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My Address to the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind

Using Apple hardware and apps as an effective tool in the toolbox

 

Address delivered to the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind at its conference in Greenville, South Carolina, 17 November 2017

 

It’s an honour to have been asked to speak with you today. By way of background, I have a foot in two distinct camps that handily co-exist on this occasion. I’ve been a senior manager in, and ultimately Chairman of, New Zealand’s blindness agency. Our situation is a little different, in that it’s a charitable organisation receiving some Government funding, but also with many services dependent on public giving. So I know what it’s like to identify enormous need, while having to live within budgetary constraints. I know what it’s like to have to make those difficult calls about programmes, resources and staffing.

In the other camp, I’m also a shameless geek. I share the enthusiasm your tech people have for the power this technology has to change the lives of blind people for the better. I live it, and through Mosen Consulting, I write about it, train in it, talk to mainstream developers about it, and advocate for it. I suspect I’m also here because, while I own a lot of technology and enjoy geeking out, I have a reputation for not mincing my words, and am no one’s fan boy. I’ve been a consumer leader and advocate, and I know that the benefits we now enjoy didn’t fall out of the sky by magic. They’ve been hard-won, and they must be safeguarded with vigilance. So, here I am, a geek who can do a bit of public speaking and identify with some of your challenges. Today, I want to give you some straight talk about the many exciting, game-changing aspects of Apple technology, while making it clear that there are challenges. I may send you away with some homework, because I believe that those of you here today may be uniquely placed to assist the community to overcome some of those challenges.

As the old cliché goes, the only constant in the world is change. And there’s no better, more dramatic example of this than technology. For those who make decisions about resource allocation, it’s not just that the technology itself is being updated at a frenetic pace, it’s also that the rules of the game have changed.

I’ve been asked to address Apple hardware and apps as an effective tool in the toolbox. It’s an important topic, because a smartphone, based on the current state of accessibility, isn’t always the right tool. Just as you wouldn’t use a chainsaw to hammer in a nail, it’s important that we set realistic expectations about when a tool like an iPhone is the right one, and what risks may exist when using one.

I’m glad to be of an age where I’m old enough to remember when my needs were given scant consideration by mainstream technology companies, because I’ll never take for granted the thrill of being able to pick up a brand-new product on release day, and use it fully. New Zealand was the first country to get iPhone X due to time zones, and I was just as excited as anyone to put Apple’s new pride and joy through its paces. Apple clearly spent considerable time developing options to ensure the new Face ID technology took our needs into account. And they did that work in time for the initial release. Apple deserves enormous praise for doing the right thing.

With its extensive battery life and small size, iPhone is a phenomenal productivity tool. Apple has taken great care to ensure that all the apps built into iOS, the operating system that powers Apple mobile devices, are accessible. It means that a blind person has access to email, the web including any private Intranet pages secured behind a virtual private network, tasks and reminders including having them trigger when in a specific location, multiple calendars, and turn by turn directions. Oh, and here’s the amazing thing, it even lets you make phone calls, with an accessible phone app and address book. That’s all without having to install anything in addition to what’s on the device, all in a device you can hold in your hand and carry in your pocket.

Apple came up with an ingenious user interface that made touch screens accessible to blind people, cleverly separating the process of exploration, then confirmation. But a touch screen is just one of several interface choices available within VoiceOver, the screen reader built into Apple mobile products. When VoiceOver is running, an iPhone can be controlled by a Bluetooth qwerty keyboard, with which there is a set of powerful screen reading commands allowing for navigation and text manipulation. VoiceOver offers Braille Screen Input, turning the touch screen into a virtual Braille keyboard for rapid input of text by Braille users. That’s a tool I use for writing on those occasions when I don’t have a physical Braille display connected. The phone can be controlled, and material written, via voice, thanks to Siri and dictation. It makes composing short texts and controlling various phone functions, such as checking your calendar, extremely efficient. The shapes of print letters can be written on the touch screen, using handwriting mode.

Accessible book stores such as iBook’s and Kindle are a boon for professional development. Often, a blind professional or student can purchase the same book from the same source as everyone else, and it’s readable on their iPhone, allowing people to carry around literally thousands of books in their pocket. Let’s not overlook the significance of that from a social integration perspective. It’s now possible, on a regular basis, for a blind person to join in on a water cooler discussion about a best seller, because we’re able to read them at the same time as our sighted work colleagues.

When paired with a Bluetooth Braille display, yet another way of controlling the device, you have instant transcription from print to Braille. Apps are available on this one device connecting the user with services such as Bard, Bookshare and Learning Ally. So in my view, for many capable users, iPhone can replace several proprietary blindness devices formerly used for content consumption.

Apple has done an excellent job of documenting the process for designing apps accessibly, meaning that even where proprietary systems are being developed, such as internal sales tracking and client management tools, any developer can soon learn how to make an accessible app, thus creating opportunity for a blind person to enter and examine data using an iPhone or iPad.

One of the most remarkable things about the smartphone revolution from a blindness perspective is that it has turned many blind people into photographers. Many of us who’ve never seen at all have become familiar with the concept of distance as it pertains to the camera, and the things we need to do to increase our chances of getting an object fully in the photo. Despite the increasingly electronic world in which we live, there are many vocational situations where a blind person may encounter print they need to deal with on the spot. It’s liberating to be handed some print at a meeting, and know it doesn’t pose the difficulty it once did, unless it’s handwritten of course. Apps like the extraordinarily effective and free Seeing AI app from Microsoft, or KNFB Reader, can snap the picture and let us read the material in speech or Braille. Currency identifier apps and object recognition technology help at home and the office.

Apps such as Nearby Explorer and the Seeing Eye GPS app can give us blindness-specific turn-by-turn directions. Apps can give us a detailed summary of the public transport options for getting from A to B.

Here in Wellington, New Zealand, our central business district is peppered with BlindSquare beacons, giving me information about businesses I am passing, and remarkably, when I enter a business, information about what’s inside including how to find the counter or cafe.

Sometimes, it’s useful to be able to summon up some working eyeballs, whether it be to find out if your tie matches your shirt, to quickly skim a range of print more quickly than a machine can, or to find out what’s around. Apps like Be My Eyes, which is staffed by volunteers, and the subscription-based AIRA service staffed by trained professionals, are exciting developments.

I’m also mindful that most blind people are seniors, and that age-related blindness can often be a final straw that causes someone to question whether they can continue to function safely in their home. One-off extensive training in iPhone can be an investment that in some cases may make expensive care unnecessary. This will be increasingly viable as today’s baby boomers keep joining the seniors category. They are used to adopting technology, and will be more willing to adopt technology that mitigates their disability. Reminder functions can prompt people to take medication. Accessible barcode scanners using the camera on the iPhone can help differentiate that medication. Sighted assistance can look around the home at the touch of a button. An accessible thermometer, wirelessly connected to the iPhone, can give temperature information to assist a blind person to know when food is cooked correctly. HomeKit technology can control room temperature, lighting, and other appliances.

So in many cases, I believe iPhone should be considered an investment in greater productivity, independence, and inclusion. This one device is a veritable Swiss army knife of information and independence.

Gradually, after its release in 2007, iPhone disrupted everything. So many aspects of life have changed because of it, and the blindness system isn’t immune. There was once a time when it was easy to say that a blindness agency just doesn’t fund cell phones. It was simple then. If a blind person needed a cell phone for their job, their employer should pay for that, just as the employer would fund it for any other employee.

Then, cell phones started to become smarter. Today’s cell phones offer magnitudes more power in every respect than the huge bulky desktop computers in our offices even 20 years ago. In 1997, I was using a 32-bit computer with just 15GB of storage. Now, I have a 64-bit iPhone with 256 GB of storage in my pocket. Making and receiving phone calls on my iPhone is now a feature I use infrequently. So it’s not as easy anymore to make a blanket statement like, “we don’t fund phones”. Because that statement really equates to, “we don’t fund powerful, portable computers in a phone-like form factor”.

In parallel with this change, it also used to be easier to find a demarcation point between assistive technology, and mainstream technology. As cell phones started to become smartphones, some agencies may have concluded that in certain specific cases, they would fund the cost of a third-party screen reader, and maybe a text-to-speech engine, to run on the mainstream smartphone that the client or employer would fund.

Things are very different now, because there is no separate assistive technology component to fund on these devices. The United States has been a leader in advocacy initiatives, both directly to operating system developers and to legislators, making the case that technology should be accessible out of the box. Does that mean that the days of specialised AT products are over? Not at all, at least in the case of Windows, which is still the operating system used in the main by most workplaces. Let me draw a comparison. When you buy a new computer, or install a new copy of Windows, Microsoft includes a basic virus checker and a basic firewall. They do so knowing that many people with a security mindset will install a more comprehensive virus checker and firewall, and some computer manufacturers even do this for their customers. But Microsoft covers the basics. When sighted family members ask me to fix a computer problem for them, I’m glad Narrator exists. When I need to put food on the table, I couldn’t do that without JAWS. In Windows, it offers the efficiency and configurability necessary to make the difference between being able to do a job, and not being able to do a job.

As a New Zealander who has worked closely with US organisations for almost two decades, I admire the outcome-driven nature of the US rehabilitation process. Since success is largely defined by how many people you can get to a successful closure, your voc rehab system has some built-in protections against bean counters somewhere deciding that free options are adequate. Many free options simply don’t have the features necessary to allow a blind person to perform on the job. So, when it is proven that a commercial screen reader is necessary to help someone obtain or gain employment, a blind person can usually get it.

