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I’ve had my new Android phone for a couple of weeks now, and I’m finally starting to get comfortable with it. I have to give credit where it is due. Without Mobile Accessibility, it would be a lot tougher to use the phone, though certainly not impossible. However, there are a few shortcomings in the app suite/screen reader that surprised me.
First, let me step back and explain what Mobile Accessibility is. Code factory has developed a home-screen replacement which contains alternative versions of the major functions most people want to perform with their phones. If you stay within the application, all of the functions are accessible without resort to the phone’s hardware navigation keys. This is not so if you leave the app. This is a limitation of Android. Mobile Accessibility functions as a screen reader while working with the phone’s native interface or other applications. Accessibility is hit and miss here, but again that is a problem with the platform. Android provides an accessibility API, but as I understand it the developer is responsible for pushing content to it rather than the screen reader being able to extract the necessary information from the control. If that is an accurate description of the problem, I’m surprised that there are as many accessible applications as there are. See my post from a couple of weeks ago for some helpful links. What I will do here is talk through the built in functions and offer a few comments about the screen reader functionality of the phone. Doubtless over time I may learn some things that modify my first impressions. I’ll try to remember to revise or update accordingly.
Within Mobile Accessibility, everything can be done by touch. You can explore the screen with your finger and double-tap what you want, or you can swipe up and down to move between elements. Swiping left and right jumps several elements at a time unless you are within an edit control, in which case the app speaks according to the navigation setting. Triple tapping or using the menu button brings up general and specific settings to where you are, including the ability to change the navigation mode between words, characters, and sentences. Also hidden in this menu are options to check the status of your phone, get the date and time, and see system notifications. I would like to see some of these accessible more quickly, perhaps with multi-touch gestures. The system notification screen is direct from the phone, so hardware navigation is required. It seems to me this could easily be integrated. If your phone is multi-touch capable, two-fingered actions move you to top and bottom or back to the previous screen. Reading the manual is helpful, especially if this is your first experience with touch screen access. It didn’t occur to me to try two-fingered gestures until I read it.
If you are buying a new phone and know you need hardware navigation, chances are you will have a slide-out keyboard. This is a superior method of text entry, since it is faster to find and press physical keys. however, if you have a phone without a physical keyboard or for some reason don’t want to use it, Mobile Accessibility provides a virtual keyboard that works well. You can move around to hear the letter that will be typed and lift your finger to enter it. There is also a mode that makes the place where you rest your finger always be H. From there you can move to where you would expect the other keys to be. I haven’t tried this. I do occasionally use the virtual keyboard for quick corrections even though I have a slide-out. The Mobile Accessibility keyboard is selectable outside of the app for use as an input method for other applications.
You can also use voice input to enter text. Mobile Accessibility integrates with Android’s (2.2 and up) voice recognition feature, which works through Google. This takes some getting used to, but as I learn how to use it efficiently I am really getting to like it. If you are in a quiet environment where you can use it, you’ll put keyboarding to shame. And by the way, you can’t do this with an iPhone. Holding down the volume-down key and waiting for two short vibrations, you speak short phrases into the phone. It comes back with a menu of possible choices for what you said. You can move between them with swipes and use the volume-up key to go word by word. That little tidbit from the manual proved very helpful to be sure I entered what I thought. Double-tapping is supposed to select the option, but I had trouble with that. pressing volume-down also selects the current entry and I found that more reliable. The hardware navigation keys and Enter also work. You can use this feature outside of the application, though you get to it differently. I have not tried this.
The Phone as a Phone
You’re carrying around a little computer that runs circles around the desktop computer you may have used just a few years ago, but it still has to actually make and receive phone calls. At the top of Mobile accessibility’s home screen is the phone function. when you open it, you are presented with options to call by number or call by contact. The call log is also displayed, and you can double-tap any of the entries for a list of things you can do with it, including call, send SMS, etc. Choosing to dial by number brings up a telephone keypad that works like the virtual keyboard. Things break down once you have a call going. One of the first things I had to do when I got my phone was set up voice mail. Even though I used the settings screen to initiate the call, Mobile Accessibility’s call screen presents once the call is connected. all one can do from this screen is long swipe up or down to answer or disconnect a call. Yes, you can double-tap while the phone is ringing to hear who is calling. There is also an option to use volume keys to answer or end the call. The proximity sensor is used to allow the buttons to actually control call volume if the phone is next to your ear. Now here’s the problem. Voicemail wanted me to enter numbers. How am I supposed to do that? The hardware numbers on my keyboard didn’t work. I finally discovered that I could get the phone’s default number pad to come up by finding the right spot on the bottom of the touch screen, but that keypad has no accessibility. Getting it close enough to my face to see what I was doing caused the screen to go blank. I got it done, but the accessible phone pad needs to be integrated into the in-call functionality. I do not know if Android or my particular phone model could be the problem here. I do recognize the potential for issues with the program speaking over the call, but having it inaccessible is worse. That said, making and receiving calls is usually no problem. When you are calling by contact there is a search box at the top that you can use to track down the contact you want. I have not had much luck with Google’s voice recognition on this screen, but it is there.
