Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mobile technology: is it getting more accessible?

In my recent (6 July) BBC Ouch! article I wrote about just Two of the companies who presented at RNIB TechShare Mobile (in Birmingham (UK) on 15 June, and their approach which, while radically different from the embedded accessibility technique of Apple and Google among others in my view ushers in a new era of hope for the accessibility of personal technology.

BBC age and disability correspondant Geoff Adams-Spink in his piece "Technology gets disabled friendly came to much the same conclusion. What neither of us managed however, was to offer an opinion as to why this is the case, and why it’s happening just now.

But first of all, more evidence for the defence:

As you’ll be aware if you read Geoff’s piece Linked above, Olympus were at Techshare showing off a pre release unit of their DM5 digital recorder and media player complete with talking controls. On the face of it this is exciting. A Device that has excellent accessibility features built-in right out of the box, no need to purchase additional software, or even faff around installing and configuring free add-ons yourself. However it’s not quite so groundbreaking. The features are limited to the DM5 only, and don’t work with the dynamic parts of the interface EG you can’t find out on what date and time a recording was made, or find out how far in to a recording you currently are (important if you want to make a note to return to something later). In actual fact, The DM5 has short sound clips associated with each of its static functions so while he initiative, a result of a long standing collaboration between Olympus and the Royal National Institute of Blind people (RNIB) (and a welcome initiative at that), it isn’t necessarily all that you might hope.

The other big hitter in the world of mobile alongside RIM and Vodafone present on the day was Nokia embodied by Esa Eerola, senior accessibility engineer. Nokia of course are one of the world’s largest handset manufacturers, and have found favour among the visually impaired market place in particular because of the Symbian operating system on which many of them run. Symbian has proven to offer support for access technologies (screen readers / magnifiers and the like) hence the popularity.

Nokia, and their Ovi branded mobile software (apps) marketplace (including the Ovi Maps satnav package freely available on many Nokia devices), have had considerable criticism in recent months for failing to be accessible to an audience who have come to depend upon their Nokia phones, but despite questions from the audience they were at Techshare to talk only about
the future. A future which work in Nokias innovation labs promises some advances which may be of particular benefit to disabled users. Near-field object recognition, and indoor way finding being the main ones identified. I won’t go in to detailed descriptions of these here other than to say that the usefulness to a visually impaired person of a package which can guide you to a given location within a building and then read you the sign on the door, price on the tag, or destination on the front of the bus or train when you get there is considerable. So again, we see a major corporate investing in technologies that advantage a minority audience.

But why?

So then, to return to the question I posed earlier, why is accessibility going mainstream?

There is of course no short answer but my interpretation based on the series of industrial keynotes during the afternoon at Techshare is that there is a combination of magic factors right now.


In the USA, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stipulates that only products which are adaptable to the needs of disabled people can be purchased with public money. This means that if businesses want to sell in to Government (which is of course a massive buyer of technology) they must demonstrate the accessibility of their products. Don’t believe me? Try searching online for “VPAT” (voluntary product accessibility template”), and you’ll see businesses rushing to prove in what way their products are accessible. Try finding this same information in the UK and see how far you get.

The upshot of this is that corporates are investing heavily in access solutions, take for example the sudden proliferation of accessible photocopiers. Hardly something that is high on the wish list of many of us and yet, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Adobe, Amazon and many many more are making those investments. Investments which those of us in the rest of the developed world are benefiting from.

Market share:

For those companies like Vodafone and Nokia, who are not entrenched in the US public sector the situation is somewhat different. One explanation is that for them the issue is market share. Not that attracting visually impaired and disabled customers is going to radically tip the balance and suddenly make investing in accessibility commercially viable, it isn’t. But Rather, now that those other companies named above, and others like them, have been forced to take the leap and offer support to disabled end users, there is a risk to reputation in not being seen to be at least as socially responsible. It only needs a small proportion of all the disabled people in the world to persuade their family and friends that company A is more worthy of their support than company B and suddenly it makes a very big difference indeed.

It’s not easy building a reputation around something that presently doesn’t matter much to most people, but as the developed world market becomes more or less saturated, and growth shifts to developing countries the opportunity cost of brand awareness is increasingly significant. If organisations are to raise awareness of their corporate and social responsibility, not to mention protect themselves against possible legislation similar to that which exists in the USA then there’s only one way to do that and that is get the access in to each and every device, either by embedding it within the operating platform, or by making it easy and low-cost to access locally, on a global scale.

As I wrote in the BBC Ouch! piece I mentioned at the beginning of this post, that is exactly what Vodafone are currently piloting. Integrating Vodafone Speak, currently in use by around 900 users in Spain, in to their global E-billing system wouldn’t make sense on a commercial basis alone. Vodafone will make no operating profit from the service even when it is more widely available.

Intel too told a similar story. Their Intel Reader product is a so-called “portable” electronic reader. Several times larger than even the chunkiest mobile phone and with an eye-watering £1k plus price tag it takes a digital photo of an object or document, then carries out real time optical character recognition on the image before reading the resulting text out loud. It was truly impressive at launch in late 2008 / early 2009 and to some degree still is although as you can now buy software to run on a standard Smartphone for considerably less money, see for example digit-eyes for the iPhone, costing $30.

Tristan Wilkinson, Intel director for public sector told us though, that sometimes it’s about blinking first, you have to get out there and do something even though you know that others will follow you and probably do the thing better and cheaper. The Intel Reader it’s maker it would seem then accepts doesn’t have longevity as a standalone product, but it shows what can be done and sets the whole industry off on a cycle of innovation. By getting the Ball rolling Intel hopes to be well placed to offer the technology to partners or clients in a package that can easily be incorporated in to other devices in the future.


You may remember the media fuss about US president Barack Obama becoming the first president to use Email after he suggested that someone would have to prise his Blackberry out of his hand before he would give it up – see for instance this Guardian article Well the upshot of this was that in the end all Whitehouse staffers ended up with secure Government issue devices. It just so happens that that includes a visually impaired member of the legal team. As Greg Fields, RIM head of accessibility told the Techshare audience, there’s nothing like a high profile customer to give some impetus to a development programme.


So then, accessible technology is going mainstream and here’s why. As the baby boom generation hit 65 years of age their health goes in to serious decline and Governments get concerned about the costs of employment and health care.

Legislation protects aging westerners access to technology, which is in an age of economic austerity seen as a way of delivering public services cost effectively

Simultaneously growth in the uptake of mobile phones and computing in the developing world escalates massively

Businesses recognise both of these situations as ones in which they can only prosper commercially, and ethically if they can provide personal access solutions direct to customers. Some choose to embed the access within their own products and services, while others partner with 3rd-parties to meet the need.

the result? Well it’s too soon to say for sure but hopefully a healthy mixed economy in which customer needs are met and specialist businesses can continue to innovate and flourish.

Fact panel:

Techshare is a bi-annual pan-disability technology access conference hosted by RNIB

Techshare Mobile 2010, was a departure from the schedule and traditional format and was a 1 day, closed programme largely of presentations from the hosts and invited industry speakers.

The event programme, podcasts and some sessions, and a promise of all presentations “soon” can be accessed from the Techshare Website.
Adrian Higginbotham writes a regular technology and disability column for Ouch! the BBC disability website, view and comment on my previous articles