Things are different with iOS. It’s unique in one key respect, and it’s vital to understand the implications of this uniqueness. iOS is fundamentally a closed platform, using an approach called sandboxing. If you’ve ever uninstalled a Windows app, only to find it has had negative consequences for some other program you use that seems totally unrelated, you’ll have sympathy for Apple’s sandboxing approach. An iOS app plays in its own sandbox. It has no power to influence or cross-pollenate with any other app on your system. For stability and security, that’s a very good thing, and it’s one of the reasons why iOS is being widely adopted by federal Government agencies and corporations with highly sensitive commercial data.

For blind people, there are downsides. For example, a blind person might own two reading apps that wish to use voices not built into iOS. One app can’t see that the other app already has the voice installed, and that means that the second app must install a second copy of the voice. And here’s the big one. Sandboxing means that iOS is the only operating system in widespread use by consumers where it isn’t possible for a third-party screen reader to be developed for it. Apple develops VoiceOver, and that is the only screen reader available. That will remain the case unless Apple introduces one of its tunnels in the sandbox, an application programming interface or API for short, that will allow third-party screen readers. Since a screen reader needs to see many low-level things going on right across the system, that would be a big tunnel, potentially fraught with security and abuse risks, so I consider it unlikely that Apple will ever do this. Just in the last few days, for example, the technology press has reported that Google is cracking down on mainstream applications misusing its accessibility API which, among other things, makes third-party screen readers possible.

In principle, if the climate of engagement is healthy, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Apple exercises such control over the screen reading experience in iOS. Unlike Android, where there’s a wide variety of largely third-party hardware to be considered, Apple controls the complete user experience. They manufacture the hardware, they develop the operating system, with the screen reader included. What’s not to like? I’m about to offer some views on that question. As an agency leader, you need to be aware of the risks, because the consequences of those risks have been evident of late.

First, market dynamics. I’ve held positions in the past at a senior level in assistive technology companies, where I’ve had meetings with agency directors. In those meetings, I knew how important it was to take your concerns seriously, to ensure you felt that you or members of your team had influence over product direction. It’s critical that dedicated assistive technology companies nurture those relationships. In different capacities, everyone is working towards the same goal, blind people participating fully in society, what NFB very accurately describes as living the life we want.

The dynamics are different with mainstream technology companies who are displaying a commendable commitment to accessibility. First, the market segment blind people represent is a subset of a tiny segment. Mainstream companies are thinking about the accessibility needs of customers with a wide range of disabilities. It can be hard to establish an ongoing, quality dialogue that makes you feel like you are being heard and taken seriously. Some mainstream companies are doing a better job of this than others, which brings me to my second point.

Apple is historically a secretive company. It seldom discusses future plans. It will talk to people of its choosing, under very strict nondisclosure agreements. So it can be difficult to influence its development processes, and even to have a conversation that you can take anything tangible away from.

Finally, if there are quality control issues pertaining to the screen reader, you can’t choose to use another screen reader on the platform, because no other screen reader for iOS exists. And there have been serious quality control issues for years. In 2016, the National Federation of the Blind passed what in my view was an appropriate, necessary and accurate resolution about problems with Apple’s quality control with respect to its VoiceOver screen reader on iOS. My view is that when a mainstream company chooses, or is required by legislation, to produce a screen reader, they then become an assistive technology company. It is vital that we hold these companies, with considerable resources at their disposal, to the same standards we rightly expect assistive technology companies to meet. Let me give you just a couple of examples of serious bugs in VoiceOver in recent years. In both cases, they had a significant impact on blind people’s ability to do their job, which is why I am raising them here. Also in both cases, Apple was advised very early in its testing processes of the bug, but saw fit to wait until after the first official release of the operating system concerned before it acted.

One of the catalysts for the 2016 NFB resolution was the case of iOS 9, where some blind people found themselves unable to answer phone calls when VoiceOver was running. You can immediately see the vocational consequences of this, I’m sure. If your employer, your customers, your clients, can’t reach you consistently because you can’t answer the phone, your job is seriously impacted. What’s frustrating about this is that if people in general, not just blind people, were having trouble answering their iPhones, you can be sure a fix would have been rushed out within 24 hours and it would have been headline news. Blind people had to wait for weeks to get that essential functionality restored.

Only this year, some positive changes have been made to Braille, after years of advocacy by me and many others. However, as is often the case with software, when you change things, you create unexpected bugs. Despite numerous reports early on in development, those bugs weren’t fixed before the official public release of iOS 11, meaning that people were unable to input text using a Braille display with any speed, without the system becoming unreliable. We know that the employment rate of Braille users is far higher than blind people who don’t use Braille. We know that Braille is a critical tool for many on the job. We also know that if Braille isn’t working reliably, it could literally put a deaf blind person in danger if they’re unable to communicate via text, email and relay services. There have also been occasions when even minor updates break connectivity between iOS and certain types of Braille displays. All software has bugs, of course. But a company makes a judgment about which bugs are show stoppers, and which bugs they think can be lived with in a release. I submit that too often, Apple is making calls that don’t show adequate regard for blind people’s productivity and independence. When this happens, it’s important to understand that fixes cannot be quick, because of the way VoiceOver is baked so deeply into the operating system. It isn’t a separate app that can be updated overnight in the App Store. A new version of VoiceOver requires a new release of the entire operating system. Unless Apple changes this approach, and such a change would be architecturally difficult, it’s incumbent upon Apple to take much greater care when it comes to VoiceOver quality.

Again, let me draw a parallel. If Apple released a software update that rendered the screen useless or significantly less responsive, there would be a very quick fix. I have been saying this for years, and now I have proof. A week ago, I began reading reports of some iPhone X users experiencing performance issues with the touch screen of iPhone X in cold weather. Some also reported unpleasant lines randomly appearing on their displays. Those issues were addressed in a software update within six days of the first report hitting the technology press. Blind people, however, are such a tiny fragment of Apple’s user base that it’s hard to get on the radar for urgent matters. And perhaps, while we can hope for much improved quality control, we just have to accept that that’s just the way it is. The tiny size of this market segment will mean that even serious bugs affecting just us are going to take longer to fix. But if that’s the case, it’s something purchasers need to factor in when it comes to depending on these tools in a vocational context.

Some sighted people have abandoned laptops entirely for their phone or tablet. But if Apple leaves us high and dry after an iOS update, how do we explain to an employer that it may be weeks before their blind employee can be productive again? iOS 11 came out in September. The fix for Braille input is not yet publicly available, and may not be until December. That will be nearly three months of effective Braille downtime, and we can’t expect employers to put up with that.

State agencies have a lot of purchasing power. They may be able to bring some pressure to bear on Apple that individuals and consumer organisations cannot. If that’s the case, you would be doing blind people a tremendous service by taking up the cause.

Quality issues aside, VoiceOver on iOS continues to evolve. That evolution has been consistent and impressive. I don’t mind admitting, I was concerned that Apple may do just enough to satisfy people that they had a screen reader, then leave the product largely unchanged. VoiceOver has been a part of iOS since 2009, and its capabilities have expanded significantly every year.

Phones have been transitioning from devices primarily used for content consumption, to also being used for content creation. In this regard, I think VoiceOver has a lot of progress still to make when word processing large documents where formatting is important. Depending on the app in use, it’s possible to get some indication about the way a document is formatted, but it’s not easy in general to navigate quickly to common elements like headings, or get to a specific page in a large document. Spell checking is doable, but it might be argued that the user interface is somewhat convoluted. In a visual world, it’s critical that blind people can produce visually attractive, well-formatted documents, and that their screen reading technology allows them to confirm precisely how those documents look. For that kind of task, Windows is still considerably ahead.

Let me conclude by emphasising that I remain grateful and impressed every day by the extraordinary transformation in my life brought about by Apple and iPhone. But we can be grateful and objective at the same time, and indeed I consider that our duty. On the job, at school, at play and for safety, iPhone is a remarkable device. Our challenge is to encourage Apple to lift its game when it comes to quality control, and to continue with the work it is doing to develop iOS for content creation. Let’s also encourage Apple to reach out to us in good faith dialogue to make a remarkable product even better, because the significant progress we’ve made in all endeavours to date have occurred in the main due to partnerships where blind people have controlled the direction of travel. The phrase “nothing about us without us” is just as true today as ever.

One thing’s for sure though, it’s an incredibly exciting time to be in the technology field.

It’s here! iOS 11 without the eye, second edition. Free for all purchasers

Mosen Consulting is pleased to announce the availability of “iOS 11 Without the Eye”, second edition.

If you’ve not yet purchased this comprehensive guide to iOS 11 from a blindness perspective, now running at around 44,000 words, you can purchase it here.

If you already own the first edition, the second edition is free, using the instructions we sent out by email when you made your purchase.

Simply enter your name, email address and unique PayPal transaction number for the purchase into the form at our Product Redownload Centre. You’ll then be taken to a page where you can download the new edition.

The most significant change is an extended chapter on iPhone X. There’s more information in the chapter on Accessibility, Animoji is further described in the iMessage chapter, and there are a few stylistic changes caused by me being bored with my own writing having read it too often.

Thank you for your support of the iOS without the Eye series.

 

An open letter to Tim Cook, about those Blindfold Games. Surely one of your departments has gone rogue?

