iOS 6 – The First Three Days. (With Commentary from the Twitterverse)

Blog Date: 
Tuesday, September 25, 2012

By Amy Mason

iOS 6 arrived on the scene Wednesday for all of us who were not privileged enough to be developers or beta testers. According to Apple there are more than 200 new features. (This seems to be their magic number by the way, because I am certain that Mountain Lion, and iOS 5 also came with more than 200 improvements, but I digress.)
This cannot be an “exhaustive” review.  As previously noted, 200+ new features, but let’s take a look at the upgrade experience, and what we’ve gotten to play with so far.  I’m certain that there will be more information to come from all quarters (including us) in the next few weeks, but this review should highlight some of the most visible new features of iOS 6, specifically from the point of view of a VoiceOver user. 

Installation and Setup

As I walked in on Wednesday, Anne told me to make iOS 6 my priority.  Get it installed, kick the tires, and shout the findings to the world.  So, I grabbed the MacBook Pro, and did the prerequisite update to iTunes 10.7. (Yes, it’s an over-the-air update, but I felt no great desire to see how many weeks it would take to download the update over Wi-Fi when our perfectly competent wired connection was easily available from my desk). 
And I waited… and waited… and waited… was this update ever going to drop?  Clara clued me in that it was rumored to be out at 1, so at 12:59 I started spamming the check for updates button.  At about 1:01 I had an announcement, that a new version of iOS was available.  Install that puppy… what? There was a problem? No file found on server? Ok, let’s try it again… I have the most recent version of iOS? What?  No I don't...Ok, let’s try it again…  It worked about the third or fourth time I tried it, and so (having previously backed up) I crossed my fingers, breathed the technologists prayer (please let it work, please don’t brick my device) and got back to the important work of work. 
Oh, and I tweeted:
@turtlecatpurrz: iOS 6 is installing on the iPad 3 at the office as we tweet. I'll keep you informed as to what I discover. Yay new toys!

At about this time, I noticed that there were lots of other folks tweeting about iOS 6, so I thought it might be fun to keep abreast of the Twitterverse, and its collective thoughts on the new OS.  I was especially interested in the thoughts of other blind people, so I kept an eye on the replies to @NFB_Voice’s question:
@NFB_voice: iOS 6 is out! Who of you has upgraded? How is the accessibility? #iOSa11y

Shortly after seeing the @NFB_Voice tweet:

@turtlecatpurrz: It just told me it’s time for setup. If this goes well, I will try the install on my personal iPad soon.

So, time to play.  The iPad greeted me with a simple grey background with iOS6 emblazed across it and the slide to unlock control, in some language other than English.  Since I recognized the switch, I was able to get on with the install, but for those who may be confused by the foreign text, (as opposed to “Slide to Unlock”, know that this is the beginning of your update process.    Just like setting up an iOS 5 device   Apple asks a handful of questions and does some settings prep.  One important step in the update process is signing in with an Apple ID, or at least entering your password: 

@turtlecatpurrz: Having some trouble logging in 50/50 chance our wireless in the office, Apple's overworked servers. 5th time seems to have been the charm.

Next it asks questions about enabling iCloud and Siri,

@turtlecatpurrz: iCloud update just failed, jumped to Siri setup despite moving into the IBTC to sit on top of the router.

Shortly after this, it’s done, and ready for the user to play.  So, let’s take a look at the features, and we can check in on the answers to the iOS6 question while we are at it!

@marrie1: @NFB_voice It's pretty good. much better then iOS 5. no crashing so far of voice over. Wahoo!

Well, that was quite positive.  I think I’ll go take a look at the App Store. Or... well, Safari? Siri? Maps? Come on… All I need is a little Wi-Fi.
 
@turtlecatpurrz: Just hard reset IPad in hopes that I can get it to accept the Internet around here. Changed to more reliable network. Seems to have worked.

My connectivity troubles may have been caused by a server error at Apple (http://arstechnica.com/apple/2012/09/wifi-connectivity-under-ios-6-temporarily-broken-by-server-proble/), but between them flipping the switch, and my hard reset, I was finally able move n to the meat of the review…

@turtlecatpurrz: App store and Maps are mixed bags, seeing a mix of inspired design, and frustrating choices. Same with Siri to be honest.

Let’s take a closer look then, shall we?
 

App Store

The App Store created quite a dust up before the official iOS 6 launch because VoiceOver using beta testers found it to be inaccessible.  Thankfully, these beta testers were able to alert Apple to the problem, and Apple did get it working with VoiceOver in time for launch
It’s a pretty big departure from the old app store, and for both sighted and blind users, I think it’s a mixed bag.  Some changes were really great, such as the ability to use the rotor to move (in some views) by heading to jump from one app to another.  It speeds up the browsing process considerably.  The information provided on different apps is still largely the same, though organized a bit differently. 

