Opinion Apple describes their sexy new iPhone 7 and iOS 10 operating system as the most advanced yet. Well, they say that every year, don't they?
However, despite the fanfare, press coverage, and queues outside Apple stores - except in Denmark - one group of iPhone users can be forgiven for feeling let down by Apple, yet again.
With all the exciting new features Apple try to dazzle us with every September, featuring new iPhones and iOS operating systems, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day, the device is a mobile phone with standard and essential features, such as making and receiving calls.
For the company who seems to think of everything, it comes as a surprise to see that it is failing a large group of disabled users with its accessibility features.
I have muscular dystrophy, which is a severe and progressive physical disability; to all intents and purposes my hands and arms don’t work and I need to access my iPhone a lot of the time by voice.
The advent of Siri, which enables all of us to make phone calls by voice alone, has been a tremendous help in accessing my iPhone. Well done, Apple. I am sure many similarly disabled people are also grateful for this amazing feature.
Works one way but not the other
However, the reverse is true of answering phone calls. iPhone 7 and iOS 10, and all previous versions, do not offer the ability for some physically disabled users to answer a phone call, either by a simple auto answer feature, or by having Siri answer a phone call by voice.
Android phones have had auto-answer built in for many years. The iPhone's main competitor, the Samsung Galaxy 7, offers many different ways of answering a phone call – either by auto answer, or by voice.
I consider it a major omission on the part of Apple not to help physically disabled users who cannot access the iPhone by hand do something as basic as answer phone calls. It is quite frankly incredible that no one in Apple has addressed this issue.
There will be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people around the world who cannot use their hands and arms due to muscle-wasting diseases, strokes, spinal injury and paralysis, who would love to be able to answer incoming phone calls either by voice, or by a simple auto answer feature.
There is mainstream potential and a sound business case for these features too. If you are a worker driving a forklift truck, or a warehouse worker, and your hands are busy and the phone rings then you might appreciate these features.
I can see answering a call via Siri may be technically challenging because of the need for a "Hey Siri" prompt. But come on, how difficult is it to include an auto answer feature? It would be a big help for people like me who can't use our arms and hands. Android devices have auto answer. iPhones should too.
We shouldn't need workarounds
I have a workaround using a Bluetooth earpiece from Plantronics, which has voice commands that allow calls to be answered – but few Bluetooth earpieces have voice commands so the choices are very restricted.
Jailbroken iPhones offer auto answer but I don't want to jailbreak my iPhone and void my warranty. I want Apple to do the right thing.
When I have raised this issue with Apple, their accessibility team have pointed me in the direction of their Switch control features but there are extra costs of needing third party hardware and the hassle of a cumbersome switch that has to be retrofitted to one’s wheelchair or desk to control the iPhone. This is really overdoing it, in my opinion, for people who have speech but lack arm and hand movement.
Presumably, just to come up with such a system I would have to pay another third party company a lot of money to fit such a switch system and supply bespoke software to work with Apple's switch control features.
With the leaps and strides Siri is making in controlling more and more of an iPhone by voice, people like me shouldn’t have to go to third party companies with all the extra expense of switching systems just to answer a call on our iPhones.
I am human, hear me speak
Voice access is the future. Apple is pouring millions into Siri for users to access various features of an iPhone by voice. To not be able to do something as basic as answer a phone call by voice alone is a major omission, in my humble opinion.
It is so obvious that an ethical company, who does have a range of impressive accessibility features, would want to help paralysed users do something as basic as answer a phone call.
I have a MacBook and want to stick with my iPhone because of the integration through continuity. I want to control more aspects of my iPhone without the need or the expense of an expensive retrofitted switch system.
I have seen iOS 9 and 10 come and go without this issue being addressed.
Apple's new Airpod wireless headphones, possibly set to usher in a new world of voice computing, could also have severe issues for consumers like me. Due to be released at the end of October, they look fascinating and, dare I say it, cool, in a way Bluetooth headsets never have. However, with the advanced publicity blurb saying you need to hit a button on the headphones to prompt Siri that is going to exclude me from this product from the word go. I will be left in the parking lot as the voice computer revolution finally gets underway.
The Dash headphones by Bragi offer gesture controls, which is much more helpful for people like me. You can answer a call or send it to voicemail through a head nod or head shake. If a small startup like Bragi can build in a feature like this, why can’t the mighty Apple?
One interesting postscript to note is that this year, for the first time, Apple has opened up Siri to third party app developers. If Apple doesn't get its act together I wonder if I will be finally liberated by finding an "app for that" in the near feature? App developers looking for new markets, please take note.
Whether Apple gives a shit about consumers like me is debatable but the way they design, build, and grow technology, affects its ability to relate to people that buy and use the things they make and that affects their bottom line, so here’s hoping. ®