Dear Mr Cook, a few days ago, I mentioned you in a tweet in which I praised your team members who had clearly put considerable thought into the Face ID user experience from a blindness perspective. The fact that you saw, and even liked, the tweet pleases me. I think that being an informed and engaged consumer means offering well-deserved praise, and constructive criticism when warranted. Sadly, on this occasion, I feel moved to offer some of the latter. It’s about Apple’s decision not to approve any further Blindfold Games titles, or even updates, in their present form.

Having conducted a quick social media scan, I see a lot of anger is being expressed on this issue, and I can only hope that if your accessibility team, which isn’t responsible for this decision, is receiving a lot of feedback, that it’s written respectfully and clearly.

But here’s the thing. Every day, I open the iOS App Store, and I note the dedicated games tab. Most of those games are not accessible with VoiceOver. Some of that is due to ignorance, some of it’s due to laziness, and some of it is due to certain games just not being optimal for non-visual play.

So, when a game developer goes out of their way either to make a mainstream game accessible, or to build a collection of titles that are optimised specifically for VoiceOver users, I’m sure you can appreciate just how much that means to us.

That brings me to Marty Schultz. A few years ago, Mr Schultz was teaching software development to a bunch of kids. They wanted to develop a game, but he was keen to get them out of their comfort zone. The idea crystallised to develop a game for iOS that blind people could play. This innovative teacher and his students learned about VoiceOver, which they did not know of before. They began engaging with the blind community, and ultimately, it led to a series of games for VoiceOver users that Mr Schultz calls Blindfold Games.

On average, Mr Schultz has been churning out a game a month. The cool thing is, there’s something for just about everyone in his catalogue. Board games, card games, dice games, action games, even games that are auditory in nature of particular interest to those of us who make our way in the world non-visually.

Mr Schultz is not getting rich with these games. His largest title has sold 10,000 units, but in the context of the blind community, for whom paying for an app can often take serious contemplation because of socio-economic factors, he’s done well, and they’ve brought joy to those of us who play them.

You would be right in calling this a success story for Apple. If you wanted to do public relations on the impact that Apple’s products are having at play, what Mr Schultz has done would in my view even be worthy of a mention at WWDC.

But instead of a PR triumph, Apple seems to have turned the Blindfold Games success story into a PR disaster.

When Mr Schultz tried to do the responsible thing as an engaged developer, and submit a couple of updates that would improve iOS 11 compatibility, they were rejected under a policy that as I understand it is designed to prevent multiple versions of what amounts to the same app.

It’s a good policy that in my view has been misinterpreted in this case. Tech-savvy users who opt for iOS do so knowing that there are restrictions, that one of your team will review every app before it goes into the Store, and we appreciate that this is just one of the strategies you employ to keep us free of malicious code. I also understand Apple’s desire to have apps in the App Store that truly perform valid functions that are not redundant. But I just do not see how Apple can fail to approve app updates and new titles from Blindfold Games under this policy.

All of Mr Schultz’s games are distinct. Sure, there may be a range of board games, card games etc, but they’re unique games that have unique rules. He cannot, by any definition, be accused of somehow spamming the App Store.

I understand that Mr Schultz has been told by an Apple employee that he should consolidate his titles into fewer apps. Why? How does that make us any better off in any way? If he were to offer a series of games as in-app purchases, there are two risks as I see it. First, family sharing would not be available for them, and in a community with rampant high unemployment and low income, that will make these accessible games available to fewer people.

Second, Mr Schultz vigorously tests each title as it is developed, ensures it’s robust, then submits the app. There are occasional updates, but usually his code is solid. You will know better than most of us that consolidating apps will result in regular changes to the code to add new games, and when you change working code, there can be unintended consequences.

Most important, this guy’s not making masses of money. The recoding that has been suggested to him by an Apple employee is a massive undertaking for 80 distinct and much-loved titles, for no end-user benefit at all.

How will he recoup the cost of his time? By selling his games a second time to a cash-strapped community, just to satisfy an Apple policy that has been applied overzealously?

This punitive interpretation of a policy that has good intentions could be putting one of the prime providers of accessible games out of business.

I hope you will consider this matter, appreciate the joy that these games have brought thousands of blind people, and intervene to get the updates approved and future titles reviewed without the application of this policy, which in my view should never have been applied to Mr Schultz in the first place.

Of course, I acknowledge that at this stage, we have only been privy to Mr Schultz’s perspective on this matter, and that leads me to my second request. It’s great to see the App Store, Apple Support, Apple Education and other official Apple accounts on Twitter. I hope that Apple Accessibility might also establish a Twitter account, so we can better interact with Apple concerning these products that have such a positive impact on our lives.

With best wishes,

Jonathan Mosen

iPhone X, a blind person’s getting started guide

Background

Since iPhone X was released, I’ve received numerous emails asking me questions about what it’s like to use one, and especially how Face ID works. There’s still a lot of misunderstanding out there about Face ID and in particular the implications of disabling the require attention function.

While we offer one-on-one training and publish podcasts, it’s not possible for me to provide detailed answers to all the emails I’m receiving, or our paid customers wouldn’t get the work done that they’ve paid for. And remember, Apple pay people to answer your support questions. However, it’s my natural inclination to want to help people and share knowledge, so I’ve decided to write up an introductory quick-start guide for blind people who have, or are considering purchasing, an iPhone X.

It’s based on the material that will be in the second edition of “iOS 11 Without the Eye”. If you find this guide helpful and wish to support work like this, I’d be very grateful if you’d purchase a copy of “iOS 11 Without the Eye” or some other title that interests you from the Mosen Consulting Store.

I hope the below information is of use. I’ll update this post if I have additional information, or if I find ways of explaining concepts more clearly.

Introduction

iPhone X represents the most radical redesign of Apple’s flagship product since its introduction in 2007, and it works differently in several respects compared with other iPhones. It remains fully accessible to blind users, so you have the choice to purchase it just as anyone else does.

iPhone X is the most expensive iPhone in the range. You’re paying a premium for a lot of innovative technology that has just left Apple’s labs. So, it’s fair to ask, is it the device for you? Would you be missing out on something you wouldn’t want to live without once you used it?

I have an iPhone X which, I must admit, I bought with some reluctance. I bought it to aid me in completing “iOS 11 Without the Eye”, and because my work as a trainer meant that it was essential for me to be familiar with it. Now that I have it, I can honestly say I’m delighted with it. But it’s not for everyone. Here are a few things you might consider when making up your mind about what is a significant purchase.

With iPhone X, you’re getting the latest innovations from Apple, and you’re on the cutting edge in terms of where Apple’s technology is heading. Some analysts predict that, with the possible exception of an updated iPhone SE, Apple will produce no more iPhones with touch ID. You may be the kind of person who likes to embrace the future, or you may like others to find the bugs in such radical modern technology and let it mature for a generation or two before you jump on board. Both approaches have their pros and cons.

iPhone X has the same A11 Bionic processor found in iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. The RAM, which can impact performance in more intensive situations, is the same in iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, 3GB. There is only 2GB of RAM in iPhone 8.

All Apple’s 2017 iPhone line-up have a redesigned speaker system and sound similar.

As I’ll further discuss shortly, iPhone X does not have a Home button, so the phone is controlled completely through gestures on the large screen which covers the entire front of the device.

Note also that at this time, the new Face ID technology can only be set up for one person at a time, whereas Touch ID can store a maximum of five simultaneous fingerprints. If you and your significant other like to be able to unlock each other’s iPhone, then you may want to stick with an iPhone offering Touch ID until the number of users who can be enrolled in Face ID is increased.

Finally, depending on the specific circumstances surrounding your blindness, Face ID might be less secure than Touch ID. I’ll explore this critical consideration in the Face ID section of this post.

Because iPhone X is different from any iPhone before it, if you have any concerns or doubts, I’d encourage you to visit a store and see one in person. Read this chapter before you visit, so you have a thorough understanding of how the new gestures and button assignments work. Then, ask the sales person to enable VoiceOver for you and have a good play.

If you order from Apple directly, remember that they offer a “no questions asked” 14-day returns policy.

On the day my iPhone X arrived, Mosen Consulting produced episode 61 of The Blind Side Podcast, in which I unboxed and learned about iPhone X. You can subscribe to The Blind Side Podcast in all good podcast apps including Apple Podcasts. If you’d just like to hear that episode, listen online here.

Orientation

When you unbox your iPhone X, the first thing you’ll notice is that it’s unlike any iPhone you’ve owned before. The front of the device is made up almost entirely of touch screen. You have a phone fractionally bigger than an iPhone 6, 7 or 8, yet it has a bigger screen than the Plus models. It takes a little getting used to for a VoiceOver user, because even if you touch the extreme top or bottom corner of the phone, you will be interacting with the touch screen.

The one exception to this is that at the very top of the screen in the centre, you’ll find a small tactually identifiable slit. This is the one part of the phone that you can’t interact with, as it’s the place where the speaker, True-depth camera, and other technologies are located. This is known as the notch, and when the phone is on, it’s much more visually apparent than it is tactually. Visually, it makes the top of the phone look like it has ears or horns.

This has two implications for the status bar. First, it’s divided in two, on either side of the notch. Second, the notch means that there is a little less room than there used to be on the status bar. As a result, the name of your cellular carrier is no longer displayed there when the phone is unlocked.

New VoiceOver gestures

Since the iPhone X is all screen, there is no Home button on this device. Even to get iPhone X set up, you’ll need to understand some of these gestures.

When I describe swiping from the top or bottom of iPhone X, remember that this phone has no bezels at all, so the bottom of the touch screen extends all the way to the bottom of the front surface.

