Apple are losing their edge also in accessibility quality

This post was originally published in January of 2015, and has last been updated on April 10, 2015, with latest information on the mentioned problems in light of the OS X 10.10.3 and iOS 8.3 releases from April 8, 2015.

Over the past couple of days, a number of well-known members in the Apple community raised their voices in concern about Apple’s general decline in software quality. Marco Arment (former “Mr. Instapaper” and now “Mr. Overcast”) started out by saying that Apple has lost the functional high ground. John Gruber of Daring Fireball slightly disagrees, but says that Apple have created a perception that “Other people’s stuff doesn’t work, but Apple’s stuff doesn’t work, either”. And finally, Dr. Drang looks at the power of leverage in this context. And now, well, here is my take on the subject.

Some long-standing readers of this blog may recall this post I wrote in June of 2009 about my first experience using an iPhone. It was the first time I interacted with a touch screen device that was accessible to me as a blind user.

For several years to come, Apple would lead in terms of including accessibility features into both its mobile and desktop operating systems. Zoom had already been there when VoiceOver was introduced in iOS 3.0, and what followed were features for people with varying disabilities and special needs. Assistive Touch, which allows gestures to be performed differently, mono audio and integration with hearing aids, sub titling, audio description and other media accessibility enhancements, Guided Access for people with attention deficiencies, Siri, and most recently, Braille input directly on the touch screen in various languages and grades. Especially on iOS, VoiceOver and the other accessibility features received updates every year with every major release, and new features were added.

In the beginning, especially in Snow Leopard and Lion, Apple also did the same for OS X. It gradually also added many of the features it had added to iOS to OS X to keep them in sync. But ever since Mountain Lion, VoiceOver did not see much improvement any more. In fact, the lack of newly introduced features could lead one to the perception that Apple thinks that VoiceOver is done, and no new features need to be added.

But, and I haven’t said this for the first time on this blog, the quality of existing features is steadily declining, too. In fact, with the release of both OS X 10.10 “Yosemite” and iOS 8, the quality of many accessibility features has reached a new all-time low. AppleVis has a great summary of current problems in iOS 8. But let me give you two examples.

The first problem was so obvious and easily reproducible that it is hard to imagine Apple’s quality assurance engineers didn’t catch this, and that was on the iPhone in Safari, when going back from one page to the previous one with the Back button. When VoiceOver was running, I hadn’t found a single page where this simple action did not trigger a freeze in Safari and VoiceOver. This was in early betas of iOS 8, and it was only fixed in the 8.3 release released in April of 2015, roughly 10 months after the first iOS 8 beta was seeded to developers on the day of WWDC 2014.

The second example concerned using Safari (again) with VoiceOver, but this time on the iPad. Using Safari itself, or any application that uses one of the two WebView components, I was reliably able to trigger a full restart of the iPad at least twice a day, most days even more often. That caused all apps to quit, sometimes without being able to save their stuff, it interrupted work, and it left the iPad in a semi-unstable state that it was better to fully shut it down and restart it fresh. Update: This, too, was finally fixed in iOS 8.3. But it took quite a number of logs that I sent to Apple engineers before the problem could be fixed. But after I wrote the initial version of this post, in a concerted effort, this could finally be nailed down.

“Wait”, you might say, “this sounds like a problem from iOS 7 days, and wasn’t it fixed?” Yes, I would reply, it was, but it returned in full force in iOS 8. But mostly on the iPad. I think I’ve only seen one or two restarts on my iPhone since iOS 8 came out.

The first of these two examples is such low-hanging fruit that I, if I was working at Apple, would be deeply ashamed that this was around for so long. The second one was harder, but not so hard that an engineer sitting down for a day and using the device with VoiceOver enabled wouldn’t run into it.

But accessibility problems are not limited to VoiceOver alone. Web Axe posted a great summary about problems in other areas such as the default settings for paralax effects, button shapes and more. Go check it out for more information on those topics!

