Posted on Monday 15th August, 2011
Since Lion has been 'out there' for about three weeks now, I thought I'd say a few words about how it's looking from a vision-impaired perspective, specifically my experience as a user of magnification rather than text-to-speech.
Firstly, the process of installation has been made fabulously easy by the App Store: previously it was a question of waiting for a disc to arrive in the post and the chugging through the installation, computer by computer.
I was also really favourably impressed by Apple's policy of a 'one time' purchase - something which applies to all App Store purchases as a matter of fact: for just over £20 I was able to upgrade the OS on two iMacs and a MacBook Air. Incidentally, the MacBook Air installed the files about 20% faster than my all-singing, all-dancing i7 iMac. Solid state drives are obviously the way forward.
It's clear that the intention was to make the new Mac OS look and feel far more like the IOS used on iPhones and iPads. So one of my first worries was that the gesture-based shortcuts - multi-touch gestures in Applespeak - would become a bit problematic for those of us who are...shall I say...digitally challenged.
But it turns out that there is a whole range of keyboard shortcuts that will achieve the same outcome. For anyone interested, these are:
- ⌃ ↑ (ctrl + up arrow) view mission control
- cmd + alt + L - show LaunchPad (this is user configurable, so choose your own easily-remembered combination)
- ⌃ ↓ (ctrl + down arrow) show appʼs windows
- F11 show desktop
- F12 show Dashboard
- ⌃ ← ⌃ → (ctrl + left or right arrow) Move between spaces
The first thing that you encounter, having jumped through all of the installation hoops, is a reminder that scrolling in Lion works the other way. This is obviously meant to mimic the touchscreen environment. It certainly takes a bit of getting used to. Three weeks on and I still have to remind myself that everything has changed. Still, I'm prepared to stick with it.
Not many of the more than 200 new features are specific to accessibility. But there are some important changes, most of which have improved the user experience - from this user's perspective anyway.
Zoom now has a lens or "zoom in window" option. This makes much more sense than magnifying the entire screen when what you need to see is only in part of it. It's easy enough to toggle on and off (cmd + alt + 8) and there is a quick way to access the zoom feature which I activate by using the ctrl in conjunction with my trackball's scroll wheel.
A further refinement might be the option to toggle between the lens, full screen mag and magnifier off - something which users of PC software like ZoomText take for granted.
The options for zoom under Universal Access promise a 'temporary zoom' feature while holding down ctrl and alt. I've yet to make this work. What's more, the forums are full of people reporting Zoom bugs. There's a particular concern about the way the screensaver disables Zoom's features. Clearly a glitch or two to iron out.
On the plus side, the mouse cursor - in its larger incarnations - now looks much smoother, less pixellated than before. Another welcome improvement.
Zoom also has an option to speak aloud items which are under the mouse cursor after a timed delay which can be set by the user. This is really handy when you are puzzling over something and just need a little bit of text-to-speech assistance without having to switch on VoiceOver, the onboard screenreader.
Talking of VoiceOver - and I don't generally use it myself - it now comes in a range of new flavours including Spanish, French, Chinese, Arabic and many more.
One of my criticisms of Snow Leopard was the lengths I sometimes had to go to in order to locate a particular application, especially those I hadn't added to the dock. It seems I wasn't alone: Apple have added a new feature called LaunchPad (obviously it was the geeks' turn to name things). This is a screen that groups every application installed on your computer in alphabetical order. You can bring it up with a gesture, a keyboard shortcut or (my preferred option) the top left 'hot corner'. And rather like the iPhone and iPad, you can group applications together in folders to make it easier to include everything on one LaunchPad screen, rather than having to spread them over two or three.
One of the other significant additions is Mission Control. Again, it's reached by a gesture, keyboard shortcut or hot corner and displays everything that's open on your Mac. Under Snow Leopard, I was very fond of using 'spaces' to separate my work out. In Lion, spaces have morphed into 'desktops'. So when I open Mission Control I can see not only the contents of the current desktop on which I'm working, but thumbnails of all sixteen of my desktops. Yes, I know that's a bit over the top, but my preference is not to have several things all open on top of each other.
And the great thing about the move from spaces to desktops is that you can have a different wallpaper on each one so that you know where you are. Switching between them is simplicity itself: you can either swipe with two fingers or (my preference) use ctrl and the left or right arrow keys.
One of my major bugbears so far is the new IOS-like navigation pane in Mail. It looks familiar to anyone who uses an iPhone, but the text within the navigation pane is too small to read without bringing up zoom. This, in spite of the fact that I have the latest version of TinkerTool installed which gives me much more control over things like font sizes.
The easiest option would be to go back to the 'classic view' of Mail, but I rather like the new interface and I feel irritated at having to settle for an older, lesser version.
Another small gripe is that the scroll bars have lost their distinctive blue. It's now pale grey on white - from a colour contrast point of view, about as unhelpful as it's possible to be. And while I'm in gripe mode, the accessibility section of the new features in Lion page on Apple's website promises a much easier way of dragging and dropping, whereby you select the object, mark the target and Lion does the rest. If anyone manages to make this work, do let me know.
Not that it's particularly related to accessibility, but the autosave function is great for those of us who type and type away and only after a couple of hours remember that we haven't bothered to save. All computers should work this way to be honest.
I am, though, somewhat disappointed that my 2TB Time Capsule isn't compatible with keeping multiple versions of the same document - this is the 'versions' feature of Lion which works in conjunction with autosave. To be honest, the Time Capsule has disappointed in many respects - more white elephant than white box.
Lion also gives you the ability to display applications in full screen mode. Not necessarily an accessibility feature in its own right, it will nonetheless be welcomed by those of us who like to work on something to the exclusion of everything else. Do note though that not all apps are able to jump in and out of full screen mode: Apple's own of course have had their customary updates, but my preferred browser, Google Chrome, rather upset the rest of the Applecart. I'm sure an update will be released soon.
So the final verdict - well it's certainly B+ rather than A- or A. The practice of releasing products that are still in development to an unsuspecting public is now an all too familiar fact of life in the IT world. But Apple's USP - "it just works" - is beginning to sound more like rhetoric these days (the iPhone signal problem and the erratic MobileMe service spring to mind). It's the sort of behaviour we've come to expect from the Microsofts of this world. And when you couple this bugginess with accessibility features, you're potentially disenfranchising and alienating a group of consumers who have been seduced by Apple's philosophy of building accessibility into the operating system rather than relying on third party providers to do the job. This is undoubtedly the right way to go - just make sure that it really does work before you release the Lion from its cage.