Swipe up to go home

Blind and sighted people both use the same new gesture to go home, the equivalent of pressing the Home button once in previous iPhones. Locate the bottom of the screen and touch it for a very short time so you hear a quiet tone and feel a haptic vibration. Immediately swipe up a short distance with one finger, releasing your finger after you feel a haptic vibration and hear a second, slightly higher tone. Writing it out makes it sound far more complex than it is. Once you’ve got the gesture right, it will feel like second nature in no time. Remember, under VoiceOver Settings, there is a feature allowing you to practice gestures, so you may wish to visit the practice area and try out the new home gesture until you feel comfortable.

To begin with, you may find it easiest to touch the bottom of the phone where the lightning port is located and swipe up from there.

If you rest your finger too long before making a short swipe up, the Home gesture will time out, and VoiceOver will speak what is under your finger, usually the dock.

App Switcher

In older iPhones, you could invoke the App Switcher by double-clicking the Home button. So, it makes sense that invoking the App Switcher on iPhone X is based on swiping up to go home. The only difference is that you swipe up a little further from the bottom of the screen, until you feel a second vibration and hear an even higher tone.

On 3D touch-capable devices, you can invoke the App Switcher by firmly pressing the extreme left of the screen. This is also an option in iPhone X, and while it wasn’t a function I used in my previous iPhones, I’m using it regularly with iPhone X.

Control Centre and Notifications

It’s still possible to invoke Control Centre and Notifications using the gestures you’re used to. However, with the status bar now a tiny strip at the very top of the screen, divided in half, you may find it less convenient. If you prefer, you can give the fancy new iPhone X method a try.

To invoke Control Centre, you can use the skills you’ve learned from the new swipe up to go home method, just in reverse. Briefly touch the top edge of the phone, then swipe down with one finger until you hear a tone and feel a vibration.

Performing the same action but swiping down for longer, until you hear a second tone and feel a second vibration, will show your notifications.

Button reassignments

If you’re familiar with the layout of Apple devices since the iPhone 6, where the power button has been placed on the right-hand side of the device, the button on iPhone X is in the same position, but it is longer, so it is easier to press.

The side button performs the following functions.

  • Tap it to lock and unlock your screen. Note that it is also possible to wake your iPhone X by tapping reasonably firmly on any part of its screen. This latter option can be disabled in Accessibility Settings if you don’t like it.
  • You can use “Hey Siri” with your iPhone X after you’ve set that feature up, but to talk to Siri at any time, hold the side button down.
  • Apple Pay. Double-tap the side button when you have Apple Pay configured to indicate that you wish to make a transaction. It is also necessary to double-tap the side button to proceed with a purchase in Apple’s stores such as the App Store and iBook’s Store, to prevent Face ID from inadvertently spending all your money.
  • Accessibility settings. Triple-click the side button to invoke any accessibility settings you’ve configured, and to cause VoiceOver to speak during set-up.
  • Emergency SOS. When configured, press the side button five times to trigger the emergency SOS feature.

Use the side button in conjunction with the volume up and down buttons to perform the following functions.

  • Hold with either volume up or down to invoke the power off and SOS functions
  • Press and release with volume up to take a screen shot.

Finally, should you need to reset your iPhone in situations where it stops responding properly and you’re unable to shut it down, press the following sequence quickly.

  • Volume up
  • Volume Down
  • Hold the side button.

The phone will restart.

Setting up your iPhone X

When you get your shiny new iPhone X out of its box, power it on by pressing the side button for a couple of seconds. Wait for the phone to boot. In case the phone has gone into stand-by mode, tap the screen once, then triple-click the side button. If all has gone well, VoiceOver should say “VoiceOver on”, and guide you through the set-up process.

The set-up process is like other iDevices you will have used, and it will speed the process up considerably if you have the iPhone you’re upgrading from nearby. One significant difference in the set-up process will be the configuration of face ID. There is an opportunity to skip the step, so if you’d rather get your iPhone X up and running before tackling this challenge, there’s no problem at all with this approach.

Face ID

What it is, and how it works

When running an iPhone X, iOS 11 offers features supporting Apple’s new Face ID feature. Face ID replaces touch ID and works everywhere in your iPhone X where Touch ID worked in earlier models. You can use it to unlock your phone, make an Apple Pay transaction, and unlock a protected app such as PayPal, a banking app, or a password app.

Touch ID supported the adding of multiple fingerprints. This allowed one user to authenticate with multiple fingers, or a spouse to be given access to the device. However, Face ID only works with one person at a time. If you want someone else to have access to your iPhone X, sadly, the only option is to give them your passcode or password.

Face ID is unlike any facial recognition system previously available to consumers. While other systems have been fooled by pictures and masks, that’s highly unlikely with Face ID due to the multiple methods used to authenticate someone. The technology Apple is using to verify your identity is complex and multi-faceted. Apple claims that the chances of another person fooling the technology and passing themselves off as you are one in a million. If you have an identical twin, Apple’s not there yet and your twin may be able to unlock your phone. It uses multiple neural networks built into the A11 bionic neural engine on the iPhone X to process the facial recognition data. The processing takes place entirely in the secure enclave of your phone, so rest assured that Apple isn’t building up some sort of scary database of its users’ faces.

While there is a lot going on behind the scenes with face ID, the component we as end-users engage with to make its magic do its thing is called the TrueDepth camera. Apple says that this camera uses depth mapping made possible by eight separate components in the system, to get an intricate picture of your face, so your iPhone X can be sure it’s really you. At its keynote in September, Apple described all the components. They are:

  • 7-megapixel camera
  • Infrared camera
  • Flood illuminator
  • Front camera dot projector (30K dots)
  • Proximity sensor
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Speaker
  • Microphone

This technology is far beyond anything we’ve seen before, including the facial recognition technology Apple is using in the photos app and for some of the new VoiceOver functions I’ll describe in Chapter Three. The infra-red technology means that the scan goes far beyond what you look like to a regular camera or a naked eye. Therefore, if you start wearing glasses, grow a beard, gain or lose weight, forget to put makeup on or put on a lot more, your iPhone X will still know it’s you. It keeps learning over time, so as you grow greyer because of having to fund the cost of an iPhone X, it will still recognise you.

Attention

Face ID offers two attention-related settings that do quite different things.

Attention awareness, which is on by default even when VoiceOver is enabled, will detect if you’re looking at your phone while it is unlocked and in use. When you’re not, the display will be dimmed, which could save battery life. I routinely have my display brightness set to 0% already, since I don’t need to see it, so battery life is not a consideration for me, nor for many other blind people who use their phones in this way.

If attention aware features are enabled, the volume of alerts will be lowered when you are looking at your phone, the logic being that since you’re right by your phone, you don’t need alerts to be loud.

If you prefer to have full manual control of these features, you can turn off attention aware features in Face ID and passcode settings.

The second, and most important attention-related feature from a blindness perspective, is that for sighted users, Face ID requires your attention before its authentication functions will work. This means that the iPhone X won’t unlock or let you into a protected app unless it can determine that you’re intentionally looking at the camera, with your eyes open. People with various conditions and disabilities will not be able to provide Face ID with the attention required to satisfy it. For this reason, it’s possible to stop Face ID requiring attention by double-tapping Settings, General, Accessibility, Face ID, and then toggling “require attention for Face ID” to off.

When VoiceOver is running during the iPhone X set-up process, require attention is disabled by default, and it will stay disabled unless and until you enable it.

It is imperative that you understand the security implications of having require attention turned off. When iPhone X is in this state, it is possible for someone to snatch your phone from you, wave it in front of your face, and unlock your phone. With require attention on, you could prevent this from happening by closing your eyes and not giving it your full attention. So, this is one example where accessibility has come at the price of compromised security.

There is a lot of confusion about the consequences of disabling the require attention for Face ID function, so let me make it clear that disabling require attention does not make it more likely that someone else can unlock your phone. It only makes it easier for you to unlock it, and therefore easier for someone to take your phone and use your face to unlock it.

If you believe you might be able to give Face ID the attention it is looking for, you can enable require attention again in accessibility settings and try your luck. Remember, you can’t lock yourself out of your iPhone if you know your passcode or password.

I am totally blind, and do not have prosthetic eyes. My eye condition is genetic, and it is easy to tell visually that I am blind. Because I have congenital cataracts, it can look like my eyes are closed a lot of the time. I was therefore not expecting to be able to satisfy Face ID’s attention requirements. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I in fact can. I fail to unlock the phone a few times, whereas with attention disabled I am almost at 100% success, but I’ll take a few failures when out and about for the added security. It has given me peace of mind about using Face ID daily. Just be sure that you’re looking directly into the camera, eyes open.

Setting up Face ID

You are prompted to set up Face ID when you get your iPhone X out of the box and power it up. If you prefer, you can skip configuring Face ID during set-up and come back to it later. You can complete the process at any time under Settings, Face ID and Passcode.

Once you tap the “get started” button, VoiceOver will prompt you through the process of setting up Face ID, in which iPhone X needs to take two comprehensive scans of your face. You must give the phone the data it needs by moving your head in a circle.

If you have a disability that prevents you from moving your head in a circle, an Accessibility Options button appears when Face ID has your face in the frame. Double-tap this, and enable the partial circle feature. This is likely to weaken security, but it makes the scan considerably easier.