And now back to Yosemite. I again concentrate on Safari + VoiceOver, since this is where I spend a lot of my time. Support had regressed so badly in the initial 10.10 release and the first 10.10.1 update especially on dynamic pages that it was barely possible to use Facebook on Yosemite with VoiceOver. VoiceOver skipped over whole stories, lost focus, and did all sorts of other funky stuff. It took until the update to 10.10.2 on January 27, 2015, 3 months after the initial release, to at least largely address these problems. Moreover, editing in any form field on the web was so slow and double-spoke that it was not really possible to do productive work there. And if you had a braille display connected, you could expect it to drop out every few seconds when moving the cursor. The sounds VoiceOver made were the equivalent of plugging and unplugging a USB braille display every 3 to 4 seconds. These also were corrected in the 10.10.2 release. In fact this update is written in the MarsEdit blog authoring software, and using that hadn’t been possible with VoiceOver until 10.10.2.

All of these problems have been reported to Apple, some by multiple users. They were tweeted about publicly, and now I am reiterating over them again to show my support for Marco, John, and others who assert rightly that Apple has a real quality problem on their hands, which higher management seems to be quite thick-skinned about. Blinded by their own brilliant marketing or something? 😉

Apple does have a fantastic accessibility story. No other operating system I know has so many features for such a big variety of people built-in (speaking mostly for iOS now). But they’re on the verge of badly trumping that trust many people with disabilities put in them by delivering such poor quality updates that make it virtually impossible to take advantage of these features in full force. Especially when such basic functionality as I describe in Safari, and AppleVis summarize on their blog, are getting in the way of use every minute of every day now. And Apple really need to be careful that others may catch up sooner rather than later. On the web, the most robust accessibility is already being delivered by a different desktop browser/screen reader combination on a different operating system. As for mobile: Android is the lesser of the competition, even in its latest update, in my opinion. But Microsoft’s foundation is really solid in Windows Phone 8.1. They just need to execute on it much better, and they could really kick ass and become a viable alternative to Apple on mobile.

Fortunately, with the release of iOS 8.3, Apple finally came to their senses and included a big number of accessibility fixes and polish, which AppleVis summarizes in this blog post. Here’s to hoping that the rumors come true that Apple will be focusing a lot more on stability and polish in the iOS 9 update, expected to be in beta at around their developer conference later this year. I think the fact that iOS now has a public beta program, too, is a good sign for that, and it gives more people the opportunity to test and report problems early.

So here is my appeal to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple: Put action behind these words again! Go to these extraordinary lengths you speak of by not just cranking out new features that are half-baked, but make sure your engineers work on the over-all quality in a way that does not make your most faithful users feel like they’re being let down by your company! Because that is, exactly, how it feels. This trend started more strongly in iOS 7, and even worsened in iOS 8. And it has been with OS X even longer, starting in Mountain Lion and worsened ever since. Please, show us, our friends and family who started using your products because of our recommendations, and those of us who took a leap of faith early on and put our trust, our productivity, our daily lives in your products, that these are not just empty words and that that award you received actually means something beyond the minutes you gave that speech!

Sincerely,

a caring, but deeply concerned, user

30 thoughts on “Apple are losing their edge also in accessibility quality”

  1. While I cannot really say anything about the accessibility aspects, I have the impression that Safari development is generally being neglected. In the Adblock Plus project, we pretty much gave up filing bugs against WebKit – they never get any attention. In the past, Google engineers would occasionally fix things, but then they decided to just fork WebKit. Of course, why should they invest effort into improving WebKit if Apple doesn’t? Add to this an extension API which is seemingly only dragged along from one version to another but never improved or even adjusted to consider new browser functionality. That API is getting more broken with each new Safari version released. And now that Google is no longer on it, these new Safari versions only polish up the UI but no longer improve web standards support…

  2. Hi Marco,

    sorry to say that I haven’t found a single page where this simple action (going back from one page to the previous one with the Back button) _did_ trigger a freeze in Safari and / or VoiceOver.

    I’m using an iPhone 4s with iOS 8.1.2

    1. Hi Fritz,

      quite simple:

      1. Open this blog’s main page.
      2. Touch the title of this article and double-tap to follow the link.
      3. After the article loads, find the Back button at the top left and double-tap it.
      4. Touch something on the main page after it loads.
      5. Now, swipe to the right or to the left to go to the next or previous element.

      On my iPhone 6, and also on the 5s I had previously, this would fail. VoiceOver will not move to the next or previous item. Also, its reaction to any touching of elements is noticeably reduced. I suspect you’ll even feel a greater delay on your 4S.

