Looking Back at iOS Accessibility’s Biggest Milestones 

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by my friend Steven Aquino. He is a freelance tech journalist based in San Francisco, CA, where he covers all things Apple accessibility. His work has appeared in iMore, TechCrunch, Macworld, and more.


The iPhone has been such a revolutionary, life-changing device that remembering what life was like before it existed feels almost like trying to imagine the Stone Age. The advent of the iPhone in 2007 was a seminal moment in technology history; it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime product that redefined not only smartphones but computers in general. Almost ten years later, it still never ceases to amaze me that everyone nowadays carries with them a lightweight, always-connected supercomputer everywhere they go. A supercomputer, to paraphrase John Gruber, in our freaking pockets!

Everyone knows how big the iPhone is, but for as much impact as it has had on society and culture at large, I’ve long believed it’s been equally as game-changing for people with disabilities.

The combination of its Multi-Touch interface and iOS software — particularly its Accessibility features — has opened up a world of possibilities like never before.

As a person with disabilities, I can attest to the iPhone’s influence on my life. iOS has empowered me to do more than I ever did on a traditional computer, even a Mac. The 12.9″ iPad Pro is my “laptop” of choice for these reasons. Put simply, tap-and-swipe beats point-and-click for me.

With the final release of iOS 10 drawing near, it’s fun to marvel at just how mature the operating system has become since its inception. The App Store, app extensions, third-party keyboards, widgets, and more — these all are features that have come since the early days of “iPhone OS 1.0.” As someone who’s been using iOS every day for the last nine years, it’s been exciting to watch the OS evolve over time.

As iOS has evolved, so too has its accessibility features. What started as a small feature set has grown into a comprehensive suite that has won Apple critical acclaim as the best in the industry for its remarkable breadth and depth.

With this sentiment in mind, here’s a look at what I consider to be five milestone iOS accessibility features.

VoiceOver

VoiceOver is perhaps the canonical accessibility feature. It’s the most well-known and typically the first that third-party developers support in their app(s).

VoiceOver has been around for a long time, but it hasn’t been around since the beginning. Believe it or not, the first two generations of iPhone, the original and the 3G, had no accessibility features whatsoever. It wasn’t until the iPhone 3GS shipped in June 2009 (with VoiceOver) that iPhone OS started becoming accessible. Along with VoiceOver, iPhone OS 3 also included features such as Zoom and Mono Audio.

Although VoiceOver was included with the iPhone 3GS, its roots trace back to the buttonless iPod Shuffle.

Launched in March 2009, a mere three months prior to the iPhone 3GS’s debut, Apple described the third-generation iPod Shuffle as “the first music player that talks to you” by way of its “revolutionary new VoiceOver feature.”

In short, VoiceOver was able to read song titles and names of artists and playlists.

Given VoiceOver’s importance and reverence, it’s hard to believe the screen reader has only been around for seven of the iPhone’s nine years of existence. While I don’t need to use it, I have a ton of respect for VoiceOver. It’s great, and Apple deserves all the kudos for continually supporting and improving on such a crucial part of iOS for so many people.

Guided Access

Guided Access, a feature whereby certain interface elements (e.g., the Home button) can be disabled in order to restrict user input in apps, is notable in two ways.

First, it’s one of the few accessibility features to receive prominent stage time at an Apple keynote. (The other, to my knowledge, is watchOS 3’s “wheelchair mode” at WWDC this year.) Guided Access was introduced by Scott Forstall at WWDC 2012 as a “tentpole” feature of iOS 6. Forstall explained Guided Access as being two things: (1) a tool for children with autism; and (2) a de-facto “single app mode,” useful in situations such as test-taking and using kiosks in museums.

Secondly, I can directly relate to Forstall’s comment about children with autism. As someone who spent nearly a decade working with preschoolers with special needs, I spent many days using an iPad to augment the curriculum with our students, many of whom were on the autism spectrum. Before iOS 6, keeping students focused and on-task was difficult because oftentimes they would “escape” to play Angry Birds or some other game. Thus, Guided Access was our savior.

Once set up, we could provide students a structured, predictable environment — something that’s essential to anyone with autism, but is especially true of young children — while simultaneously keep them engaged in learning in a fun and interactive way.

Large Dynamic Type

Introduced with iOS 7, Large Dynamic Type is a feature that allows users to set a text size that applies system-wide. The idea is it’s easier to set text size globally than it is to manually fiddle with a text slider in each individual app. Apple supports Dynamic Type in several of iOS’s built-in apps, including Mail, Messages, and Notes.

Large Dynamic Type is arguably my favorite feature of iOS. It’s convenient, yes, but what I love most about it is there’s a public API for it. That means developers can support Dynamic Type in their own apps. As a user, what that means for me is show notes and episode descriptions in Overcast are easier to read; likewise with the chatter in Slack and my to-do list in 2Do. Sadly, however, not every app supports Dynamic Type. Instagram and Uber are two apps I use regularly that don’t, but really should. Dynamic Type makes the app experience appreciably better because of big text’s increased legibility.