Ensure that iPhone has an unobstructed view of your face. Face ID is very tolerant of poor lighting when in regular use, but I’ve found having good light when you set it up can help the process run more smoothly. If you’re used to FaceTime or similar video apps that make use of the front-facing camera, you’ll want to be a similar distance away from the camera when you get started. Apple says that Face ID works best when it is between 10 and 20 inches, 25 to 50 CM from your face. Get used to this, as this is the kind of distance you’ll need to be from your phone to unlock it, once Face ID is configured. If you’re too close, you’ll likely not be as successful. In the brief time I have been training people to use Face ID, most problems are caused by people being far too close to the camera.

VoiceOver will tell you when your head is positioned correctly. When you are advised of this, try to keep the phone still. Move your head, not the phone.

My daughter Heidi, who is sighted but has that rare gift of thinking about things from a blindness perspective, came up with an analogy that makes a lot of sense to me. Imagine that your nose is a hand of an analogue clock. Your nose needs to reach as many points on the clock as possible. So, after double-tapping the “get started” button, and waiting for confirmation that your head is positioned correctly, point your nose up to 12 o’clock, then move it around to 3 or 4. Point it down to six o’clock. Move your head in the opposite direction, so it reaches 9 or 8. Then conclude by moving it up to 12 again.

The entire process should only take a few seconds. There is no need to move especially slowly. The Face ID software is very tolerant, and will tell you to tilt your head in a specific direction if necessary. It will also start the scan from the beginning if it needs to, and stick with you until the process is complete.

If you’re having trouble, don’t worry. Perhaps set the rest of the phone up first and revisit it later, calling Apple Accessibility for support if needed.

Using Face ID

Once Face ID is set up, wake the phone up by raising it, tapping the screen, or pressing the side button. The first two wake methods can be disabled in settings if you prefer. Hold the phone at about arm’s length from your face, endeavouring to ensure that the front-facing camera has an unobstructed view of your face. If require attention is disabled, Face ID will be less strict about your eyes being open and looking directly at the camera.

You’ll hear a satisfying click sound, indicating that the phone is unlocked. If Face ID can’t authenticate you, you’ll hear a tone and be invited to try again.

The more you use Face ID, the more familiar it becomes with your facial features.

Once you hear that click sound, you can swipe up to go home.

If you have trouble authenticating with Face ID, you can unlock your iPhone X by swiping up to go home, then enter your passcode.

Notifications

By default, the contents of iPhone X notifications are hidden on the lock screen until you authenticate with Face ID. You’ll see that you have mail, tweets, Facebook activity etc, but you won’t know the specifics until you authenticate. If you wish to change this behaviour, visit Notification Settings and double-tap the “Show Previews” button, changing the setting to always.

New keyboard

On iPhone X, the virtual keyboard is positioned a little lower than on other devices. The buttons to switch keyboards and begin dictation have been moved off the keyboard, and are now at the bottom left and bottom right respectively.

Remember, when the virtual keyboard is active, you can use the magic tap gesture, a two-finger double-tap, to start and stop dictation.

Got an iPhone X?

If you have an iPhone X already, how’s it going for you? Are you finding Face ID easy to use or do you feel it’s a step backwards for blind users?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

I’m amazed! My iPhone X has my attention

When Apple announced iPhone X in September, some totally blind users of the product were concerned that we may be excluded from the next big leap in biometric authentication, Face ID. When it comes to experiential paradigm shifts, I think Apple has done enough to earn our trust in this regard, but I was curious to find out what they’d done to ensure that Face ID was accessible.

I got in touch with Apple right away and as I blogged back then, it was clear that Apple had given careful thought to ensuring that Face ID would work as easily as possible for VoiceOver users.

Yesterday, my daughter Heidi and I put together a podcast on unboxing and setting up iPhone X. Rather than learn how things worked, then put an instructional podcast together, I felt that it would be more interesting to just let the recording software run as I, as a totally blind guy, figured out how to come to terms with all the changes in iPhone X.

My first attempt at setting up Face ID took a long time and was cumbersome. What was impressive, though, was that the software stuck with me, giving me meaningful instructions about how to complete the set-up process, even though I was making a much bigger deal of the moving one’s head in a circle thing than was necessary.

By the second attempt later in the podcast, I was magnitudes faster.

And by the final attempt at the end, while I don’t think I can quite award myself ninja status just yet, I had a major “aha” moment as I realised that setting up this thing is much faster than setting up touch ID.

If you invoke VoiceOver, the screen reading software that makes it possible for blind people like me to use an iPhone, at the beginning of the set-up process, Apple turns attention mode off. This means that you don’t have to be looking directly at the camera, eyes open, before your iPhone unlocks. This makes it much more likely that, as a blind person, you’ll be able to unlock your iPhone. As long as a good bit of your face is in the view, you’ll be fine

There’s a downside of this that has concerned me, and it relates to security. With attention mode disabled, it would be possible for someone to snatch an iPhone out of a blind person’s hand, wave it in front of their face, unlock it, and do a runner. I’m not being an alarmist fantasist, I know personally of a blind person who, when sitting in a cafe, had their phone snatched literally out of their hand.

When attention mode is disabled, Apple makes no mention of the consequences of doing so.

Now that I have more time to play, I decided to see what would happen if I enabled attention mode. I didn’t expect to be able to unlock my iPhone this way, but you know what they say about people who assume. By way of background, as I mentioned in my previous post about Face ID, when you look at my eyes, which are not prosthetic, there’s absolutely no doubt that I’m blind. My eyes, I’m told, look kind of sunken, and I find it hard to make it look like my eyes are open. And yet, to my surprise, I can unlock iPhone X when attention mode is enabled. It’s fractionally more hit and miss, I must remind myself to be sure my eyes are open, but it works.

It even works in the dark. I’ve been unlocking my iPhone X successfully, attention mode and all, at 3 AM with no lights on.

I’m doing long-distance bus travel this weekend, so naturally I’ve been thinking about the joys and risks of having the hottest technology in the world at present on my person. Knowing that, exceeding all expectations, I can turn attention mode on, is reassuring.

I believe my strategy will be to turn attention mode off when I’m at home for extended periods, and turn it on when I’m out and about. A tech-savvy sighted person may well end up doing the same.

I’m only about 18 hours in at this point, but as many who listen to my podcasts will know, I bought the iPhone X somewhat grudgingly as a business expense due to a number of training projects I’m involved in. Being blind and therefore not needing to see the screen, I often unlocked and used my previous iPhones in my pocket. That’s a uniquely blind use case, so one can hardly blame Apple for taking that away. Yes, I miss that, but there is something about this phone that makes me think I wouldn’t enjoy going back now. The gestures to go home, get to the app Switcher etc are fluid and already feel like second nature.

There will of course be plenty of updated material on iPhone X, wireless charging and more in the second edition of iOS 11 Without the Eye, which you get free even if you purchase now.

Thanks for your attention, and thanks to Apple for their attention to detail. No doubt I will participate in, and even generate, lively and somewhat esoteric debates about user interface in the years ahead, but when it comes to these big watershed moments, Apple tends to get it right.

Bullied by a thief, pirate threatens legal action against me

A couple of days ago, I blogged about being made aware of the organised theft and redistribution of my intellectual property.

I thought long and hard about whether to publish the post, and decided to do so for several reasons.

First, it gave me the opportunity to communicate how hurtful these acts are for the creator of the intellectual property, particularly a small operator in a tiny market. My feeling was that a few people who may not have given this issue thought from the content creator’s perspective may understand how wrong it is to steal. I was burgled back in the 90s, and learning about this organised site where my property was available in a premium section felt just like the aftermath of a burglary, a sense of violation.

Second, I wanted to make it clear that I wouldn’t stand idly by when I learned of the theft of our property, and that a bounty programme was available. I’ve already received several tip-offs as a result, so thank you, I am following up.

Third, if he did it to me, there’s the possibility that it’s being done to other small operators creating content for the blind community. Let me be clear, since as you’ll see in a moment, I’ve been issued with a legal threat, I don’t have any evidence that any other blind person’s content is on the illegal site operated in contravention of Australian and international copyright law by Bernard Hemmings, but it’s a fair question to ask, given the disregard that was shown to me.

After I published the post, several things occurred. There was an unusual spike for this time of year in sales of “iOS 11 Without the Eye”. If you bought the book because you have already read it without paying for it, I’d like to thank you sincerely for doing the right thing.

I was contacted by several content creators who are blind, thanking me for exposing what is a real problem for the viability of specialised content. When pirates steal our property, the price will inevitably be raised to compensate for that. That may well perpetuate further piracy, and so the cycle goes on. It’s time we brought this kind of behaviour into the light.

I received some suggestions from a few people regarding how we can crack down on piracy. Some of these involve techniques like logging in and consuming the content behind what would essentially be a pay wall. I have two concerns about this. It would involve a lot of set-up on our part, but far more important than that, I feel uncomfortable about anything that would make it harder for users who are struggling. For some of us, this technology is so easy that it’s hard to fully understand just how frustrating it is for others. Even though we don’t technically need to, we spend time with some users who have trouble working out how to read what they buy from us. I worry about making it harder for those folks.

I haven’t made any further comment on this matter in any forum, and I intended not to write or say anything more, but there have been extraordinary developments.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I phones Mr Hemmings when I became aware that he was responsible for the illegal distribution of my material on a site for which he is charging. I think I handled the situation properly, except for one thing. I didn’t block my caller ID.