      On some pages, this is enough to make Safari freeze completely. What usually does it in finally is if I switch to a different app, because I want to look up something, then return. Try this:

      1. Press the Home button.
      2. Double-click the Home button to bring up app switcher, and choose Safari. Double-tap to open.
      3. Now, you’re definitely frozen. You have to triple-click home to end VoiceOver, because if you don’t, Safari won’t close. Now press Home to close Safari, and then bring up VoiceOver again. After that, open app switcher to bring Safari out of your system or the freezing will repeat.

      The freezing upon using the Back button has been confirmed by several users on Twitter and on other channels. I’m not making this stuff up. 😉

  3. It is not necessary to go online and browse the web to encounter real issues with voiceOver.
    • with the introduction of Pages 5.2 for MacOS X came a bug that I call #PageBreakGate: When highlighting text by pressing CMD+shift+ArrowKeys and crossing a natural or inserted page break, the text on the previous page is no longer highlighted. I have been on to apple about this through the AccessibilityTeam, AppleCare on the phone and the Pages FeedbackPage, to no effect. One AppleCare member confirmed in a phone call in September: “I see, you reported this back in March…and May…and July…”
    • Another bug came with 10.10 Yosemite and concerns the Preview app: When highlighting text in a PDF text document and pasting it into any other text editor, the copied element is a graphic and no longer the copied text.
    Both bugs are hard to tolerate from the perspective of a publishing researcher.
    In a number of phone calls and emails I tried to make Apple aware that researchers are an important market for Apple. Many Mac users work in office day jobs in a Windows environment or from home and, frankly, few people ever see them use their lovely MacBook. It is the researchers who go to conferences, who teach, who run their slide show on their MacBook, in front of audiences full of potential Mac users. this is even enhanced when the researcher, the presenter is blind. I have been using my MacBook in conference talks and workshops for two years now, and I estimate that over 500 people have seen me use it in that period. The vast, vast majority of them did not know that a blind person can use a Mac just like that or even control the Keynote presentation remotely from their iPhone. A good few people have said to me after classes, workshops and talks that they thought it is mighty how well all this works on the Mac.
    Therefore, considering that I give Apple advertisement for free, I would really appreciate if they listened a bit more.

    1. Yes, there is, but I will hold off updating the post accordingly until this is no longer beta and these improvements stick.

  4. I was in the queue when the iPhone 3G S was launched. I’ve bought every subsequent iPhone up to my current 5S. I have two Macs. I worked for Apple. I loved and evangelised the great work they were doing in making their products accessible to such a massively diverse audience.
    Now I’m back to browsing the web on my Windows machine, because I can’t cope with the VoiceOver freeze on my iPhone; and I’m scared to upgrade my Macs to Yosemite because of the accessibility issues I know it would introduce.
    I’m watching with interest the emerging accessibility on the Windows Phone platform, and will switch as soon as it becomes viable.
    Apple has certainly left its mark in history from an accessibility perspective. It did amazing things. It covered ground nobody else had even started thinking about. Let’s hope it can resolve these serious issues and restore confidence in what was a group of very loyal users.

  5. I know Apple is dedicated to accessibility, so it’s a shame these bugs exist. When I bought my iPhone 4, the employee at the Apple Store who sold it to me was blind. She did the entire sale using an iPhone with a card-reader, and was just as efficient as any other employee, if not more. It was a great example of Apple’s commitment not only to hiring people regardless of their handicaps, but the fact that she could do her job with “out-of-the-box” technologies in a phone available to the masses. I hope these issues get fixed soon… and I have a feeling they will.

  6. I agree with you except for one point. I think it is past time to appeal to Tim Cook to fix the problems, and now it is time to appeal to Tim Cook to fire a bunch of people. I think the person who is at the top of the hierarchy of both software design and software engineering for iOS 7/8 and OS X Yosemite both need to be either fired or re-assigned. These products are absolutely riddled with design and engineering bugs. The list of academic design goals for iOS 7 that almost put me to sleep when it was released can now be seen to have failed on every single point. We have had long enough now to judge the new engineering management, and it is a failure. People at the highest levels of Apple have to go. There is no excuse for failure like this at the level of SVP when you are playing with the time and money of over half a billion users. The current design and engineering managers built stuff for other designers and engineers, not for their users.

