Thursday, November 24, 2005

How accessible are Apple Macs? A subjective review

A friend asked me whether I'd give an opinion of the Apple
screenreader, Voiceover. I don't actually use voiceover as my main
access technology, being partially sighted. I do use it to read large
chunks of text, something I quite appreciate as backup, especially
when using the trackpad on the laptop, as this means I don't have to
constantly move my index finger to focus text. This blog entry is a review of what I know about Voiceover, and Applemac access technology generally.

Here's my general opinion of Voiceover.

Manual - you get an MP3 version on the Mac and you also pick up a PDF
version on the net. This explains things quite well and you should be
able to learn the basics of voiceover in about 2-3 hours if you go for
the MP3 version.

Compatibility. There are issues here. While many packages included
on the Mac's standard sales package work well, some don't work at all
and others need some serious tweaking by Apple. I'd like to hope that
these issues are cleared up with later versions of OSX. This depends
on whether Apple seriously intend to integrate Voiceover into their
operating system or are just offering it as a sweetener for the
massive American education market. Before Voiceover, Macs weren't ADA
compatible, so they could have lost out on a lot of sales if they
hadn't pulled their finger out.

Works well with:
TextEdit (the Mac's default word processor - not a bad one, but
lacking a few bells and whistles, but perfectly acceptable for 95
percent of all writing/documenting tasks. Also works with a third
party WP package called Nisus Writer Express which I like as as its
pretty well-featured for a package costing £35 or thereabouts. Nearly
as good as MS-Word.

Safari- works well with the standard Mac web browser, Safari. Does
not work with Firefox, a good alternative.

Mail - pretty obvious what that does. I don't use Mail a lot because
the Zoom cursor does not track with it (its worth bearing what tracks
and what doesn't if you/your users are partially sighted and likely to
use speech as a backup rather than using VO as their only access tech
solution). I use Gmail with Safari and this works well. However, VO
*does* work with Mail, and pretty well apparently.

iTunes. The Mac uses iTunes for a number of processes including CD
copying, MP3 ripping etc. Not accessible to voiceover - this is a
MAJOR failure on Apple's part. The script used to write the program
isn't Cocoa compliant, but as far as a user is concerned, we don't
care. It just don't work.

Appleworks - does not work fully. Another major failure since this is
their main "MS-Office" equivalent. I' ve heard rumours that the next
version will work properly, but wait for the fat lady to sing on this
one I think.

Navigating items. Apple's desktop, "dock" (a list of easily
selectable programs) and the "Finder" - what Windows calls Windows
Explorer, works very well and its easy to navigate with the voiceover

For and against:]

Apple Mac stability. Very reliable, mine has never crashed. You can
throw bricks at the operating system and the worst thing does is
briefly shrug. From my experience of Voiceover, I'd say this extends
to this. Voiceover is part of the OS rather than being a bolt-on
which makes it feel and act integrated.

What works, works well. While later versions of Windows have become
much more stable, the Mac way of doing things still makes quite a lot
of sense, though as Windows gets better, the "Mac is superior" feeling
which used to be espoused by Mac users is no longer applicable. I
like elements of both OS-es. Windows is just more familiar and stuff
is more likely to work with WindowEyes/JAWS out of the box.

Its included in the price. If cost is an issue, then a Mac Mini costs
£339 with Voiceover and Zoom included. A new copy of JAWS alone
costs twice that. If you are just into a bit of word processing,
email and Internet, then work it out for yourself

Voiceover is not a "special" technology. You don't get the
ghettosiation ethic that some PC products have. Every new Mac sold
can be used by a VI (within the limitations I've mentioned) out of the
box. This is a wonderfully liberating feeling. Also, means that
issues of the absolutely ridiculous (OK, I could use expletives here
but won't) lengths Windows PC access products are copy protected (and
all the user-related bureaucracy which goes with it) don't apply.
Keys, dongles, license rights? They just don't apply to Macs.


User might need to relearn access technology. My tech-savvy,
JAWS-using wife can't be bothered to learn Voiceover. If the user is
not familiar with an existing system, unlearning a familiar system
won't be a problem though.

The PC versions are industry standards, Voiceover is a new kid on the
block. There are much more support sites and VIs with JAWS/WinEyes
experience. Also Macs are comparatively rare in their own right with
5-7 percent of the overall PC market. GW Micro, Freedom Scientific et
al have been making and supporting their various access tech products
for years and know their stuff. While you might get lucky and find a
member of staff in Apple who knows about Voiceover, I'd imagine their
support team isn't half the leviathan

Third party Voiceover training might not be that easy to find. Hmmmm,
I feel a new niche for my good self here!

Should I or should I not....?

A few basic ground-rules.

Feeling adventurous? Go for the Mac but don't expect an easy ride.
The MacVsionairies user group is a great source of support and some
of the users on it are extremely knowledgeable. If you need to use a
particular Windows product, then obviously go for Windows and JAWS

Education purchaser: If classmates are using Macs by default then
also go for it.

Cautious buyer?
I'd stick to buying Windows PC and JAWS. You'll have to pay much more
you will have the sort of experience familiar to most blindies on
learning a new package with WinEyes, JAWS etc. This means good
support and availability of training. If Apple are serious about
Voiceover though, give it a few years and Windows based access
technology will have to serious drop in price (or SHOCK! HORROR! be
included as part of Windows, because if Apple are serious, Voiceover
will be giving the likes of Freedom, GW Micro and the rest a run for
their money. The Mac could in three to five years time, be the VI's
first choice of computer, simply on price alone.

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