Considering the usability gains I get from Dynamic Type, I strongly believe every developer should adopt it right away if they aren’t already supporting it. Text is a basic part of any piece of software, and I’m surely not the only person with low vision (or tired/aging eyes, for that matter) who benefits immensely from larger text.

Switch Control

Like Large Dynamic Type, Switch Control debuted in iOS 7. Switch Control allows users with limited (or no) range of motion in their fingers to control an iOS device withswitches. A switch — or, as it’s colloquially known in special education circles, a Big Mac, due to its resemblance to the burger — is effectively a giant button that uses a wired or Bluetooth connection. In this context, switches are used to control an iOS device, but they’re capable of controlling pretty much anything electronic, including kitchen appliances like blenders.

What makes Switch Control a noteworthy addition to iOS is that its made iOS devices more accessible to a wider range of people. In the same way wheelchair mode in watchOS 3 makes the Activity app accessible to wheelchair users, Switch Control makes iOS devices accessible to people who rely on switches.

A perfect example of this is the story of Ian Mackay, a self-professed cyclist and birder, who suffered a spinal cord injury as a result of a cycling accident. Mackay recently told Mashable’s Katie Dupere about how technology has helped him maintain an active lifestyle in spite of his injury. A heavy user of Switch Control, Mackay says before it came along, he was “very reliant on someone using the phone for me or navigating a GPS for me.” This sense of empowerment and independence is exactly what Switch Control (and the purpose of any accessibility feature, really) is designed to do.

Magnifier

Magnifier is a new accessibility feature in iOS 10, but I want to include it here because of the noticeable effect its already had on my daily life. Because of this, I think Magnifier will be a hit with everyone, regardless of ability.

I’ve been using the iOS 10 public beta on my iPhone 6s Plus throughout the summer, and Magnifier is one of my favorite features. For the uninitiated, Magnifier is built into the Camera app. It uses things like the LED flash and filters to adjust the lighting and contrast, respectively, of objects as you zoom in. Apple gets knocked around at times for its software quality, but Magnifier is further proof the company remains skillful. It’s exceptionally thoughtful and well done.

The reason I’m so effusive about Magnifier is the handiness of it. So often, I’m reading a restaurant menu or looking at price tags in the grocery store, and the print in set in small font. Where previously I would strain my eyes in order to see, now all I need to do is pull out my phone and triple-press the Home button to launch Magnifier. It makes my life much easier, insofar that small print is readable and that I needn’t carry a physical magnifier, as I did for many years. (Yes, there are magnifier apps on the App Store, Lumin being one, but I love that there’s now a built-in solution.)

While the overhauled Messages in iOS 10 gets all the glory, it’s my opinion that Magnifier is right up there as one of the best enhancements to iOS this year. And I’m not alone in that view. In time, I think we’ll see Magnifier as a standout addition to iOS because of its practical nature. It’s beneficial to not only low vision users, but anyone who wants to get closer to anything, such as a coin collection.

The Mac OS Watch 

To mark the release of System 7.5 — and to incentivize people to upgrade — Apple launched a gift program:

System 7.5 gift

From May 1 to July 31, 1995 users who upgraded to System 7.5 could choose between an Apple watch or a copy of Conflict Catcher 3.

One of those options is way cooler than the other, despite the “Mac OS” name not coming until 7.6:

Mac OS Watch

Mac OS Watch

Mac OS Watch

This watch showcases Apple’s colorful, chunky design it used in print and some interface elements at the time, including the canned Gizmo theme. The bright colors are offset by a gray band with Mac OS text running its full length.

It even looks good with my other nerdy watches:

Nerdy watches

On the iPod Classic »

Lindsay Zoladz at The Ringer, writing about the post-production life of Apple’s last music player with a spinning disk:

Who would fork over up to $1,000 (or more; a factory-sealed seventh gen is listed for $1699 on eBay right now) for an old, obsolete MP3 player except a stick-in-the-mud Luddite, resistant to our inevitable progress toward a cloud-based future? I’m not sure. But I think these people were onto something.

On the Titanium PowerBook »

This month on iMore, I wrote about the Titanium PowerBook:

Since their inception, Apple’s PowerBooks had been encased in various shades of gray and black plastics. Some were smaller than others, and they looked good for the time, but by the time 2001 rolled around, it was time for a change.

The iMac and iBook G3s were colorful machines, and even the PowerMac was clad in plastic. The PowerBook G4, however, would be a totally different beast.

What makes a Mac a Mac? 

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post written by my buddy Thomas Brand.


What makes a Mac a Mac?
Is it a computer made by Apple?
Does it need to run the Mac OS?
For a Mac to be a Mac does its hardware,
does its design sit heads above the rest?

iPad, iPhone, and even the Newton are all computers made by Apple.
But none of them are Macs.