    Why did flaws in the data used in Apple Maps 1.0 (the very first release) rate an apology and get Scott Forestall fired, but flaws in the actual software of the seventh and eighth releases of iOS 7/8 and the 11th release of OS X, and all of their included and add-on Apple apps have not resulted in any apologies or any firings? You could work around Apple Maps 1.0 by using Google Maps, but there are no workarounds for an iPhone or iPad running iOS 8 — you just have to live with the fact that you will encounter a couple of bugs during every single task you use them for, like you are running Windows. You have to live with the fact that your browser and other apps will crash regularly, that the devices will reboot themselves regularly, and that you will have to struggle to use spreadsheet-like interfaces that don’t give the user any cues as to what is going on, or how they should be using the device.

    We need to see new people in charge of iOS 9 so that we can have the confidence to think something will change.

  7. Have you filed reports on these bugs?

    From past observation, even if an Apple engineer happens to see a blog post about a bug they’re not going to file a bug report on it. And nothing gets fixed that isn’t in their bug tracking system.

    We could argue over whether this should be the case, but we’d actually be in agreement that it shouldn’t. And that agreement gets us no closer to Apple fixing the bug.

    1. Yes, all the problems mentioned had been filed as bugs with Apple way long before the blog post was written. Either by me, or by others who told me they had filed the bug. Sometimes, I even file duplicates of bugs already reported by others to make sure Apple get my specific info as well, so they see that the particular problem affects more than one person.

  8. I too am deeply disappointed with the direction into which Apple are heading. I’m an iOS developer, very small time mind you. I’m not using the accessibility features and can only comment the declining quality of the developer tools (Xcode), the build quality of the actual devices (iPhone 5s vs 4s, Mac Min 2014) and the fact that I feel the magic that once was with Apple products and software is slowly slipping away. My trust in the brand if you will.

    I have filed many bug reports myself about issues I had with Xcode, and I keep bringing my iPhone back to the store for a replacement when things go wrong, but it’s obvious that Apple don’t really want to know what users have to say. This is especially true for bug reports. They no longer care about making great products, something that – profits aside – was once obviously a major agenda (up until 2011/2012, coinciding with Steve’s death). This is a somewhat alarming trend, one as you suggest could easily cost them the edge they once had over the competition.

    Meanwhile, less important things are being emphasised: the new flat layout, redesigned icons, more translucency. Thinner and faster is not innovation in my opinion. And this desperation for fundamental change once every year is frustrating, especially when “new features” come at the expense of perfectly working things we’ve come to rely upon. I’ve become very careful with that update button these days.

    By contrast, Windows 7 is today what it was when I installed it several years ago. Its look and feel has not changed since it came out in 2009 – and as a user this is incredibly important to me. I do not have to fear that one day there’s an update which means I can no longer work due to “improvements”.

    Even though Windows 8 wasn’t the brightest idea, I am looking forward to Windows 10 which brings the best of 7 and 8.1 together. Most of what we have today in iOS and Mac will come to Windows 10, while having the same familiar feel that we’ve come to enjoy since Windows 95. And more importantly, code written 15 years ago still works without the need for a recompile.

    Sadly this can’t be said for every Mac or iOS App: code written only last year stands a chance of not working anymore. As if last year’s operating system was an indiscretion Apple would rather forget. Yet they call this “progress”.

    I call it “the bitter taste of the post-Jobs era”.

    1. Your post seems hyperbolic. There is not a single developer that I have ever met that says Apple should stand still. Saying that Apple shouldn’t have made any visual changes to iOS or OS X for the sake of keeping things familiar is extremely short sighted. Part of the issues people are seeing is due in large part because quite a fair amount of code is being rewritten to make iOS and OS X work better together as well as opening up the architecture while remaining remaining secure. Are there bugs? Sure. I know quite a few folks at Apple that have heard of the latest wave of posts and they are being taken extremely seriously but to say that as a user, Windows is doing it better is a bit disingenuous.

      Windows 10 is Microsoft pulling back quite a few of the dramatic changes of Windows 8. Just look at the latest stream. Joe B kept referencing making Windows 7 users happy because Windows 8 was a disaster for quite a large number of users. The primary reason there was such an uptick in the PC market last year was Microsoft ended support for Windows XP. Always looking to the past is an extremely dangerous thing to do when creating new technology.

      Stating as a fact that Apple no longer wants to make great products is discrediting all of the insane amount of incredibly difficult work being done by thousands of people, and to be honest, that’s a bit more annoying than some bugs I come across.