Contacts and calendar data are pulled from the phone’s stock databases, so you can sync with Google and they’ll appear within Mobile Accessibility. You can maintain contacts as you would expect. My only complaint here is that there is no option to sort by last name, which I prefer.
SMS (Text Messaging)
Again, this works like you would expect it to. You can find a contact or enter a number. your previous conversations are shown in the log and each is grouped by contact. While you are in a conversation the incoming message is read. I have used the voice input function here, but I’m a little afraid that I might miss something really bad due to not understanding what was actually presented to me as a choice. Once a text is sent you can’t get it back. At least once some of the suggestions it brought back for what I said would have been quite embarrassing if I had accidentally chosen one of them. Review carefully. I feel better about using it now that I know how to go word by word before making a selection. It’s still faster than keyboarding.
This is a handy feature. You can set multiple alarms identified by name and have them be recurring. I have one set for Thursday mornings at 10:45 to remind me to contain the dog before the lady who cleans our pool arrives. They don’t get along.
The calendar is disappointing. What good is a calendar without reminders. I can’t find a way to set reminders on new appointments. Though the stock calendar app is not accessible, based on the settings I’m pretty sure it has reminders. I’ll have to wait until one of my saved appointments comes up to verify whether they work. Not only that, the dates differ from what’s in my Google calendar. I’m pretty sure this isn’t a problem with the program I’m using to sync up my Outlook calendar with Google, since Google and Outlook remain correct. I’m unable to see if the stock calendar app on the phone is also wrong. This may or may not be a problem within Mobile Accessibility.
The email function only accepts your Gmail account. I’m not sure why the app can’t leverage the Gmail account that the phone is set up with rather than making you re-enter this information in its settings, but once that is done it works very well. I would like to see an option to only check email when the email function is accessed. That would save data charges and battery if you don’t really need to know that you have email waiting. Unless something about Android prevents it a better option would be to rely on the built-in Gmail functionality for all of that.
To my knowledge,this is the best accessible web browser available. Given that other Mobile Accessibility features are hooked to outside functions of the phone, I’m disappointed that the web browser does not appear to be one of them. If you are using an external application such as Facebook and want to go into a web site, the system’s default browser comes up. If you install the Ideal web browser you can get limited screen reading functions, but you are never offered the option of using Mobile accessibility. I really hope this changes in the next version, or maybe there’s a trick I don’t know to make it happen. Within the browser, there are lots of navigation and reading options that can be found by bringing up the menu once the browser has started. I have not used this much yet, because the place I usually go on the web, Facebook, doesn’t work well. I don’t know where the problem is, but the whole page for the Facebook mobile site doesn’t load. I know that Facebook tries to optimize it’s presentation based on the phone model, so it could be there is a bug on their side. Whoever is at fault, the result is that I cannot see anything but the first few updates on Facebook from the mobile site and thus it is of little use. I have better results using the Facebook Android app, though it has its own accessibility issues.
Where Am I
Where Am I uses your GPS receiver to announce your current location. It can periodically report your location as you travel. I found this function to be of little value. As often as it reported correct addresses as I walked down a major street in my neighborhood, it also reported addresses from streets in the general vicinity. The accuracy was way off. I realize that is a function of the GPS receiver, but during the same walk I also experimented with Google Maps. Using the navigation function through Google Maps accurately reported where I should turn based on my location, so I’m not sure why Where Am I was so bad on that first trip. It seemed to work better the next time I tried it, using it in conjunction with navigation to give me clues along the way as to my location. It would be a much more useful app if it could identify cross streets as I approached them and get nearby business information from Google. Perhaps they plan an enhanced pay navigation app for the future. After all, their $800 Mobile Geo product cash cow is dead or fading fast.
Mobile Accessibility provides a menu by which you can get to other installed applications on your phone. You can use standard navigation functions to move through the menu or press a letter on your physical keyboard to jump to the first app that starts with that letter. Once you select an app, you’re on your own. That takes you out of Mobile Accessibility, so you’ll need the navigation controls on your phone and the good grace of the developer to use the app.
Mobile Accessibility gives you access to some basic features of your phone such as ringer type and vibration through this menu as well as settings for the app itself. For full access to your phone’s features, you’ll want to use the Settings App that came with the phone.
