One year ago, Apple promised breakthrough features to help iPhone, iPad, Mac owners with disabilities. It failed them

Sure, you can make calls, for instance, but you can't end them

WWDC One year ago, at 2019's WWDC, Apple showed off a set of accessibility features designed to help people operate their iPhone, iPad, or Mac without the use of their hands.

Voice Control was supposed to help those with disabilities better use all the features of their macOS and iOS gear, and in the process regain some independence.

One year on from that unveiling – see the video below for Apple's recap of the technology – Cupertino's heralded control tools are sorely lacking in a number of key areas, we're told, preventing folks from carrying out some of the basic tasks that keyboard and mouse-equipped users take for granted.

Youtube Video

Garbled Google, and un-ending calls

Colin Hughes, a past Reg contributor and disability rights advocate, said, despite all the fanfare, Voice Control is maddeningly frustrating to use on a day-to-day basis.

"When Voice Control was unveiled at WWDC last year, Apple made a big deal of it, and the mainstream media reported it uncritically – probably out of ignorance as most journalists won’t ever need to rely on it as their only source of communication," Hughes told The Register yesterday. "The truth is, if you ask most severely physically disabled users, who can’t take to the keyboard, they will say they find Voice Control disappointing, particularly the accuracy of its dictation."

Among the most frustrating aspects of the software is its inability to perform a simple Google search properly. Hughes said that, when using Voice Control, the dictated query text is often mangled, spaces are left out, and other basic errors are inserted, leaving you with irrelevant or imprecise search results. This, he said, has been the case since Voice Control debuted last year.

Africa Studio

Brit comms regulator Ofcom: Disabled left behind by tech


The Register asked Apple for comment, and was referred to the iGiant's support line. Hughes said he has tried to explain the software's shortcomings to Apple support to no avail.

It doesn't end with search. Hughes has encountered a host of other problems with Voice Control preventing basic operations.

For example, using Siri on iOS devices, users can place a call by saying "Hey Siri, call…", but there's no "Hey Siri, end call" command. This isn't too much of a problem if the other person on the line can hang up and end the call for you. However, this does mean that if you call a number and go to voicemail, you have to wait until the mailbox times out before the call ends – which is frustrating for both parties.

Speaking of phone calls, Hughes told us Siri's Voice Control lacks the ability to accept an incoming call via voice command. There is an auto-answer feature but, well, we'll talk more about that later.

The bigger picture

Voice Control's failings aren't down to just one or two bugs or poorly implemented features. Rather, it's part of a larger problem stemming from Apple not quite understanding how people with disabilities or limited mobility use their Macs and iOS gear.

Take, if you will, the auto-answer function on the iPhone we mentioned above. This feature lets you receive calls without touching the screen, critical for folks who lack mobility or the ability to use their hands. Unfortunately, there is no option to enable auto-answer with your voice, meaning folks have to rely on – you guessed it – the touchscreen to turn it on.

Or, there's the issue that has been the bane of many a Brit who tries to interact with voice-recognition tech: dialects and accents. As with so many voice-control services, Apple's is tuned primarily for an American voice. Hughes, like other Brits, often runs into issues where Siri doesn't recognize commands or clearly hear his input.

This is made far worse by one key missing feature: the ability to fine-tune recognition and train the system on specific words. While vocabulary can be added, some words and names cannot be properly learned, it seems. Hughes said this is a problem when, for example, he wants to type the name of a Polish friend that Siri can't recognize.

"These are 'below the radar' features that won't bother many people but will be incredibly important for physically disabled people, and they are things I have been campaigning for the past couple years," he said. "Having them can literally make or break my day, my life even."

All of these problems start to add up, Hughes told us, to a highly frustrating experience for people who last year were really looking forward to iOS and Mac products that would work well for everyone, regardless of how they control their hardware.

"I feel Apple has behaved in a lip-service, patronizing-kind-of-way with Voice Control. It is not worthy of the Apple name or brand, it really is a very poor application and they need to fix it and invest in it if it is to be usable," he said. "Until they do, they have no right to claim how accessibility-friendly they are as a company, which they do very often."

This is all made worse by the fact that Apple is the only real game in town on its own kit, since market leader Nuance bailed from the Mac platform in 2018.

Hope on the horizon?

To be fair to Apple, there were a few accessibility-related features shown off at this year's WWDC. It's also hoped Apple engineers will iron out the above flaws, and related shortcomings, in the upcoming iOS 14 and macOS 11.0 Big Sur releases. What is needed to ultimately solve the problem, Hughes said, is a shift in the way software development is approached, and not only by Apple.

"When I complain about accessibility on Apple devices, Android users say 'why don’t you get Android?' And Apple users contradict that and say Apple has a great record on accessibility," Hughes said. "My own view is if every company started with inclusive design we would be in a better place." ®

Other stories you might like

  • Stolen university credentials up for sale by Russian crooks, FBI warns
    Forget dark-web souks, thousands of these are already being traded on public bazaars

    Russian crooks are selling network credentials and virtual private network access for a "multitude" of US universities and colleges on criminal marketplaces, according to the FBI.

    According to a warning issued on Thursday, these stolen credentials sell for thousands of dollars on both dark web and public internet forums, and could lead to subsequent cyberattacks against individual employees or the schools themselves.

    "The exposure of usernames and passwords can lead to brute force credential stuffing computer network attacks, whereby attackers attempt logins across various internet sites or exploit them for subsequent cyber attacks as criminal actors take advantage of users recycling the same credentials across multiple accounts, internet sites, and services," the Feds' alert [PDF] said.

    Continue reading
  • Big Tech loves talking up privacy – while trying to kill privacy legislation
    Study claims Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft work to derail data rules

    Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft often support privacy in public statements, but behind the scenes they've been working through some common organizations to weaken or kill privacy legislation in US states.

    That's according to a report this week from news non-profit The Markup, which said the corporations hire lobbyists from the same few groups and law firms to defang or drown state privacy bills.

    The report examined 31 states when state legislatures were considering privacy legislation and identified 445 lobbyists and lobbying firms working on behalf of Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft, along with industry groups like TechNet and the State Privacy and Security Coalition.

    Continue reading
  • SEC probes Musk for not properly disclosing Twitter stake
    Meanwhile, social network's board rejects resignation of one its directors

    America's financial watchdog is investigating whether Elon Musk adequately disclosed his purchase of Twitter shares last month, just as his bid to take over the social media company hangs in the balance. 

    A letter [PDF] from the SEC addressed to the tech billionaire said he "[did] not appear" to have filed the proper form detailing his 9.2 percent stake in Twitter "required 10 days from the date of acquisition," and asked him to provide more information. Musk's shares made him one of Twitter's largest shareholders. The letter is dated April 4, and was shared this week by the regulator.

    Musk quickly moved to try and buy the whole company outright in a deal initially worth over $44 billion. Musk sold a chunk of his shares in Tesla worth $8.4 billion and bagged another $7.14 billion from investors to help finance the $21 billion he promised to put forward for the deal. The remaining $25.5 billion bill was secured via debt financing by Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Barclays, and others. But the takeover is not going smoothly.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022