iPhone and the blindness of the Apple fans
Well, it seemed churlish not to join in with virtually every other blog I read and not post something about the mobile phone / multimedia device you may have seen launched by Apple last week. I have to start by saying that I am intrigued by the user interface, and I'll be fascinated to hear about how people get on with it out in the wild. Rather than talk about the much-vaunted product itself, I wanted to look at a couple of aspects of the coverage that I found pretty depressing.
Apple, like Google, has a real brand halo. I've writen before about how the power of the Google brand is such that they manage to get the credit for finding things that other people have done, and Google was found to be people's favourite online brand in the UK last year. Worldwide, Apple must be one of the few brands that comes close to that status.
So it was the reaction to a couple of issues surrounding the "iPhone" that I found struck a wrong note with me. The first surrounds the accessibility of the product. The user interface itself is a break-through for phones in that it is almost entirely based on visual touch-screen interaction. This presents a real issue not just for potential users who are blind, but for users with poor eyesight, and also for people who suffer from mobility impairment.
Of course, the new Apple phone will not be the only phone on the market. However, it concerns me that for the sake of a whizzy touch-screen display, what has been hailed as a step-change in communication devices does away with the push button interface relied upon for tactile feedback by a large section of society. If the Apple "iPhone" is as big a success as fans predict, it naturally follows that the market will attempt to clone the device for a slice of the action (for evidence see the various iPod clones available).
A post the unofficial Apple weblog dared to suggest that the Apple "iPhone" did nothing for the blind. Erica Sadun posted that she hadn't seen much discussion and invited feedback:
So I googled for blind and iPhone, but didn't find much out there on Web search, and just a few hits here and there on blog search. Surely, there must be some usability experts out there willing to weigh in on the Universal Access aspects of the iPhone and the lack thereof. Thoughts?
The sheer vitriol of a lot of the responses really took me aback - it was the kind of thing I would expect to see on a contentious BBC Have Your Say thread, or the message boards at the Daily Mail or The Guardian. This wasn't someone campaigning about the issue, this was a source of news specifically dedicated to Apple products attempting to raise the accessibility question. I've quoted some of the responses below.
coalxman: I hate to do it to you, but this is a DUMB blog, Why would the blind want this Phone as 90% of its function is visual.
Tim: If there's such a huge and desperate need for cutting edge phones for the blind, then someone can fill it and make a living doing so. Maybe it will pay better than lame blog entries.
Littlejoe: I dont mean to be an ass, but who cares?
Flash: I don't know if there is a tactful way to say this, but, is it really Apple's responsibility to make sure of this?
JClark: this is a premium device (both in cost and features), and if you can't use it, why would you want it?
in-steve-we-trust: you could slap on some sort of crappy peripheral in to the dock port, but that would be lame. anyway, what a shocker, a device is harder to use without being able to see.
So there you have it from the mouths of the Apple fans themselves - why should people who don't have 20/20 vision be able to afford or desire, or even just try-out, premium consumer products aimed at the voice communication market? I mean, why on earth would blind people be interested in technology anyway, and as Littlejoe says, "Who cares"?
In the next couple of days I'll also be looking at some of the reaction to the "iPhone" trademark dispute with Cisco.