There are a few other things On my wish list and not yet mentioned here. I’d like to have quicker access to connectivity features such as bluetooth, 4G, and wi-fi. I’d also like to have a way to quickly turn on or off the GPS radio, since it quickly drains the battery. I suspect there are apps that can help with this. At least some of these are generally readily accessible on a phone’s stock home page, but Mobile Accessibility replaces the home page, so it needs to fill that gap.
This is a great first effort. It may sound like I’m not very happy, but I’m delighted to have gone out and purchased a phone that was basically useable out of the store. The iPhone still has Android beat for off-the-shelf accessibility, but that may very well be changing over the next year or so. I Commend Code Factory for making a way for greater accessibility in the meantime and dropping the price to something a little more affordable than their previous offerings. I’m a little disappointed at some feature gaps that shouldn’t be, but I expect the next version will fill them and add more useful functions.
Yesterday was a first. I walked into a retail store and walked out with a piece of modern technology that was blind friendly out of the box. It is a Samsung Epic 4G, otherwise known as the Galaxy S. The phone runs Android. Yes, the iPhone was first, but for various reasons both personal and practical I didn’t buy an iPhone.
I do need to qualify my claim. It was necessary for me to ask the salesperson to activate Talkback for me, which involved offering up my Google account credentials. After that, I was off and running. Android definitely has some accessibility issues, but it is useable. Add in Mobile Accessibility from Code Factory and you have a device that is easily capable of doing the things you expect your smart phone to be able to do. I should state for the record that you can manage the phone without the $97 app, but it will definitely improve your experience if you can afford it. Here’s a link that will help.
A couple of up-front tips will help the new Android user who is blind. Most importantly, you need a phone with some kind of physical navigation aid. A touch pad would do, though I imagine that would be difficult to use precisely. Physical buttons, whether on the body of the phone or as part of a slide-out keyboard, would be better. The problem is that Android does not provide a way for screen readers to implement alternative touch navigation to applications that are not specifically designed for it. The applications within Mobile Accessibility do allow for touch only navigation. Once you have it talking, another thing you will need to know is that the controls in apps are accessed by moving directionally to where they are located on the screen. In other words, moving just up and down may not bring you to all of the available controls. Also be aware that the application may not present everything in a grid pattern. It will take some trial and error to figure out how to navigate to some controls, and then you can only hope they are labeled. Android leaves it up to developers to design their apps properly. There are a few accessible applications out there. A growing collection of accessibility reviews can be found at Android Access, a site run by A T Guys, which markets Mobile Accessibility in the U.S. Their vendor site appears to be under a hack attack at the time of this writing so I won’t link to it.
My conclusion is this. Accessibility is not perfect but we have better options now than ever before. I am delighted to have walked out of a retail establishment actually using the device they sold me. The future looks bright. I’m expecting future developments to make things even better, and I’m crying no tears over the loss of my ever-crashing Windows Mobile phone.
I am not vane enough to imagine that anyone missed me, but because it has been a while since I wrote anything I thought I would explain why. My old PC that was becoming a daily test of my patience and commitment to purity of thought and speech has now become my new toy. I recently bought a new desktop, so I got two for one. I’ve been itching to get my hands on Linux for several years, but the obstacle was always that it didn’t have a screen reader. The only thing I knew of was an operating environment called Emacspeak. From the sound of it you need applications that are coded for it. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a replacement OS, though ditching Windows wouldn’t bother me in the least. I certainly wasn’t looking for one for which access to applications would be limited. I decided to wait until someone came up with a better solution.
In the last couple of years, thanks to building the web site for the church and foreseeing a need to become more expert in the most likely OS for building out servers in the future, I’ve become interested again in trying it out. I ran across Speakup, an integrated solution for making the GNU Linux console speech enabled. Fortunately I still had my old Dectalk serial speech synthesizer, since most of the installs that are speech enabled require a hardware synthesizer. That includes the one I chose. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I still don’t. The Speakup modified distribution of Fedora I chose basically because I recognized the name didn’t just start talking when I put in the DVD I had burned. Right in the middle of my effort the site where I got the image disappeared, so I couldn’t get to the documentation. It should have been a red flag when the link from the Speakup site to the documentation didn’t work the first time I tried it.
With a little trial and error and the knowledge that all the flavors have similar command sets, I was able to get the install talking. Once done and rebooted, it stopped talking. I worked that out too, but I have yet to learn how to make it boot that way every time. Now I’m ready for the adventure. I went and found a few beginner Linux books to get me started. I had hoped for a speech enabled graphical environment, but the power of Linux is in the command line anyway, so maybe being forced to learn it up front will serve me well.
So, if I remain silent, you’ll know where I am.
Last week I got a new cell phone. I’ve wanted one for some time now because I want to be able to read text messages. Really I just want to be able to use all the features of my phone wherever I happen to be. For that I need a phone that talks.