I realised afterwards that I may well be subjected to nuisance calls, and sure enough, I’ve now received two, 19 minutes apart. I took the precaution of blocking Mr Hemmings’ number, so calls go straight to voicemail.

While I reluctantly accepted that I may have made an error in exposing my phone number, I did not expect that Mr Hemmings would be audacious enough to threaten me, the victim of a crime, with legal action.

Below, I’m including a transcript of the two voicemails he sent me. You can also download them in MP3. I’ll also respond to each, publicly, via this post. Because when it comes to stealing, I will not be bullied or intimidated into silence.

 

First voicemail

 

“It’s Bernard Hemmings here. If you do not remove my name off your blog site, I shall take legal action against you. I did what you asked, I took your stuff down. And then you repaid me by doing this! So there you go. If you don’t take my name off your blog within 24 hours, I will take legal action against you. Thank you.”

Listen to the voicemail in MP3.

 

Let’s examine this message in-depth. First, it’s noticeable for its complete lack of remorse. Had the message said that he had made a horrible mistake, he was sorry, he was giving up his piracy and would I please consider removing my post, I would have done so without hesitation. But this message indicates anger at being caught, nothing more.

Next, let’s imagine Mr Hemmings walks into a lawyer’s office, yes, I know it sounds like the beginning of one of those long bad jokes, and says “I have been running a for-pay site distributing pirated content. One of the small businesses I have been profiting from found out about it and demanded I remove the stolen content. When I did so while at the same time expressing anger at the user who exposed my piracy racket, the owner of the content told people what I had done”.

What do you think the lawyer would say?

Most lawyers would run a mile from such widescale intellectual property theft, which, my source tells me, involves many commercial publishers with deep pockets and permanent legal teams designed to prosecute pirates through the court system and extract compensation.

But let’s say Mr Hemmings got lucky and found a lawyer who didn’t laugh him out of their office. What would I be prosecuted for? Defamation? Everything I’ve said is absolutely true, and if Mr Hemmings took me to court, I would be able to demand a list of all users on his FTP server so I could call them as witnesses. We are talking a crime here, and lawyers would start asking tough questions from those users about exactly what they downloaded. Those users would be under oath. Tell a lie, and they’d be perjuring themselves. Then they would have committed two crimes.

So, if you’re on Mr Hemmings’ site, I’d demand to be taken off it quickly, because it sounds like he’s about to expose you to serious risk.

Mr Hemmings says in his first voicemail, ” I did what you asked, I took your stuff down. And then you repaid me by doing this!” Interesting turn of phrase, that. His voicemail implies that because I busted him for illegally redistributing my content and he had to take remedial action reluctantly, I should somehow be grateful, yet this is how I, the ungrateful victim, repays him. That’s incredibly distorted logic. But his use of the word “repay” prompts me to make this point. At present, I have not asked for repayment from Mr Hemmings for loss of revenue. Every individual who downloaded my copyrighted work without paying for it represents lost revenue. Perhaps it is I who should begin talks with Mr Hemmings about repayment.

 

Second voicemail

 

Here’s the transcript of the second voicemail I received, 19 minutes after the first.

“Just letting you know I’ve saved your web page so I can talk to my legal people, but even if you did take legal action against me, I don’t have any money anyway. You know? I have nothing anyway. But, yeah so I should have apologised to you on Saturday, and I regret not doing so. But as I said I would take it down for you, and I did, straight away. And I’m not a bad person but to do that to me in public, I’m quite surprised that yeah your legal team wouldn’t have advised you against that. Anyway we’ll see what happens. Bye.”

Listen to the MP3 vile here.

I would love to know the names of Mr Hemmings’ legal people, because they must be incredibly brave. That said, this is the first expression of any form of contrition by Mr Hemmings I have been made aware of, so I acknowledge and appreciate that. When he removed the illegal material, the message to his list indicated that he was annoyed with the user who dobbed him in, not in any way remorseful for what he had done.

He says that legal action on our part wouldn’t be worth it because he has no money. I guess at least he may be entitled to legal aid. But I don’t think Mr Hemmings, and others who do the things he is doing, fully appreciate that organised redistribution of copyrighted material can even result in a prison sentence.

Now I’m not at all interested in seeing another blind guy going to prison over this, I just want the ripping off of decent, hard-working people to be exposed and to stop. I also know that if someone makes a mistake and genuinely now understands that what they did was wrong, we should all be entitled to start over having learned from the experience. So, I’m publicly offering Mr Hemmings a deal.

Mr Hemmings, the idea that you could take legal action against me for blowing the whistle and exposing your highly illegal piracy racket is hilarious. But in the interests of reconciliation, I’ll take both these blog posts off the site and not refer to them again, if the site is shut down completely, and I have unambiguous evidence that this has happened. Because as I’ve already indicated, if you’ve done this to me, it’s reasonable to wonder who else is a victim. And as you weigh up your decision, keep in mind that if these posts stay up, they will continue to be indexed by search engines. Google on your name, and it will come up. You just never know when a publisher’s going to do that.

Mr Hemmings says that he’s not a bad person. I don’t know him, and even if I did, I try not to be judgmental about people. But whether one is a good or bad person is irrelevant. What we know for a fact is that, based on the best available knowledge I have as of writing this post, he continues to run a site for which he charges for content to which he doesn’t have the rights, which means he remains a criminal.

So, there’s your deal Mr Hemmings. Take the site down, do the right thing, prove to the community what you say about not being a bad person, and these posts will be deleted.

How do some people sleep at night? Blind people ripping off other blind people

Recently on The Blind Side podcast, I was honoured to be able to conduct a fascinating interview with professor Stephen Lockley of Harvard University about non-24. That’s the condition that makes it difficult for many of us in the blind community to maintain consistent sleeping patterns. Perhaps that’s not the only reason some people are having a little difficulty getting shut-eye.

Recently, I was contacted by a public-spirited member of the blind community, alerting me to piracy of the “iOS without the eye” series. This piracy has been occurring on a server run by a blind person, for the use of blind people.

I learned as a kid that if you continue to let the bully kick sand in your face, you’re only going to end up with more sand in your face. So, here’s my perspective as an author in a tiny niche market on this issue.

Since I wrote the first book in this series, “iOS 7 without the eye” in 2013, I have charged $19.95 USD for the book. In fact, if you pre-ordered the iOS 7 book, you got it at half price, because the book was then an unknown quantity, and early purchasers were taking a leap of faith. The price has remained the same ever since, despite the book nearly doubling in size with iOS 11 compared with iOS 7.

I figure that if I charge a reasonable price, it will make it affordable, and people won’t feel the need to pirate because they could genuinely benefit from the book but couldn’t afford it.

I also like to think that in the blind community, we look out for one another. That’s probably a bit naive, yet not many a day goes by when I don’t receive a lovely message of appreciation from someone about how the book has helped them, and that makes my day.

So, my heart sank when a customer of ours kindly forwarded a message to me from an email list. This list is apparently a complement to a server hosting a large quantity of illegal content, operated by Bernard Hemmings, a blind person living in Australia, where, ironically, I’m writing this as an attendee of the Blind Citizens Australia convention.

In response to user inquiries, whose names I know but won’t reveal at least for the moment, Mr Hemmings provides details of how to access the books on his server, in a section I understand one must pay to access. What an irony.

My initial feeling when I received this information was sadness that there are other blind people who would be willing to rip off a husband and wife team trying to make a go of running a small business which provides helpful information at a reasonable price.

But what to do about it? Does one just accept that piracy is a fact of life? When someone has an organised server, with a folder called “All Things Apple”, and my books in there, we’re talking pretty organised, serious, blatant copyright infringement.

So, I decided to give Mr Hemmings a phone call. He kindly puts his phone numbers in his email signature which is a kind thing for a widescale copyright infringer to do. I introduced myself, and told him that I had become aware that he had a bunch of material to which Mosen Consulting owns the copyright. His first reaction was to flat out deny it. “I don’t know where you got that idea from”, he said. I explained that I got the idea from an email he had written. He then backtracked and said he didn’t realise these books were for sale.

I indicated, naturally enough given the scale of this, that I required him to take the books down immediately, or we’d have to investigate our options. Those options of course would include contacting the company providing bandwidth to the server and alerting them that their bandwidth is being used for a well-organised pirating site. Companies take those matters extremely seriously, and tend to act first, ask questions later.

He agreed to take the material down. I asked him what sort of assurance I could have that the material was in fact removed. His extraordinary reply was that I would just have to trust him. Naturally, I pointed out that it’s hard to trust a blind guy who had been so freely ripping off another blind guy.,

I was going to leave the issue at that and not write this post, but I changed my mind after receiving this message, which I will quote in full, from the email list supporting Mr Hemmings’ server hosting illegal content. This message is from Mr Hemmings.

 

“Following a demand from the author I have remove the iOS stuff. A user and soon to be ex user reported the content to the author. So if you can no longer find it that is the reason.”

 

So, no remorse, no message that said, “I’m sorry, I got it wrong”, just an indication that he was going to go on some sort of witch hunt to find which of his users has a conscience about blind people ripping off one of their own. Good luck with that, I’m a journalist as well as an author, and I protect my sources.

Some people have suggested that we should sell the iOS books exclusively on iBook’s. I don’t do that for two reasons. First, Apple takes a third of the price of every book, which for a small market like this makes a significant difference. But second, a lot of the people who need this book the most read it on other devices, like a Victor Reader Stream or their PC, while they’re trying to come to grips with all the recent changes. It may reduce piracy significantly, but I also believe the books utility would be reduced, and I don’t want that.

