Third, it's about time Apple introduced a pronunciation dictionary for its TTS engine. Now that we can access ebooks from a wide range of sources under the iOS umbrella, having to put up with commonly mispronounced words has become more than an annoyance.

4. A more efficient text input mechanism

Apple has purchased Syntellia, the company behind Fleksy for an undisclosed price! Wait, this is wishful thinking on my part. Also, in order for VoiceOver to be equipped with Fleksy as its global keyboard, there's no need for Apple to acquire Syntellia -- Fleksy can be licensed easily according to what its makers say. In short, as fantastic as Fleksy is, nothing like integration with VoiceOver can truly propel its overall usefulness.

5. Better text selection and highlighting

This is an area with which I stumble from time to time. Simply put, I can't easily select text in many apps like iBooks to use the built-in iOS dictionary. That is, it works but in many instances something else gets selected. I've seen it happen to other iOS users in iBooks, so its accuracy can be enhanced in iOS 7. BTW, many developers are of the belief that if they want to add VoiceOver-based text selection and highlighting in their apps for look-up purposes, they'd rather devise their own approach as taking advantage of VoiceOver's current approach is rather unreliable.

6. Offline voice typing

OK, this is not directly related to accessibility; but since I've seen its usefulness on Android I want it. With Android 4.1 and up, one can download the required files for offline voice typing and then perform voice dictation without being connected to internet. As trifling as it might sound, it can be a boon to one's typing capabilities -- it also makes voice typing faster.

7. Bug fixes would be equally helpful

To just name a few pestering ones:

  • Navigation by "heading" doesn't work consistently in many apps.
  • Focus no longer automatically moves to the main editable text box when using the Messages or the Email app.
  • Focus gets lost from time to time upon flicking left and right in many apps.
  • Navigation around the Results text box of Siri via word or line is cumbersome especially when Wolfram|Alpha is used to fetch results -- focus jumps to the beginning of the text box after a couple of tries.
Of course, the best place to see a comprehensive list of bugs on AppleVis is here.

In conclusion

So do you think I've omitted important or highly desired features in my list? If so, what access features do you want to see incorporated into iOS 7? If not, any thoughts on my own not-so-comprehensive feature list?