I think there is a low-end talking cell phone provided by one of the other carriers but not by Sprint. It was a very low end phone if I remember. I need to be able to get text pages from work even if I can’t read them when I’m not at home, so that wasn’t an option. Right now, to get a fully speech enabled phone you need a “smart phone” running Symbian or Windows Mobile unless you go for the new iPhone. I’m curious about how well a blind user can work with a speech enabled touch screen like that of the iPhone and I have to give Apple credit for building it into every phone. However, it’s one of the most expensive options and I’d have to get out of my contract and change carriers. That’s a really expensive phone!
About a year ago when I smashed my phone in a fall I considered getting a speech capable model, but I didn’t want to spend the money and then find I hated the thing or just couldn’t really use it effectively. I opted for a cheap upgrade, and then discovered by accident that it had rudimentary speech capability. I understand several models now do this if you know how to dig it out of the menus. Mine was a Samsung M300. It can read caller’s names when they call and as you scroll through them. It reads menus and contact details. The voice is very crude, but it was much more than I thought I had. It does not read the web or text messages. It does not read what you enter in text fields.
Now that I’ve gotten into Facebook and to a much lesser degree Twitter, I’ve become envious of the people who send updates from everywhere. Sometimes I wonder at the wisdom of what they’re saying from where, but that’s another topic for another day. I wanted to do that too, and when my wife went swimming with her phone, my opportunity arose. We had the same model and she likes it. They don’t sell it anymore so I gave her mine and got a brand new HTC Snap.
I’d already been doing some preliminary research in hopes that I might be able to get a talking phone. I didn’t necessarily want one as powerful as the one I bought. Mainly I wanted text messaging that I could read. I was disappointed with the information available from Sprint. The phone they recommend on their web site (LG Rumor 2) may indeed do what they claim, but it sure doesn’t seem to say so in the manual. I say “seem to” because the PDF manual is not formatted for accessibility. Most of the words all run together when read by a screen reader. From what I have read and heard from others, every other carrier is doing a better job of providing the information blind customers need to determine what to buy. AT&T even sells Mobile Speak at a steep discount. Nevertheless, because of my contract and my wife wanting to keep the phone she likes, I bought a Sprint phone.
The HTC runs Windows Mobile 6.1, so I downloaded and installed Mobile Speak from Code Factory. Symbian users have another choice in a program called Talks, but as far as I know Mobile Speak is the only Windows Mobile option. The install routine sets the screen reader and magnifier up as a 30 day demo on your phone. I’m still running the demo, but since it’s the only option I have I will be paying up soon. I’ve had it for just over a week.
Installation was easy, but Code factory makes you jump through hoops to buy the license. It’s a transferable license, so it will be good on any phone, but you must go through one of their dealers and there is no fully automated way to buy from any of them. Come on folks! That’s ridiculous for such a high tech piece of software. I should modify that slightly. I didn’t check with AT&T, assuming I could only buy it there for an AT&T phone.
As with any screen reader, there’s a bit of a learning curve. It took me a while to remember the basic commands and I’m still not proficient at them. It reads most basic functions well, but there are some problem areas. Naturally, the first thing I did was go to Facebook’s mobile site. After struggling through my login on the tiny keyboard, I was delighted to hear it start reading through my friends’ updates. Moving around is easy enough, but if you’re used to all the tricks a modern screen reader on a PC uses to help you find what you want on a page a mobile phone browser is going to take some adjustment. The obvious solution seemed to be the dedicated Facebook app provided by Microsoft. That didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped. It is usable, but Mobile Speak doesn’t reliably read each item completely as you move to it. I think a cursor delay feature as found on PC screen readers could help but I don’t know that it would fix it. Using the program’s review cursor it is possible to find out what’s on the screen, but this is an impractical solution when not much fits on a mobile phone screen. In short, not every application is going to work with the screen reader, just like in Windows on a PC.
One of the first thoughts I had as I experienced my first crash was, “I can’t believe I just bought a phone running Windows!” Whether the occasional application crashes are attributable to Mobile Speak or something else I can’t say, since this is the only phone of this type I’ve ever had. It’s also slow. Again I don’t know if that’s just being a Windows Mobile phone or if Mobile Speak really puts a drag on it. I have found that just like a Windows PC, a Windows phone has to be rebooted from time to time.
You’d think from this review that I’m not happy with my purchase. I guess I am slightly disappointed, but since when has a first generation of any piece of software been free of bugs. Yes, actually Mobile Speak is up to 2.1 I think, but still the whole technology is pretty fresh. I expect it will get better. For now I am just thrilled to have a phone I can use to do everything I want to do. I know I’ll find some things easier as I learn both the phone and the screen reader.