I am very grateful to the customer who took a risk and let me know about this issue. There is despicable behaviour in the world, but there are a lot of decent people too. This has inspired me to announce a bounty programme. If you can provide me with evidence that our material is being hosted on any FTP or similar server, and the evidence must be definitive as it was in this case, I’ll give you a product from our Store. You can choose what it is.

And, since I have published this post which can serve as a warning, when I find out about such piracy, I’ll go straight to the provider hosting the server and ensure the whole server is taken down.

There is a debate to be had about authors with millions of readers and millions of dollars, and the effect the occasional pirated book download has on them. I won’t go there today. But no one with a working brain cell seriously thinks that a blindness-related book with highly-targeted information fits into that category.

I’d like to close on a positive note. Thank you to everyone who does the right thing and buys our material. We’ll continue to try to provide quality material at a decent price. Not only can you help by making a purchase of something you want, but also by acting to stop behaviour that has the potential to spoil it for us all.

My address to the Blind Citizens Australia convention, “Making the most of Emerging Technologies”

Prologue

Sometimes, the technology gods just like to play with you. I’ve seen it when people have practiced and practiced a demo, only to see it go horribly wrong when it really counts. When the tech gods want to play with you, you must either laugh at yourself and the situation, or hope that a big hole opens in the floor.

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve read from refreshable Braille whenever giving an address since I got my first Braille Lite in 1996, and I’ve given hundreds of presentations since then. Some blind people say that the safest thing to do is to emboss a hardcopy of an important address, but you could just as easily lose it, it could get squashed, eaten by the ravenous bugblatter beast of traal, whatever.

Today, I was called up to the front of the room at the Blind Citizens Australia convention to deliver my address. I decided to deliver it with the help of my iPhone and my trusty Braille display. While in the audience, I checked and double-checked that everything was working. But when I sat down at the top table, I found that I had lost pairing between my phone and my display. Thankfully, the person introducing me offered a nice lengthy preamble, and I was sure I had time to fix whatever had broken. But as time clearly started to run out, I had a choice. Should I ask the speaker due to speak after me to go first, or should I just wing it? After such a long and generous intro, there was only one thing to do.

In a split-second decision, I decided to just wing it. After all, all those years of table topics at Toastmasters and live talk radio had to count for something.

Bonnie, who is here with me, noticed that things were in a different order, but didn’t realise that I was grappling with a major technology melt-down, so that’s something.

It’s All deliciously ironic, given the subject matter of this address.

So, if you were here with us live or listening on the stream, you’ll notice that the message is the same, but my prepared remarks are a little different.

Ya gotta love technology…and I still do.

Making the most of emerging technologies

 

Delivered to the Convention of Blind Citizens Australia, Melbourne, 14 October 2017

 

It’s a pleasure to be back at a BCA convention to catch up with old friends and make new ones.

Through the varied work we do at Mosen Consulting, it’s my privilege to see first-hand the impact that emerging technologies are having on blind people, much of it very positive. Through our books, audiobooks, podcasts, advice to small developers and large corporations, and our one-on-one training, we try to keep focussed on the fact that technology is here to serve us. Good technology is a joy to use, it serves the purpose of helping us complete tasks, making life in some way better or easier or more inclusive.

It may seem sometimes like technology frustrations are going to turn you prematurely grey. But look on the bright side. Even when it isn’t behaving the way we’d like it to, if you perform exactly the same tasks in exactly the same conditions, technology will do exactly the same thing in response. Children of any age? Not so much. My youngest children are all teenagers now, so the age of them saying super cute or super embarrassing things is mercifully over…mostly. But the other day, I upgraded my Apple Watch to the new series 3, and gave my old one to my youngest son, who is 17 and pretty serious about fitness. He kept asking me questions about how to use the watch, and finally, I suggested, quite diplomatically I thought, that he take the time to grab the Apple Watch User Guide for free from the iBook’s Store and give it a read. Other people familiar with technology will know that there’s a very naughty acronym summarising my suggestion, and I didn’t even use the acronym, RTFM, which of course stands for “read the …FLAMING manual”, because I knew he would ask me what it stood for. His response to my suggestion that he do some reading was, “why do I need to read user manuals, when I have you for a dad?” I made a mental note to tell my friends at BCA about that one, so there you go.

I’m definitely the tech guy in my extended family, and I feel good about that. I’m not particularly mechanically inclined, and what I know about gardening could easily be condensed into a single tweet, but I have a good track record of solving people’s tech problems. When you couple the fact that a blind guy can be the guy who fixes everyone’s tech issues when we all get together at Christmas with all the benefits we’ve gained even in the last 20 years in terms of independent access to information, our progress is staggering. Hopefully, my genuine excitement about and enthusiasm for the pace and nature of all these changes comes through in the material we produce.

With a brief like making the most of emerging technologies, I could easily fill the time I’ve been allocated with exciting talk of new gadgets and software which are already improving our lives, or hold the promise of doing so in the short to medium term. But I’d like to examine the question of making the most of emerging technologies from a different angle, which seems particularly appropriate given the theme of this convention.

The conversation I want to start today is a very serious one. It may sound like I’m raining on the tech parade, bringing doom and gloom to the party. I’m an optimist by nature and I remain excited by where we’re going, but we’ve reached our current technological destination with a clear vision, not by stumbling and bumbling along. So where do we go next? How do we make the most of emerging technologies for the betterment of all of us?

When we come together as blind people in gatherings like this around the world, we’re making an important statement. Through words and deeds, we’re living the slogan of the disability movement that has been used so often over the years that some people view it as a cliché. “nothing about us without us”. If you want to know how important that mantra is for our future, you need only look at how well it has worked when we have insisted upon it in our past.

When Louis Braille devised his system of raised dots that almost two hundred years later still delivers us literacy, independence, opportunity and employability, many sighted people couldn’t see the point in it. Worse, some even tried to stop it in its tracks, to ban it, to literally burn it. A blind man invented Braille, and blind people championed it, sometimes in the face of strong opposition.

In more recent times, a man not long blinded because of an accident decided that it was the beginning of a new story for him, not the end of a purposeful life. An education in computers ultimately led him to founding his own company. The man was ted Henter, the company was Henter-Joyce, and ultimately, another blind software developer, Glen Gordon, made access to Windows truly viable, when many people were concerned that the graphical environment of Windows might mean the end of the progress we’d made under DOS.

Blind people of course don’t have a monopoly on good ideas or on innovative thinking, but what you often find is that significant technological advances come from partnerships between the blind and the sighted. A chance meeting with a blind man on a plane led the brilliant Ray Kurzweil to develop the first reading machine in the world. Russell Smith, the founder of the company we now call HumanWare, and Dean Blazie, who also had a huge influence in ensuring blind people were carrying portable note taking devices long before sighted people were, all worked closely with blind people in the development of their products.

Many of the early assistive technology companies were small. They knew the names of the customers who liked to engage. They attended conventions like this one and listened to our ideas. Together, we built the technological launchpad on which we can now blast off.

While we were using these specialised technologies, advocacy organisations around the world were coming together to brainstorm, to dream, to talk and ultimately to vote on policy positions. The view emerged that because of the minority status of the blind community, governments had a role to play in nudging things in the right direction, since unimpeded free markets are never kind to minorities for whom departure from the typical product portfolio is required. Governments must play a role in espousing a view about what we consider morally acceptable as a society. So, particularly in the United States, with legislation such as section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, the message began to resonate that if you created accessible products, Government was more likely to buy your products than anyone else’s. Or to put it another way, if you refused to make your products accessible, you could suddenly find yourself losing an awful lot of business. It’s that reality, the threat of a substantial loss of business in the lucrative government market, that brought the company that might arguably be considered the most successful in the mainstream to date at embracing principles of universal accessibility, Apple, to the table. Now, accessibility is a passion, a value in the very cultural DNA of the company.

Amazon finally got tired of the lawsuits, the protests and the pickets, changed their culture, and are now doing tremendous things in the field of accessibility.

People like us, insisting on a more equitable and just society, faced down the nay-sayers, stood our ground, and worked tirelessly to create the legislative and cultural climate that mainstream companies are now so willing to embrace. That’s an achievement we should celebrate, and must never forget.

Thanks to the stands we’ve taken and the partnerships we’ve formed, there has never been a better time in history to be blind. If you’re on the front line of advocacy, you will know that sometimes, other blind people call us whiners, complainers, ungrateful, often doing so by writing their criticism on the devices that wouldn’t be accessible today without the very efforts they’re so quick to condemn. Take a couple of seconds and give yourself a justified pat on the back.

The future is bright, but the future is not without risks. The principle barrier to us making the most of emerging technologies as I see it, is that as we become more dependent on technology supplied by some of the largest companies in the world, where screen reader and magnifier users are a tiny percentage of their entire userbase and a small component of major hardware and software development programs, it has become harder for us to truly influence outcomes. Just as is the case with the technology market in general, blind people are getting more things done on their smartphone than ever before. Apple brought a screen reader to iOS in 2009, integrating it at no charge on every device they shipped. The term “game changer” is over-used, but that truly was a game changer. Gratitude and a desire to make things even better aren’t mutually exclusive. We can be thankful for how far we’ve come, while realising that all is far from perfect.

