Accessible Apple: Happy Belated 10th Birthday VoiceOver, A Trip Down Memory Lane

"We knew we could do a great job on this, and develop something that our customers would expect for the Mac platform." This quote from Mike Shebanek, who was a Product Manager at Apple back in 2004, captures the thought process that went into developing VoiceOver, Apple's built-in Screen Access Technology. Apple's inclusion of VoiceOver reflects the company's commitment to ensuring every one of its users can access its products, regardless of their accessibility needs.

As a long-time user of the Mac and someone who now depends on Screen Access Technology, I can speak first-hand to VoiceOver's effectiveness. The software has become the primary way I access all of my daily computing tasks.

If you are curious to read more about my personal story, I wrote about my computing journey here.

In 2005, I was increasingly becoming light-sensitive, making it more and more difficult for me to use the Mac's built-in Zoom utility to navigate the computer. It was at that point, that I heard of VoiceOver, Apple's then newly-released Screen Access technology, from a family friend who knew of my love of computing and understood the challenge I was facing. Indeed, it was he who helped me upgrade from my 1997 PowerMac G3 to a G4 capable of running Tiger.

4489182905_6e169c0377_b.jpg

 

At the time, VoiceOver was in its infancy. It was an all-round incomplete product, especially when compared to long-time third-party Windows screen-reader JAWS. Numerous features were lacking, such as support for Braille displays and advanced multi-lingual support. Apple's iTunes hadn't yet been upgraded to work with Apple's accessibility APIs and there were numerous accessibility holes throughout Mac OS X. 

VoiceOver's basic functionality, along with its ability to work seamlessly with Apple's Zoom utility meant that I could continue to use the Mac for at least a little bit longer. I was encouraged that Apple had included a free Screen Access technology into Mac OS X and was optimistic that the software would improve with time. I could see a future where people didn't have to pay $1000+ (USD) for the right to use their computers accessibly.

As my sensitivity to light increased, so did VoiceOver's feature set. The following years were marked with many upgrades to the technology, seeing it come to new form factors, such as iOS, the Apple TV and now the Apple Watch.

Now, exactly 10 years and 1 month later, we have a platform that has singularly changed how developers and blind people alike view accessibility. We have a platform that is inherently inclusive, where the needs of the visually impaired are met by most who play in Apple's walled garden App Stores. We have a platform, that at its core, is usable by everyone and are finally recognized as first-class citizens of the technology revolution.

Walk with me, as I take a trip down memory lane and revisit some of the milestones in VoiceOver's history.

MacCentral (March 2004): Apple Computer Inc. introduces Spoken Interface Preview, a new Universal Access technology to help the blind and visually impaired navigate Mac OS X, using the keyboard and speech output.

Apple Computer Inc. (April 29, 2005): Spoken Interface Preview gets renamed VoiceOver and gets released as part of Mac OS X 10.5 (Tiger).

Apple Inc. (October 26, 2007): Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) ships, bringing with it VoiceOver 2.0. This update introduces Alex, Apple's high-quality English voice, Braille display support and a host of other new features.

TUAW (February 05, 2008): Apple improves the support of Braille displays.

TUAW (September 10, 2008): The iPod Nano gains the ability to have its menus read out loud. Originally called "Spoken Menus", the feature would be renamed VoiceOver in future iterations. The feature was marketed as a way for sighted and blind users alike to navigate the device without needing to look at the display.

TUAW (November 20, 2008): Apple improves support for VoiceOver in iTunes.

TUAW (March 11, 2009): Apple adds VoiceOver support to the iPod Shuffle (5 + 6). Like "Spoken Menus" on the iPod Nano, VoiceOver on the iPod Shuffle is marketed as a way for everyone to navigate the device.

Maccessibility (June 8, 2009): iPhone OS, later to be rebranded iOS, 3.0 is demonstrated at WWDC 2009. This update introduces VoiceOver for iOS, a gesture-based screen reader initially supported only on the then up and coming iPhone 3Gs.

Apple Inc. (June 9, 2009) Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) is discussed at WWDC 2998. The next version of VoiceOver for the Mac (3.0) is shown to have the support for similar trackpad gestures to those used by VoiceOver on the iPhone.

Maccessibility (June 19, 2009): The iPhone 3Gs comes out in the United States, Canada and elsewhere, marking the availability of the first VoiceOver supported iPhone and the first mainstream touch-screen cellular device to include a built-in screen reader.

ATMac/The VIPBC.org Group (August 28, 2009): Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) and VoiceOver 3.0 are released. The new software brings support for the aforementioned trackpad gestures, basic multi-lingual VoiceOver localizations, the QuickNav Commander, the Keyboard Commander and many more improvements. My article covering their new accessibility-related features is published by ATMac and the then VIPBC.org group (Now AccessibilityHound).

Apple Inc. (January 27, 2010): Steve Jobs announces the iPad. As an iOS device, the iPad is capable of running VoiceOver.

Apple Inc. (April 03, 2010): the first iPads go on sale.

Apple Inc. (May 28, 2010): iPads become available in Canada. I get my first look at one and am blown away.

AccessibilityHound, formerly the VIPBC.org Group (November 23, 2010): The Apple TV gets a software update bringing VoiceOver to the set top box.

Apple Inc. (July 20, 2011): Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion) is released along-side VoiceOver 4.0. This update brings 53 new multi-lingual voices to the Mac, allowing many non-English speakers to get free speech output in their native languages. This update also brings other, smaller features to VoiceOver.

Apple Inc. (July 25, 2012): Mac OS X 10.8 is released with VoiceOver 5.0, bringing many minor updates to the screen reader.

Apple Inc. (October 16, 2013): Mac OS X 10.9 (Mavricks) is released with Voiceover 6.0, again bringing minor updates to VoiceOver.

AppleVis (June 19, 2014): VoiceOver on iOS turns 5 years old.

Apple Inc. (September 09, 2014): Apple discontinues the iPod Classic, leaving the company with a line up of products that all run VoiceOver. The iPod Classic was, up until this point, the only Apple product without VoiceOver, as the Apple TV had gained support in late 2010.

Apple Inc. (October 22, 2014): Mac OS X 10.10 (Yosemite) is released with VoiceOver 7.0. Along with the expected minor updates to VoiceOver, version 7.0 brings a simplified way to read and navigate websites.

Apple World Today (April 10, 2015): Apple Watch becomes available for Apple Store Try-ons but in-store demo units have accessibility features disabled.

Apple World Today (April 24, 2015): Apple Watch begins shipping to customers. Apple introduces a new Apple Store Try-on experience for Apple Watch customers interested in hands-on time with its accessibility features.

It has been a long road for Apple's accessibility team. As I said in an article in 2009: "Apple’s road is long, but it is one they have chosen. They strive to meet to the 110% mark. It is an accessibility model that the visually impaired community has come to embrace, and one that has removed boundaries in more ways than one." This still stands true today.

Thank you Apple for the commitment you have shown to Universal Access. As a commemorative artwork piece I worked on shortly after Steve Jobs' death read: "You gave the gift of computing to millions who otherwise would not have had the chance."

I'll end this trip down memory lane by saying that more companies should learn from Apple's example and ensure their products are accessible to all.

As always, comments are accepted below or on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Hellebardius via Compfight cc