Other changes are definitely vestiges of the rush to ensure accessibility.  For example, I’m plagued by more phantom VO elements. These work a little differently than those in the YouTube app though.  For instance, in that app, if you click on a phantom, the app will activate whatever is visually on the screen, not the element that the user hears spoken by VO.  In contrast, the phantoms in the App Store mostly occur when looking at an app’s detail page, and get in the way of actual content when exploring by touch.  More than once, it was difficult for me to get VO to focus on an app’s details because the screen was so cluttered with phantoms from off-screen.  Unlike the YouTube app, it is actually possible to activate these phantoms correctly, but if the user interface is too cluttered it’s tricky to get to the information a user is seeking, so this really needs to be remedied.  Also, screenshots aren’t labeled even as screenshot, so if a user focus’s one, it reads the name of the file.   

I’m ok with the changes, though not a huge fan.  I’ll be happier when a little more polish is in evidence.  Another excellent point that accentuates the positives of the new App Store here though:

@TonyOlivero: Say what you will about the new App store design, but I like being able to see app changelogs on one screen
 

Maps

When the iPhone originally launched, it was launched with lots and lots of Google services repackaged and optimized for mobile by Apple.  Maps was one of the biggest and most specific examples of this trend.  It was not an ideal mapping experience, but for me as a blind user it had two killer features.  First, I could update on the fly, and use VoiceOver to get directions whether I was walking or taking public transit. Second, it worked in most major cities, so I didn’t have to constantly find different apps to meet my needs.   It was a great thing. Google had the directions that I needed when I needed them; iOS had the accessibility that the native platform lacked.  Thus, Maps (powered by Google) on iOS is how I learned the transit system for this city when I moved here a little over a year ago. 

When Apple announced iOS 6 they changed all that though.  They were dropping the partnership with Google maps and building their own system which would integrate Yelp reviews and use maps from Tom-Tom. It would have 3D views of the world around you, and provide turn-by-turn (If you have a compatible device, more on that later).  Oh, and remove transit directions.  

@TechCrunch: Take Public Transportation? Here's What To Expect From The Maps App On iOS 6 http://t.co/aHmiDpaw by @thatdrew

I was mad about this when I heard about it several months ago.  3rd Party transit apps leave me at the whims of more developers who may or may not keep their apps accessible, and I need the transit apps.  I certainly can find other ways to get the transit info I need from the MTA, but it takes a lot of the spontaneity and flexibility out of my planning.  So, I got really hopeful when I saw this tweet:

@jasonwoodward: iOS6 upgraders who want Google Maps back: open Safari on your phone -> http://t.co/eJ86EGVS -> Add To Homescreen. Done. http://t.co/INeor9rg

I was sorely disappointed, (though not particularly surprised) to discover that this suggestion is fraught with accessibility challenges that make it wholly unusable for VoiceOver users at this time.   I hope that Google gets their act together, because, they are good at this whole mapping thing, and I want the functionality back.  There are certainly transit apps out there, but finding one for your city may be a challenge.  That being said, it’s a challenge that many of us face, so Mashable came to the rescue and suggested several different public transit apps
It’s fairly comforting to know that I’m not the only one who is displeased with the Maps app.  Sighted and blind alike are finding plenty to grumble about, or at least mock:
@CNETNews: Apple's Maps app slammed over missing cities and other mistakes http://t.co/xhHrpVJ8

(Some of the highlights from that article include the duplication of a chain of islands in the Pacific, and a furniture museum which the app claims is in a river.)

Another welcome improvement to the maps is the addition of turn-by-turn directions.  With the new iOS 6 maps, it is now possible to get turn-by-turn information for driving directions.  According to Anne, these worked well for her in early trials.  Turn-by-turn will be great for those who can make use of it, but it’s not available on any device that won’t support Siri or the iPad 2 with cellular data, and it doesn’t work for pedestrians according to LifeHacker’s article on turn-by-turn.
The news with maps isn’t all negative though.  Apple has done some fascinating work that makes it possible to explore the map by touch, just like a user is able to do in the Ariadne iOS app.  Furthermore, points of interest can be found on the rotor, and then flicked to on the map.  If Apple is able to improve the mapping experience, some of these features will likely be revolutionary in time. 

Siri

So, Siri has really improved.  My unhappiness in the tweet from my first afternoon stems from some minor nitpicks, but all in all, Siri has become a lot cooler and a lot more useful.  Anne is enthused:

@taylor209: Wow! I can reply to a text using Siri cool!

Siri has begun replying to text messages, starting apps, offering movie info, and sports scores.  She really has learned a lot of new tricks.  (Now if only she’d come visit the low-rent district.  My iPad 2 and iPhone 4 are kind of lonely.)

