The potential of Voiceover

Voiceover logo (DaVinci man done as blue and white isotope man).Voiceover (the screen reader for Apple’s OSX) is often left out when people refer to screen readers. I guess people figure that people using screen readers make such a small percentage of overall usage, and that a small percentage of a small percentage is negligible.

I did a review recently, which drew some fire after Joe Clark posted it to the very active Macvisionaries list.

Whilst the review is valid in what it attempted, I will be posting an update because:

it turns out that using the official documentation probably isn’t the best way to learn how to use Voiceover. Although the points above are still generally valid, with help from the list, I will post an update soon. One point that will be corrected is that some of the difficulty with keyboard controls can be overcome by locking the ‘Voiceover keys’, cntl-cmd.

In the mean time, if you are interested in learning how to use Voiceover, make sure that you start from the install process rather than reading the manual first, and check out the newly set up Macpedia wiki.

If you want to learn to use Voiceover, the best way would be to go through the installation tutorial, and then read the very concise notes I made that would have helped me with things like “interacting with content areas”, and locking the “Voiceover keys”. (Also posted on the wiki.)

The review is still valid because there are very few accessible applications with Voiceover (in comparison with JAWs/Windows), and browsing web sites has quite a way to go.

However, there are a few reasons to pay attention to Voiceover.

It’s on OSX

Stating the obvious, but it make a huge difference to how the screen reader works. JAWs, Windows Eyes et al. have to work around the MSAA layer, and in comparison, feel very flakey.

JAWs in particular is a long way ahead of Voiceover in terms of supported applications and to a lesser extent for functionality, but Voiceover is part of the OS. It isn’t trying to work around the OS, and this makes a big difference in (perceived?) stability and reliability.

Sidenote: For those thinking that Microsoft would be lambasted for doing their own screen reader, you’re probably right. However, there are several major players in the Windows screen reader market, in the 3 or 4 years since OSX was released, no one else tried to create a screen reader for OSX. It’s that percentage thing again.

Strong community

There may not be many Voiceover users, the the community is very active if Macvionaries is anything to go by.

Apple hasn’t been particularly forthcoming with help & information (as is their usual MO), but the community is filling the gaps with the wiki (after a little prod 😉 ).

It’s early days

It’s only a version 1 product. Most of the Windows screen readers are at version 6 or more, Voiceover is probably better than they were at version 3 or 4.

It is difficult to assess Apple’s commitment to accessibility and Voiceover. There are some negative views on this, but I would hope that the thought of extra sales due to fulfilling Section 508 criteria might help. (I’m assuming that having a screen reader and magnifier help, but I don’t know US law that well.)

Chris Hofstader commented that Apple wasn’t interested in making the iPod accessible:

from the very first iPod released a few years ago to the fanciest one out there today, all had more than enough compute power and storage (with zillions of bytes left over) to run a speech synthesizer.

I’m not so sure, it seems that Apple are investigating (in fact, patenting) methods of creating a text-to-speech interface.

Probably not for accessibility reasons, granted, but it’s an interesting approach (using the host computer to create the speech, which is simply read out by the iPod when on the move). That would indicate that the performance of a standard voice synthesizer wasn’t up to the job.

The crux

Apple isn’t usually the first mover, but it tries to be the most stylish & usable product, and won’t rush something out to satisfy one audience that might get in the way of the majority. Apple could be working furiously on Voiceover behind the scenes, but we’d never know.

If Voiceover is improved, and a few more crucial applications become usable with it (Office & iTunes for example), it suddenly becomes a very cheap and easy alternative to Windows and JAWs.

The test for Voiceover’s future will be to see if it is updated in the next release of OSX (Tiger). If it is, I’ll be one of the first in line to try it out.


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