[nfb-talk] Apple v Android: the winner is

Sheri Anderson sheri.k.anderson at gmail.com
Mon Oct 22 12:52:03 UTC 2012

Apple v Android: the winner is… the disabled community
Robin Christopherson investigates how competition to reach the
disabled market has become a win-win situation for users
Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet
Until quite recently technological gadgets and appliances, from phones
to fridges and from computers to cars, were designed for the 80% and
no more.
The 80% are those customers described as "able bodied". They have
fully functional working parts including hands, eyes and ears, and
have no problems interacting with gadgets designed by people with
20-20 vision and dexterous digits.
The remaining 20% were those with a sight impairment or a physical
disability – a cognitive problem such as dyslexia or an age-related
condition affecting their dexterity or their ability to learn or
remember. These consumers had to rely on very expensive specialist
gadgets that were designed especially for the "old or disabled", and
often based upon outdated, less sophisticated technologies.
Meanwhile, a quiet revolution has been going on – a movement towards
more inclusive technology, spearheaded by Apple and their mobile
iDevices. Strange as it may seem, touchscreen devices are heralding an
age of more inclusive "Everybody Technology".
For a device to approach the golden goal of being truly inclusive it
needs to embody several key elements. Firstly, it must be mainstream
and affordable, aimed at a broad customer base and not primarily
designed for the niche disability or elderly markets. Secondly, it
must provide the full range of functions expected of a mainstream
device but with a varied choice of input and output methods to cater
to a wide range of abilities.
So does a device such as an iPhone meet these criteria? I would argue
that it does. It's a mainstream product with an operating system that
has been developed in such a way as to support a multitude of input
and output methodologies – many of which are built-in and accessible
'out of the box'. Many of these options come as standard:
• Vision solutions: larger text, magnification and screen-reading
(with Bluetooth support for a range of Braille displays and keyboards)
• Hearing solutions: custom vibrations, flash alerts, mono-audio and
support for a range of Bluetooth digital hearing aids
• Motor solutions: Assistive Touch, enabling multi-touch gestures to
be assigned to custom single-finger (or mouth/headstick) gestures, and
support for other specialist headsets and switches.
Moreover, these devices that offer so much choice for users to
interact with them in a way that suits their needs, are now injecting
extra intelligence that cuts through 90% of the operational effort
required, in the form of virtual assistants that are delivering real
The battle intensifies … and disabled users win
For some time now the two leading smartphone operating systems –
Apple's iOS and Google's Android – have been vying for supremacy in
the battle for the best and quickest virtual assistant to help users
with fast and intuitive ways to find out information and perform
While these in-built artificial intelligence agents are hard at work
making life easier for all smartphone users, there is one group
benefitting from the efforts of the tech giants more than any other;
the disabled community. But before we go any further with that thought
let's look at how the competitors are shaping up.
Siri v Voice Assistant: the video evidence
Both Apple's Siri and Google's Voice Assistant are able to tell you
Winston Churchill's birthday, what an ounce of gold or any foreign
currency is worth at today's prices, whether it will rain this
afternoon, turn-by-turn directions to your nearest pizza place and
pictures of pigmy marmosets (officially the cutest monkeys in the
A painstaking perusal of the many Youtube videos of phone face-offs
between iOS6 and Jellybean on Android provides some interesting
results. First is a head-to-head test of the sort of questions we all
use our AIs for every day: Siri vs. Google Voice: 21 Questions For
iPhone 5 And Jelly Bean 4.1 From watching this I think you'd agree
that there's nothing between them for accuracy – but Voice Assistant
wins hands-down on speed.
So far so good, but what if we ask them something a little more challenging?
In another video, Jelly Bean Samsung Galaxy S3 (Google Voice) vs
(Siri) iPhone 5, we see that Google has some way to go on the tougher
questions. I know that there is a vast variety of questions we could
ask these assistants, and that the results might come out differently
in each case, but I was unable to find a review that came out in Voice
Assistant's favour when their intelligence is pushed to the limit.
What does AI have to do with accessibility?
This is all very exciting (or at least I think it is). It's shaving
valuable seconds off the tasks we try to cram in to our already
overcrowded lives, but what's it got to do with disability? And why is
the disabled community the biggest winner in this AI arms race?
It's to do with those valuable seconds that these apps save us. For
disabled users such as myself (I'm blind), what Siri can do in five
seconds might take me five or 10 minutes. In many cases I might not be
able to find what I'm looking for at all because the websites I'm
using are inaccessible to my screen-reading software.
A similarly slow and painful experience is had by many who can't use a
mouse. Try using your site from the keyboard and you'll soon see what
we mean – either it won't work at all or it will take you whole
minutes to get where you want to go.
Everyone's a winner?
So for the blind, the motor-impaired, those with learning disabilities
or dyslexia, anyone who loves the KISS principal (who doesn't?), and
for millions of smartphone users out there, this AI arms race has
benefits far beyond the modest convenience bonus for average
able-bodied use. Even the contenders themselves have no idea how far
this thing will go...
Robin Christopherson is head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet.

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