      1. You’re missing my point. I never said Apple should stand still, nor did I say I didn’t like the visual changes. I am saying that new features should be rolled out when they’re ready for prime time, not because the calendar says so. I’m also saying that introducing new features must not come at the expense of things that are perfectly working, nor should they come with the penalty of eliminating backward compatibility.

        For Marco and many others, the Accessibility features aren’t a luxury item. They’re a necessity. Yet they’re not working in Yosemite as they did in Mavericks. It therefore stands to reason that Apple have other priorities.

  9. Most of the problems in Yosemite have had to have been recognized during the public beta period, yet Apple chose to meet a release deadline rather than fix the problems. I’m still running Mavericks and there are still bugs that should have been fixed long ago. There is no way that I will install another OSX release until Apple cleans up the existing problems. Tim cook needs to concentrate on what needs to be done to fix software problems instead of bragging about profits in the hardware business or some of us will no longer be aurchasing Apple producta.

    1. Me, too. There are very many ongoing problems that should be embarrassing for Apple. As a huge Apple fan, I’m embarrassed for them. Notes App continues to occasionally create duplicate notes between devices or totally delete a portion of a note. Today I had 4 slightly different versions of a note which was created throughout yesterday as just one note. Apple TV interface is abysmal. Podcasts sync has never worked. It still doesn’t. Reading the support pages is like reading the diary of a toxic relationship and sounding more like Microsoft all the time. I’m finding it more and more difficult to help friends with tech support questions due to the differences in how this or that works with legacy devices especially when everyone seems to have a different setup or set of devices than the last person with the same question. I realize that is inevitable with progress, but these major changes are in basic functionality, such as sync, and are occurring annually as Apple throws out yet another haphazardly put together solution in an effort to fix last year’s mess. This is creating an even bigger mess. And WiFi…they can’t even get that right. Well, at least everything is thinner and flatter and there aren’t so many ports in which to plug my stuff and I won’t have to bother with upgrading a $2,500 laptop anymore, because you can’t. I’ll just toss it and buy another, which is OK with Apple products because they are made to be so environmentally friendly you know… Have you tried to surf the web with Safari on iPad lately? Apparently, neither has Tim Cook or any of the other Apple executives. It has become the worst of all browsing experiences. The we in the palm of your hand has been replaced with pop ups and hidden links that take you to the App Store for every single website or link or hidden link on which one clicks. It is so frustrating. At least there are things I can do about all of this in OS X, but not in iOS. Come on Apple, this is ridiculous! And I could go on, and on, and on…

      1. In all fairness: those App Store popups on web sites don’t come from Apple, but the web site makers. Granted, Apple provide the means, but it is still up to web site makers to use them.

  10. Hi I agee with the degradation of OS up to Mavericks, but Yosemite seems to be Ok, but not completely positive. Until I tried to download a update to iPhoto, which did not complete after 15 minutes, and the various comments appended to the App site under iPhoto.app made me give up and delete the download. When is Apple providing a workable update? Sending bug reports to Apple is like sending a note into a black hole. There is no fix for bugs. A bug with Delicious Library 3 attempting to display the shelves resulted in raster images being distorted, which seems to be attributed to an older 3D card in my 2008 machine. I guess Apple will not address this problem. Yes, Safari needs to be modernized with more quality control.

  11. I have honestly gotten tired of apple and their lack luster accessibility as of late my self. I’m sorry, but steve really screwed up here when he put tim cook in the CEO title, because all he wants is lets see how much cash i can generate this company instead of focusing on what makes the company run, the customer. and Johny I’ve, don’t even get me started on that bastard. sorry, but the man has no concept of what makes software work, and what accessibility means to people who rely on it day to day. either the man honestly needs to go, tim cook needs to go as well, or make john I’ve go back to hardware where he was best, and time cook go back to marketing where he did better. I believe had steve done his job right, and appointed someone like phil spiller to be CEO we could have gotten a better outlook with accessibility. I’m tired of this black hole in things not getting fixed, iOS and mac, don’t run like they did six years ago, voiceover doesn’t feel smooth and polished as it once did, and for me that is a huge let down, I’m typing this on my second mac from apple, and sometimes I wonder if i’ll be getting a third machine. at this time, it looks likely more then likely probably not, if apple continues on the path to destruction with accessibility.

    1. Actually, iOS 9 and OS X are good releases. Far better than iOS 7 and especially 8 were initially.

What are your thoughts?