The Macintosh clones from PowerComputing, Motorola, Umax, and every closet Hackintosh all run Mac OS.
But none of them are Macs.

Back in November 1996, when Apple was doomed, and its hardware wasn’t much better than the average PC. Apple introduced a different kind of computer, the Power Macintosh 4400. It wasn’t a Mac, it was a Macintosh clone made by Apple.
And it was a piece of junk.

The Power Macintosh 4400 was easily identifiable, as its floppy disk drive was located on the left side of the case.
It is the only southpaw Power Macintosh in existence.

Power Macintosh 4400

The second of only two early Apple computers to ship in a metal case; everything about the Power Macintosh 4400 felt cheap.
Everything was sharp around the edges.

Stamped out of pressed steel to save money, its case was secured with screws instead of using clever little latches like its peers. The Power Macintosh 4400 looked so much like a PC it is hard to believe it was Designed by Apple in California.

Power Macintosh 4400

Built from inexpensive PC parts, the Power Macintosh 4400 didn’t look much better on the inside. It used a slow IDE hard drive when most of Apple’s computers were using SCSI. It shipped with a cheap PC compatible ATX power supply. Its modified Tanzania motherboard was the reference design used on popular Macintosh clones.
And yes — by way of an optional 166 MHz Cyrix CPU — it could even run Windows.

Not meant to be upgraded, the Power Macintosh 4400’s 160/200 MHz CPU was soldered to the motherboard. Its expandability was limited to three PCI slots, with one taken up by the Ethernet card. RAM maxed out at 160 MBs, and there was only room for a single 2 GB hard drive. In a word it was “slow,” barely matching the performance of Macs half its clock speed.

The Power Macintosh 4400 ran System Software 7.5.3 through Mac OS 9.1. Just don’t install System Software 7.5.5.
It won’t boot.

Power Macintosh 4400

MacWeek called it “a strange bird,” probably because the Power Macintosh 4400 was full of quirks all its own. Like the fact it won’t turn on without a charge from its 4.5 V PRAM battery. Or that RAM slot #1 only supports 32 MBs of single-bank memory, while RAM slot #2 and #3 support up to 64 MBs each. The Power Macintosh 4400 required expensive 3.3 V EDO memory, back when every other Apple computer worked with cheaper 5 V DIMMs.

Here’s Eric Schwarz on the machine’s place in the line up:

The 4400 was Apple’s attempt at making a cheap Mac. With a price tag around $1700, it certainly wasn’t cheap by today’s standards (a fascinating sidenote: for $150 more, you could have gotten a vastly superior Power Macintosh 6400.).

I think that sums it up nicely.

Photo credit: Stephen Edmonds.

The iSight Camera 

As announced at WWDC 2003, OS X Panther included iChat AV, an updated version of Apple’s AIM client that brought video and audio conferencing capabilities to the Mac. It was all done automatically; users didn’t even need to know if their Buddies had a microphone or camera hooked up to their computer. All that was required was a FireWire camera or USB microphone and DSL or better for video.

Steve Jobs then announced that the company had a companion product for iChat AV: the iSight Camera.

iSight Camera

Dubbed the “eyes and ears” of iChat AV, here are the specs of the iSight camera:

  • Video up to 30 fps
  • 640 x 480 resolution with 24-bit color
  • Auto-focus with F/2.8 aperture
  • Auto-exposure
  • Built-in dual-element microphone for noise suppression

The camera used a single FireWire cable for power and data.

Unlike the other FireWire cameras on the market, the iSight was designed to sit up high, off of the desk. This was to help avoid those awkward low-angle shots that make everyone look bad.

Today, of course, the iSight camera is built-in to every display Apple sales, from the MacBook to the Thunderbolt Display 27-inch iMac. That wasn’t the case in 2003, but Apple wanted the camera to be mounted as close to eye-level as possible.

To do this, the iSight came with several attachments:

  • A clear plastic clip with thumb screw to mount to the lid of notebook displays
  • A mount with an adhesive pad that would stick to the back of an iMac G4 or other flat-panel desktop display
  • An angled mount that would stick to the top of an eMac.

(A later revision would add a magnetic mount to attach to the top of the aluminum Cinema Displays.)

The camera hardware itself is just stunning. Made of aluminum, I still think it looks good today. It included an integrated lens shutter that you could twist shut with just a touch, and — just like today — had a green LED that would come on when the device was in use.

The iSight sold for $149,1 and was on the market until December 2006, by which time most new Macs all had built-in cameras.

While watching Jobs demo this for the first time, I couldn’t help but think about the first iPhone phone call or FaceTime demo. I think Jobs (and Apple) are really passionate about how people communicate. Hearing someone’s voice or seeing their face is much more intimate than passing text back and forth.

iSight Camera and 17-inch PowerBook G4


  1. Unless you were in the room for the announcement, in which case yours was free.