What I want to see at WWDC2020
WWDC is Apple’s “World Wide Developer Conference.” It’s where developers come to learn about what will be new in Apple’s operating systems (iOS, iPad OS, MacOS, ETC.), and learn how to make the best of Apple’s walled garden of tools to program apps. Tech reporters also come to the event, to gather all the news and distill it into the expected bite-sized, simple pieces. Be assured, my readers, that I will not hold anything back from you in my analysis of the event.
WWDC is not here just yet. I know, many news sites are predicting and yammering and getting all giddy with “what if” excitement. I won’t bore you with such useless speculation just to fill the headlines and homepages. I fear that I lack the imagination and incentive to create such pieces. Besides, I’m more interested in what a device can do, and less about how it looks or feels.
However, I am Invested in Apple’s operating systems. I do want to see Apple succeed in accessibility and think that, if they put enough work into it, and gave the accessibility team more freedom and staff, that accessibility would greatly improve. It is in that spirit that I give you my hopes, not predictions, for WWDC 2020. This “wishlist” will be separated into headings based on the operating system, and further divided into subsections of that operating system. After WWDC, I will revisit this post, and updated it with notes on WWDC if things change on the wishlist, and then do a post containing more notes and findings from the event.
MacOS is Apple’s general computer (desktop/laptop) operating system. With much tried and true frameworks and programs, it is a reliable system for most people. It even has functions that Windows doesn’t, like the ability to select text anywhere and have that text spoken immediately, not screen reader needed, and remap keyboard modifier keys, and system wide spell checking. These help me greatly in all of my work.
Its screen reader is VoiceOver. It’s like VoiceOver on the iPhone, but made for a complex operating system, and has some complex keyboard commands. Accessibility, like anywhere else, is not perfect on the Mac. There are bugs that have stood for a long time, and new bugs that I fear will hang around. There are also features that I’d love to see added, to make the Mac even better.
In short, MacOS accessibility isn’t a toy. I want the Mac to be treated like it’s worth something . From the many bugs, to missing features, the Mac really needs some love accessibility-wise. Many tech “reporters” say that the Mac is a grown and stable operating system. For blind people, though, the Mac is shriveled and stale.
Catalyst needs an accessibility boost
“Catalyst” is Apple’s bridge between iPad apps and Mac apps. It allows developers, Apple included, to bring iPad apps to the Mac. Started in MacOS Mojave with Apple’s own apps, Catalyst accessibility was… serviceable. It wasn’t great, but there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do with the apps. It just wasn’t the best experience. The apps were very flat, and one needed to use the VoiceOver custom actions menu, without the ability to use letter navigation, to select actions like one would using the “actions” rotor on the iPad.
Now, in Catalina, the Catalyst technology is available for third-party developers, but accessibility issues still remain. The apps don’t feel like Mac apps at all, not even Apple’s own apps. So, in MacOS 10.16, I hope to see at least Apple’s own apps be much more accessible, especially if the Messages app will be an iPad catalyst app.
VoiceOver needs a queue
Screen readers convey information through speech, usually. This isn’t new for people who are blind, but what may be new is that they manage what is spoken using a queue. This means that when you’re playing a game and new text appears, the screen reader doesn’t interrupt itself from speaking the important description of the environment just to speak that an unimportant NPC just came into the area.
VoiceOver, sadly, does not have this feature, or if it does, it hardly ever uses it. Now, it looks like the speech synthesis architecture has a queue built in, so VoiceOver should be using this to great effect. But it isn’t. This means that doing anything complex in the Terminal app is unproductive. Even using web apps, which have VoiceOver speak events, can be frustrating when VoiceOver interrupts itself to say "loading new tweets" and such. It was so bad that the VoiceOver team had to give the option for a sound to play instead of the "one row added" notification for the mail app.
This is a large oversight, and it has gone on long enough. So, in MacOS 10.16, I desperately hope that VoiceOver can finally manage speech like a true screen reader, with a speech queue.
Insertion point at… null
Long time Apple fans may know what the insertion point is. For Windows, Android, and Linux users, it is the cursor, or Point. It is where you insert text. On Mac and iOS, VoiceOver calls this the insertion point, and it appears in text fields. The only problem is, VoiceOver says it appears on read‐only places, like websites in earlier versions of MacOS 10.15, and emails to this day.
VoiceOver believes that there is an insertion point in the email somewhere, but says that it is at “null”, meaning that it is at 0, or doesn’t exist. That’s because there isn’t one. This only appears when you are reading by element, VO + Right or Left arrow, and not when you are reading by line with just the up and down arrows, where there is a sort of cursor to keep track of where you are. But this cursor is, most likely, a VoiceOver construct, so it should know that when moving by element, there practically isn’t one besides VoiceOver’s own “cursor” that is focusing on things.
This bug is embarrassing. I wouldn’t want my supervisor seeing this kind of bug in the technology that I use to do professional work. I stress again that the Mac is not a toy. Yes, it has “novelty” voices, and yes, some blind people talk like them for fun, or use them in daily work to be silly. I don’t, though, because the Mac is my work machine. What’s a computer, Apple asks? A Mac, that’s what! I rely on this computer for my job, and if things don’t improve, I’ll probably move to Linux, which is the next best option for my workflow. Of course, things there don’t improve much either, but at least the screen reader is actually used by its creator and testers, so silly bugs like that don’t appear in a pro device. So, in MacOS 10.16, I hope that the accessibility team took a long vacation from adding stuff and spent a lot of time on fixing MacOS’ VoiceOver so that I can be proud to own a Mac again.