The information we are getting from her is more useful, she seems to generally be snappier, and she still has her patented wit.  (We were playing with her new features over lunch, and after trying different things on in the lunch room, we overheard coworkers eager to try the same things.  To be honest, it was fun to hear multiple people asking “Siri, tell me a joke”.)

She integrates with the new maps app, and can give you directions from your current location via walking or driving, which is extremely cool, and fairly useful. 

Siri can interact with social media too.  Along with the old tricks of e-mailing and texting others, she can now also tweet on our behalf, or leave Facebook posts.  I was able to look up hash tags, and trending topics on Twitter too which was really impressive. 

She’ll make restaurant reservations and give you all sorts of recommendations for great places to eat, but (here comes the nitpick) as a VoiceOver user, we have to do more work than a sighted user to get several pieces of information.  When Siri gives us a list of restaurants, visually she also includes the price bracket, review status (how many stars and how many reviewers, phone address, and distance from current location.  Unfortunately VoiceOver only reads the name and price of the restaurant.  We have to double tap on the result to get the rest of this useful information, so choosing the best choice from the proffered list is more tedious than it needs to be, and more tedious than it is for our sighted counterparts. 

Really my only complaint concerning Siri stems from this type of frustration, (and of course that I don’t get to play) otherwise I give her two thumbs up. 
 

Passbook

What about Passbook?  No idea.  It’s been (and generally remained) an enigma since it has come on to the scene.  The majority of the most popular apps that are supposed to support it, aren’t actually there yet, and at least two apps which do support the feature (Walgreen’s and United Airlines)   have some pretty impressive accessibility flaws that make me wonder how useful it’s going to be to blind users.

I have to admit that if the functionality is severely limited, I am going to be especially upset because Passbook, much like eBooks, has the potential to really simplify the daily life of blind users as they can (theoretically) read, and keep track of all those loyalty cards, tickets and other pieces of paper that clutter our daily lives, and need to be scanned, tagged, or read by a reader.  If it comes to pass, and the apps are accessible, Passbook could be a pretty powerful tool.  It the apps that work with it remain inaccessible, it may join Newstand on the page of apps I can’t delete, and kind of hate Apple for installing. 
 

VoiceOver and Zoom

Hey, here’s a great little shout out to blind users with some vision.  If there are times that VoiceOver is going to work best for you, and others where Zoom is going to be the best, Apple is going to make you very happy with this feature.  As was mentioned in Scott Davert’s article, Zoom and VO will now work together with only minor changes to the way that VoiceOver works.  It’s a great touch, the scrolling and zooming functions of Zoom stayed smooth and easy to manipulate, and VoiceOver didn’t seem to hiccup when it was run on an iPad 3 despite its large retina display.  I’ve not had the chance to compare the results on an older device, but for many users, this will be a very welcome melding of two great features. 

Braille support

@kd213:  In the process of downloading iOS 6. Word is it has fixed my Braille. If so, I shall have a cupcake to celebrate. TBC

@kd213: If not, I shall have a cupcake anyway. So there.

I feel her pain.  Like many other HIMS users, I’ve been without Braille on my iOS devices since 5.11 came on the scene, and I upgraded without awareness of the broken driver.  Here in iOS 6 I am thrilled to announce that not only does my Braille Sense work again, but so do new displays, like the BrailleEDGE, and Freedom Scientific’s revamped Focus 40 Blue line. 

That being said, I just about cried when my attempts to connect the BrailleEDGE to the iPad were met with no less than 45 minutes of frustration!  Mostly, the iPad just wouldn’t see the device, though my earliest attempts were met with a cryptic “Cannot load driver” error.  I was about ready to throw in the towel and call HIMS when I realized that my Bluetooth support was most likely broken by the Bluetooth in the MacBook still sitting in my office.  Lo and behold, turning off the MacBook solved the connectivity problem.  Please, Apple, look into this in future updates? For some of us, the Braille support is more than just a convenience; it’s a primary form of communication, and an amazing learning tool.  Please get this to the point where it’s as solid as installing a keyboard, or headset.  Braille needs to just work. 

Otherwise, in the brief time I got to play with it, I didn’t notice any big changes to Braille, so all I can say is, welcome back, my friend,  I’ve missed you.  KD was slightly more expressive, by the way:

@kd213: I am tweeting. From my phone. In Braille. Wiiiiiiiiiiin!
 

Hardware/Software integration

Here’s Anne’s opinion:

@taylor209: Apple has done a good thing here in the iOS six operating system

@taylor209: My iPhone 4S is quicker and it sounds better
 
Here is mine, (though not in tweet form):

Mostly I am quite excited by what I see.  I played with Clara’s iPhone (a 4 like mine) and VoiceOver was snappy and quick.  It wasn’t nearly as bogged down as my phone feels on 5.11.  I’m looking forward to this upgrade’s improvement to the phone’s performance.  That being said, Apple has disappointed me and lots of other users I would expect with several of their feature limitations (quoted from their website below).

