A truly worthwhile application is to become accessible soon

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

If you're into words, you're always on the lookout for the best and the most decent vocabulary titles, word games, puzzles, and, last but not least, dictionaries. And you might want to take your treasury of words with you -- regardless of the OS you use. A good dictionary is the bread and butter of every logophile and having access to what many scholars deem authoritative is of utmost importance.

Ever since I purchased my iPhone 4S, I started looking for an accessible dictionary. Needless to say, accessibility was just one measure -- I was trying to pinpoint venerable dictionaries from respectable publishers (anything Oxford, Longman, Wepster, and so forth). Oh, and did I mention the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language? At the end of the day, the road was full of turns and twists.

In my quest I decided to go on a dictionary spree. I purchased New Oxford American Dictionary ($29.99), Dictionary.com - Dictionary & Thesaurus - No Ads ($2.99), WordWeb (free), English Thesaurus ($1.99), Advanced English Dictionary & Thesaurus ($0.99), and Concise English Dictionary & Thesaurus ($0.99). I wasn't insane -- I could have tried many more dictionaries before throwing in the proverbial App Store towel.

On the face of it, all of these dictionaries are perfectly accessible: Voiceover reads all of their controls and they can be navigated easily. However, all of them with the exception of the meager Advanced English Dictionary & Thesaurus ($0.99) suffer from what I call "excessive hyperlinking syndrome" -- check the app description for one of those dictionaries for more on that. In short, their definition entries consist of words which are linked to one another, thereby forcing VoiceOver to announce the word, "link," as it reaches each and every word! This means we can't listen to definitions as natural sentences and can't navigate around text on a sentence/control or definition basis -- only word navigation via the Rotor is supported. This hyperlinking is excellent for sighted users and they can easily look up words inside definitions, but just imagine how excrutiating it is for us -- VoiceOver users.

As I was jaded and wanted to put an end to my dictionary expedition, I decided to try my all-time favorite dictionary -- American Heritage® Dictionary — 5th Edition ($24.99 in-app purchase). My hunch was that it was plagued by the very same pestering problem. However, while my guess was correct, I was lucky enough to have contacted Enfour's support before my purchase. It's worth mentioning that it wasn't possible to test the dictionary without making the in-app purchase first. Anyway, having heard about that VoiceOver issue, they confirmed the inevitable. Sure I was frustrated, but that wasn't the end of my dictionary hunt.

Since Enfour offers a wide range of reference titles from big publishers in the field (they arguably have the best American and British dictionaries on the App Store), I was surprisingly told that they take accessibility seriously and that they'll make the American heritage Dictionary 5th Edition, which was published and released less than a year ago, accessible. To cut a long story short, I was even given a code which enabled me to test the app and provided feedback for that future accessible release. That goes back to some months ago and I know that they're now working on the first accessible release. While no timeline has been specified, I think that shouldn't take long before we can see that gem on the App Store. The nice point about AHD 5 is that it also provides offline access to all audio pronunciations -- it's a +500MB app. It also offers all front/back materials and indices -- something which is yet to be seen in other competing dictionaries.

Now before you ask, I'm aware of the built-in dictionary in iOS 5. It works well with VoiceOver, but it's very limited:

  • It works only if you select a word via the Rotor and then select Define from the Rotor edit options, meaning you can't type words into it,
  • Not all applications allow for the easy selection of words,
  • It's actually the abridged edition of New Oxford American Dictionary, offering definitions without notes on synonyms and pronunciations,
  • It doesn't provide audio pronunciations -- an extra feature for many word lovers, and
  • It doesn't have many of the sharing/bookmarking/studying tools a standard dictionary app offers.

So stay tuned for more on the first honorable accessible dictionary on the App Store -- courtesy of Enfour. Oh, I should also tell you that I could redeem my most expensive dictionary purchase: NOAD. Lucky me!