I need more fingers
The Mac has so many keyboard commands, and letter navigation in all menus and lists make navigating the Mac a breeze. But some of the keyboard commands were clearly made for a desktop machine. I have a MacBook Pro, late 2019 with four Thunderbolt ports, but still the same Function, Control (remapped to escape), Option, Command, Space, Command, Option, Capslock (remapped to control because Emacs), keyboard layout. In order to lock the screen, then, with the normal keyboard layout (without remapping due to the touch bar and Emacs), I’d have to lock the screen by holding the command key with my right thumb, hold control with my left pinkie, and… and… how do I reach the Q? Ah, found it! I think. That may be A, or 1, though.
My point is, we blind people pretty much always use the keyboard. sure, we can use the track pad, but that’s an option, not a requirement like the touch screen of an iPhone. Keyboard commands should be ergonomic, for every Mac model, not just the iMac. So, in Mac OS 10.16, I hope to see more ergonomic keyboard commands for MacBooks. I hope VoiceOver commands become more ergonomic as well, as pressing Control + Option + Command + 2 or even Capslock + Command + 2 gets pretty cramped. I know, the Touchbar means less keys, but my goodness I hate using those commands when I need to. And no, having us use the VoiceOver menu isn’t a fix. It’s a workaround. And no, having us use letter navigation to lock the screen or do any number of hard keyboard commands is not a fix, it’s a workaround.
Find and replace Touchbar with Function keys
I’ve talked about the Touchbar in earlier articles, so I’ll just give an overview here. The Mac does not have a Touchscreen. The Touchscreen is slower for blind people to use, and so is the Touchbar. We can’t even customize it, as that part of system preferences is seemingly inaccessible to us. One Mac user said he has answers on how to use it well, but I asked him about it, and haven’t seen a reply to my query. For now, then, the Touchbar is useless to me, and blind people who, like me, use their Macs to get work done.
Now, one place it could be good at is in Pages. While in Pages, the Touchbar acts like a row of formatting buttons. But there are keyboard commands for almost all of them, except for adding a heading. If the Touchbar were that useful everywhere else, it may have a place in my workflow. But I write all of my documents, when I can help it, in Markdown or Org-mode, inside Emacs or another text editor. So the Touchbar would be better gone from my MacBook, and replaced by the much more useful function keys, with tactile buttons that do one thing when pressed in each context, and I know what they’ll do when pressed.
So, in a new model of the MacBook, I want the option to use regular function keys, even if it costs $20 more. Either that, or give me a reason to use this useless touch strip that only acts to eliminate keys that VoiceOver can use and make keyboarding that much more limited. And no, an external keyboard is not a fix. It’s a workaround.
Text formatting with VoiceOver
This applies to both MacOS and iOS, but it’d be more useful on the Mac, so I’m putting it here. As I wrote in my Writing Richly post, formatting is important for both reading and writing. I did send Apple feedback based on this, so I hope that in 10.16, I, and all other blind people, are able to read and write with as much access to formatting as sighted people.
What’s that window say?
In MacOS Catalina, Apple added a little‐known feature to VoiceOver: the ability to get a “caption” from any element, or “control”, on the screen.
There’s nothing on the screen
There are many iOS apps that are very accessible. They work well with VoiceOver, and can be used fine by blind people. However, there are also many which appear blank to VoiceOver, so cannot easily be used. VoiceOver could use its already‐good text recognition technology to scan the entire screen if an element cannot be found with an accessible label, other than the app title. Then, it could get the location of the scanned text and items, and allow a user to feel around the screen to find them.
This could dramatically improve access to everything from games, to utility apps written in an inaccessible framework, like QT. May QT be forgotten, forever. So, in iOS 14, I hope that Apple majorly ramps up its use of AI in VoiceOver. Besides, that would put Google, the AI company, even further to shame, since they don’t use AI at all in TalkBack to recognize inaccessible items or images.
Apple Arcade for everyone
Apple Arcade came out some time last year. 100 games were promised around launch time, and at $5 per month, it is an amazing deal, as you can play these games forever; there is no rotation like in XBox Game Pass. For now, though, there have been no games that blind people can play, so I just canceled my subscription, my hope in Apple dwindling further. So, in this year’s WWDC, I hope that Apple not only adds accessible games to Apple Arcade, or even makes a few of their own, but shows them off. People should know that Apple truly cares, as much as a 1.5 trillion dollar corporation can, about accessibility and people who are blind, who cannot play regular, inaccessible games.
I hope this article has enlivened your imagination a bit regarding the soon‐to‐be WWDC 2020. I’ve detailed what I want to see in MacOS, my most often used Apple system, iOS, and Apple’s services. Now, what do you want to see? Please, let me know by commenting wherever this article is shared.
Thanks so much for reading my articles. If you have any suggestions, corrections, or other comments, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I eagerly await your comments.