1.    Turn-by-turn navigation is available only on iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, and iPad 2 or later with cellular data capability. Flyover is available only on iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPad 2 or later, and iPod touch (5th generation). Cellular data charges may apply.
2.    Siri is available on iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPad (3rd generation), and iPod touch (5th generation) and requires Internet access. Cellular data charges may apply.
3.    FaceTime video calling requires a FaceTime-enabled device for the caller and recipient and a Wi-Fi connection. FaceTime over a cellular network requires iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, or iPad (3rd generation) with cellular data capability. Availability over a cellular network depends on carrier policies; data charges may apply.
4.    Offline Reading List is available on iPhone 4 or later and iPad 2 or later.
5.    Made for iPhone hearing aids require iPhone 4S or iPhone 5.
6.    Panorama is available on iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, and iPod touch (5th generation).
7.    Find My iPhone and Find My Friends enable you to locate iOS devices only when they are on and connected to a registered Wi-Fi network or have an active data plan.
8.    iCloud requires iOS 5 or later on iPhone 3GS or later, iPod touch (3rd generation or later), or iPad; a Mac computer with OS X Lion or later; or a PC with Windows Vista or Windows 7 (Outlook 2007 or 2010 or an up-to-date browser is required for accessing email, contacts, and calendars). Some features require iOS 6 and OS X Mountain Lion. Some features require a Wi-Fi connection. Some features are not available in all countries. Access to some services is limited to 10 devices. *** (Cut irrelevant details here.) ***
9.    Some features may not be available for all countries or all areas. Click here to see complete list.
10.    Siri is available in Beta only on iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPad (3rd generation), and iPod touch (5th generation) and requires Internet access. Siri may not be available in all languages or in all areas, and features may vary by area. Cellular data charges may apply.

Those of us with older devices are kind of left out in the cold when it comes to the best features.  Not unexpected, but generally this ploy feels a little deceitful to me.  My iPad has the same memory and processor, the Apple A5 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_A5 ) as the iPhone 4S, and Siri the app was available on my iPhone 4 before it was bought by Apple for integration into the OS, so I know that my phone was capable of the technology.  Most of the feature limitations feel extremely arbitrary to me for this reason, and it’s disappointing that I’m being kept from enjoying these features by such a barrier.   
 

Lots of other stuff

So, this is the catch-all section for all the little things that we noticed which didn’t quite earn their own section in the larger blog post.  First a few tweets, then a few other little bits:

@wmj1102: I love how you can post tweets and Facebook statuses right from notification center. #fb

@ocean_dream5: Definitely loving the fact that shift/delete/more numbers, letters and symbols acts as letters do with touch typing.

@BrileyOC I love how easy it is now to delete messages in iMessage and Mail.  Also, updates to Siri make it a useful tool.

On a similar note to @BrileyOC’s tweet, I’ve found that I like the ability to switch the actions I wish to perform on different objects in the rotor.  It makes it much easier to delete songs and podcasts out of the Music App on iOS

I love the idea of Do Not Disturb.  I see myself getting some decent mileage out of the feature.  Midnight HeyTell messages will be a thing of the past.  I do with that I had a little (or a lot) more granular control though.  I like that I can turn off everything but phone calls, but I wish that I could decide which apps get to bug me, (Twitter), and which don’t (Facebook). 
 

Final Thoughts

My initial feelings after the first afternoon of testing were fairly ambivalent:

@turtlecatpurrz: Eh, I am finished for the night though the jury is still out as to whether or not I want ios6 on phone, iPad, both or neither.

Most others however, were far more positive as you have seen through the review, but here are two more:

@pyyhkala: @NFB_voice I upgraded right at 1:00pm EDT.  Overall better #a11y and new features. Will likely get iPhone 5 21st too.

@wmj1102: I'm impressed with iOS 6 thus far. Lots to play with. #fb

So, what's my verdict now that I’ve had more time?  Well, I updated my phone.  The improvements in performance with VoiceOver were worth a lot to me.  I am also super excited to go home, grab a book, and read it (in Braille).  I have to admit though that as I sit here writing this, I’m missing the old Google Maps based App already.  I was just thinking, it’s time to go home, when’s that next bus coming?  I grabbed the phone to look, and realized that I couldn’t use maps to get me there now (sight).  I guess I’ll give HopStop a try, and see where things go from there. 

Oh, and the iPad?  I’m going to wait a while.  I kind of want to Jailbreak it, but that’s an entirely different story.