Let me paint a hypothetical picture for you. Apple releases a major iOS update. When it’s installed, one of the most basic functions of the iPhone, answering calls, is broken for many users. You turn on the TV news, and it’s the main headline. Breathlessly, the newscaster begins with, “Commerce was plunged into chaos today as millions of people were unable to communicate with one another”. There are interviews with tradespeople, salespeople, all of whom had their livelihoods utterly disrupted. Apple’s share price plummets. Tim Cook holds an emergency press conference to say it’s not good enough, he’s sorry, there’ll be an inquiry about how this slipped through and a patch will be released tomorrow after the team has worked non-stop to create a fix and test it.

This exact scenario did in fact play out when iOS 9 was released. The only difference is, it just affected blind people, so few people cared. The problems answering calls were only present when VoiceOver was running. It was a bug repeatedly reported during the testing phase by many blind people, but it was released to the public nonetheless. Because it only affected blind people, it wasn’t headline news, it didn’t even make the news. There was no apology from Tim Cook, no journalist brought it to his attention. And the fix was not quick in coming.

If you think I’m bringing up ancient history to be sensational, ask any Braille user about iOS 11, the latest version of Apple’s operating system, released with serious bugs reported by multiple people all the way through the test cycle. And there is confusing new Braille behaviour possibly coming to iOS 11.1, which, assuming it isn’t a bug that will be fixed, few people will want.

In Android, Braille is improving but still lags far behind other platforms, and debate goes on about the lack of ability to configure multitouch gestures.

Those with access to the Amazon shopping app woke up one morning to find someone had unilaterally disabled Alexa support when VoiceOver was running.

By all means, let’s wake up in the morning and be grateful that we live in 2017, and be thankful for how far we’ve come. But let’s also move forward based on one important principle that underpins all others. We are worthy. When we buy a smartphone, we are just as worthy of a product that is fit for purpose as when a sighted person buys that same smartphone. We need to ask ourselves, would a company release with this bug if it had the same impact on sighted people that it does on blind people. If the answer is no, it’s unacceptable for it to be released for us. All software has bugs, but anything that materially impedes our ability to do our job, get our study done, and communicate with loved ones and colleagues is a step too far.

We are worthy, because as equal citizens, we’re protected by the same consumer protection laws as everyone else. A product must remain fit for purpose. Those laws don’t say that a product must remain fit for purpose except if you can’t see.

The next important principle that will ensure we make the most of emerging technologies is acceptance of this truth. When you manufacture assistive technology, you become an assistive technology company, and we must hold all assistive technology companies to the same standard. I’ve worked over the years for two of the biggest blindness technology companies in the world. I know how insistent, justifiably so, many users of those products are that they deliver on their promise, and that while no software can ever be bug free, released software is delivered without major show stoppers. If a major show stopper does slip through, they rightly expect action to be prompt, just as action was very prompt when Apple released a software update that broke cellular connectivity for some models, that software was patched within hours.

So, I’ve never resented the robust dialogue from users over the years that I’ve been subjected to as a product manager. This technology has an incredibly high positive impact when it works well, an incredibly high negative impact when the manufacturer breaks it. But now that major global players, with very deep pockets are also assistive technology companies, we have no reason not to hold them to the same standards of excellence.

With assuredness that we are worthy of a quality product that is fit for purpose, we come back to the mantra that has underpinned everything we’ve achieved to date. Nothing about us without us. When companies enter a new geographical market, they spend time researching the culture and the kind of features that are appropriate. We in the blind community have developed our own culture of dialogue over our technology. Our culture expects to be included, consulted, and respected. To get the products we want, we must hold fast to those cultural expectations and insist that if you want to serve us, you treat us as we expect to be treated.

People living blindness every day, in conjunction with the incredibly skilled people these companies employ, are a formidable and unbeatable combination. But if that dialogue doesn’t happen, the consequences are time-wasting at best, downright disruptive at worst. If you read my blog or listen to my Blind Side Podcast, you’ll be aware of the controversy surrounding a decision Apple made, objected to by many testers before release but not reversed despite those objections, where the actions rotor in Mail operated inconsistently compared with much of the rest of iOS, causing many busy people to inadvertently delete emails. That sort of thing would not happen if our feedback was truly being heeded at a time when it could make a difference.

In roles I’ve held over the years, I’ve met many an excited software developer or inventor who believe they’ve come up with the next big game-changer for the blind. Sometimes, they have. But not a single project I’ve ever been involved with hasn’t been refined for the better because of meaningful dialogue with real blind people at the formative stage. It is too easy for big companies to think that because their product talks, they’ve fulfilled their obligations. Accessibility and usability are two different things.

In conclusion, we’re on a thrilling journey of new opportunities and the smashing down of barriers, thanks to constant technological innovation. What a wonderful age in which to be alive. I’m delighted by how far we’ve come in wide societal acceptance of the notion that products should be accessible to us. There are still gaps, and we must continue with the same advocacy strategies that have won us our victories so far. But we know that disastrous things happen when we allow ourselves to be the people for whom things are done, rather than the people with whom things are done. To make the most of emerging technologies, let’s affirm that we are worthy, it’s our future, and in partnership with the best and brightest, we’ll make it come true together.

 

Cupertino, thank you for listening

The fact that so many blind people care so deeply about their experience with Apple Products is a testimony to how well Apple has done. Not only is there a wide range of apps designed specifically to meet the needs of blind users, but many mainstream apps are accessible. Apple continues to encourage developers to do the right thing and be inclusive.

I’m of an age where I don’t think I’ll ever take for granted how wonderful it is to be able to buy not just a new item in an existing product line, but an entirely new product line, and know it will be meaningfully accessible from day one. We’ve come a long way.

Blind people are, of course, far from alone. Many other people with disabilities have been empowered by Apple’s accessibility initiatives, and then of course there are millions without significant disabilities who simply find the iPhone to be an indispensable tool for business, communication and entertainment.

So, contrary to a minority opinion I see out there, blind people don’t express concerns about Apple because they are whiners. They do so because they care. They have not just a financial investment in these products, but an emotional and productivity investment too.

Little wonder then that when it became clear that Apple had made a controversial user interface decision affecting the way Apple’s Mail app interfaced with VoiceOver, the screen reader used by blind people like me, it caused widespread concern. Most opinion I saw on this subject felt that Apple had made the wrong call this time. Apple is staffed by humans, and humans get things wrong sometimes, with the best of intentions. What counts in a situation like this is how responsive a company is to customer concerns; how quick they are to put things right.

With the release of the second beta of the forthcoming iOS 11.1, I’m delighted to see that Apple has heard its customers. The iOS actions rotor in Mail now behaves consistently again, as it did in iOS 10 and earlier.

Perhaps there is a time where we should think about the nature of engagement between the blind community and Apple. We are small, vulnerable, and the impact of well-intentioned but poorly-thought-through UI decisions is unusually high on our community. But for now, the purpose of this post is to say an unconditional thank you.

First, thanks to Apple for listening. It gives me, and I’m sure many others who were troubled by this decision, faith that if we can make a good case for why a UI change isn’t optimal, Apple is responsive and caring enough to reverse or amend it.

Second, thanks to everyone who took a little time to email the Apple Accessibility team with feedback. Remember, this team is on the front line, dealing with a wide range of calls from people with many disabilities. They pass on the feedback, and it’s important that our interactions with them respect the high-pressure role they have and the fact that they’re not the people who will ultimately make the technical changes. So, it’s important that our feedback be constructive and cordial.

Often, I hear from people who feel completely disempowered. They think that no matter what they do, they won’t be able to change a decision a big corporate has made that affects them adversely. Apple’s willingness to listen is a perfect example of why your voice matters. With advocacy, you can’t, and won’t, win them all. But you can win some.

If you contacted Apple to express your respectful view that it would be better if they changed the rotor back to the way it was, maybe allow yourself a little smile every time you delete an email, once 11.1 arrives.

Well done Apple, and the people who spoke up in favour of consistency of user interface.

Announcing the Accessible Phones for the Blind email group

Back in the days of Symbian and Windows mobile, Talks and MobileSpeak, I operated a popular email group called BlindPhones. We actively encouraged product comparisons on the list, so not only could you compare the different platforms and discuss how accessible they were, you could compare screen readers for those platforms. It was a handy resource for people making up their mind about which combination of products to choose, and it was particularly useful for assistive technology trainers who needed to understand when and why they might recommend one solution over another for a particular client.

At a time when I was travelling extensively, and working online while on the road was less easy than it is now, I discontinued the list because it was difficult for me to keep up the moderation tasks. Now, I’m delighted to announce its return.

Hosted on Groups.io, The Blind Phones group is your place for discussions about phones accessible to blind and vision impaired people.

Predominantly, this group concentrates on smartphones, but discussion about any accessible phone is welcome.

Many groups exist for specific platforms, particularly iOS and Android. This group is platform agnostic, and encourages product comparisons. If you have criteria that are particularly important to you, and you want to know whether you’re better off with iOS or Android, or for that matter a Samsung or a Pixel, we welcome the discussion.

We also welcome discussion about the accessibility and functionality of specific smartphone apps.

On the Blind Phones group, we respect everyone’s product choices. We actively monitor the list and suspend people who use denigrating or demonstrably confrontational language towards an individual for the brand they have chosen, or towards a particular brand. We of course welcome Pointing out negative consequences of making a product choice, in a respectful manner.

We intend that this group be a respectful, helpful resource where we can honestly but politely discuss the relative merits of phone platforms, screen readers and apps.

If this sounds like a place you’d like to be, check out the BlindPhones group page, or jump right in and send a blank email to:

blindphones+subscribe@groups.io.