An Open Letter to Apple
Steve Jobs has, through the years, made it clear that Apple is not a software company, it is a hardware company. This is very shrewd on Steve's part, because if Apple was indeed a software company, they would be bankrupt. Their only true innovations come from the hardware side; their software is atrocious, and their "support" is a joke. A strong opening statement, but one I hope to prove in the paragraphs to come. I will be focusing throughout most of this article on the iPod, but I will be linking it repeatedly to corresponding trends in Apple's business philosophy with other products.
First off, credit must be given where credit is due. Apple has made a product here that is so hotly desired that retail stores will routinely isolate it in security cages because the threat of them being stolen is that high. I bought my very first iPod last Friday (it was a Shuffle; it will also be my last iPod) and was duly impressed at the form factor. I still am, actually; every time I go to fast forward or change the volume I marvel at how tiny the thing is. I've heard similar raves about other Apple products; there's just something about the product design that just feels, or looks, "right."
I mention the Shuffle because it is compact, light-weight, and as simplified to use as it can be; I mention this in contrast with the associated software package, iTunes, because it is the exact opposite from all of these things. iTunes 6 was 35 megabytes, and that's just the installer. What is it that requires 35 megabytes? It can't be the video codecs. The largest codec package available on the Internet does not get higher than 20 megabytes, and the majority of them are under 10. Same with working with CDs; any CD ripper or burner you care to name is only a few MBs. (Of course, I'm leaving Nero out of it, but that's a rant for another time--I am in such high demand these days. Suffice it to say that if they left it to just the BURNING, Nero's installation would be considerably, considerably less.) The iPod part of it? Can't be more than one megabyte. What's left? The RSS feeds? Playlists? Heck, WinAmp does almost everything iTunes can do, and it's maybe a fifth the size of iTunes. So why is it so bloated? Because, it looks pretty. Not that such things matter to me, as a functionally blind computer user. What does effect me, however, is the fact that this prettiness comes at the price of being unable to use the program.
I have no idea what so many companies find so incredibly offensive about the standard Windows check box control. It is a check box. You click it, it changes a digit in a configuration file from 1 to 0, and back again. It doesn't have to draw a pretty spiral pattern, it doesn't need to "switch" its own box off and on like a light switch. What it needs to be is checkable and uncheckable. Yet for some reason this core design concept is one that goes by the wayside with far too many application developers, who decide -- for what reason I still cannot fathom -- that the Windows check box isn't good enough for them. Now they need to write their own way of interfacing with that particular option. Hey, I know--let's make it go FLASH! And we'll call it a "turn-on-off box"! Because the phrase check box wasn't descriptive enough, and was confusing. Here we have a combo box that, when opened, opens up in three directions! Like, how cool is that? Of course, now every program that attempts to read off of the off screen model is throwing up its hands in horror at the terrible mess that's been produced and decides to go sulk in a corner somewhere with its big floppy brown hat pulled over its red-rimmed eyes and swig disconsolately on some generic non-name-brand alcoholic beverage (Available at a Safeway near you!)
But who cares, right? Who would need to look at the off-screen model? What matters is that when you click it it changes the way I want it to. So now, because Apple is apparently too good for standard Windows controls, the screen reader companies have to account for Apple's mistakes. Only they don't actually have to, because if they don't eventually somebody will create custom iTunes application scripts that work without them having to make the effort themselves. (This is if you are "lucky" enough, and I do mean that in the most cynical and sarcastic way possible, to be a JAWS user; I don't know about Window Eyes, but I'm assuming you're just out of luck.) In this case the scripts for iTunes were so difficult to make that the author would not make his scripts available for free. This is hardly a unique occurrence; a few years ago you had to pay for custom scripts to use WinAmp. But we've come a long way since then and if the screen reader companies can make a program like Windows Live Messenger speak then I don't know what makes iTunes so difficult.
I am acutely aware that iTunes 7 has been released. How do I know this? Because it (surprise surprise) completely breaks the aforementioned scripts. Up to now, I was willing to give Apple the benefit of the doubt. They have a lot to do, and I imagine that fixing unintended accessibility problems that only effect a fraction of their user base is not all that high on their to-do list. Now, though, I'm not willing to give them any more slack. Apple has had years to make their product more accessible, and their next major release of the product not only fails to address a single issue, but it actually creates several more. Ordinarily, I wouldn't waste my time on such things. I would just say "Well, if they're not going to bother to make the program work I'm not going to bother to use it" and that would be that. Only Apple goes out of its way to do everything possible to force people into using this bad product. That philosophy angers me on its own; I don't mind them offering me the choice to use their program but when the only reason you can't use your product with a computer is because "they just don't want you to do it that way", I get just a tad annoyed, and then I come onto the Internet and type up an angry letter about it and force all of you to read it. When this is partnered with "and also the program won't work", and then is partnered with "it hasn't worked for 3 years", I get beyond annoyed. I start to feel victimized.
Apple does not exactly have a clean track record with this sort of thing, either. Voice-over is adequate, and -- as all the zealots are extra-quick to point out, "It's better than Narrator! Bwahahahahahahaha." Completely ignoring the fact that Narrator is horrible on purpose. That said, voice-over simply does not hold a candle to a modern screen reader for Windows, and Mac applications are, by nature, more graphic-intensive than Windows applications are.
Still, I would expect that, on the Mac side, Apple's favored software platform, Apple's voice-over screen reader product written for Apple's operating system would be able to interface with the iTunes program that Apple has written, which is a program that Apple requires you to run in order for you to use your iPod, an Apple product, properly. Since it's a screen reader written by Apple interfacing with a program written by Apple on an operating system written by Apple, one would expect they would go together rather nicely. Way to go, hypothetical one. One is also, it appears, completely wrong. iTunes doesn't work with voice over... at all. I suppose, given this, I really shouldn't be cranky about the Windows side; if I can't expect Apple to get its own products to work together I can hardly expect it to get its products working with products from other companies.
The point, though, is this: Apple has a history of making products that only work to a certain extent (remember what I said about other programs that do CD ripping, or media playing? They also do this job far, far better than iTunes.) and then tell the rest of us "suck up and deal." The only reason why the iPod is as popular as it is now is because Apple took advantage in a lull in the portable MP3 market, created an attractive-looking hardware product, tied it in with what is in a very real way the first on-line music store (certainly the first one that actually worked) and a big ad campaign. It is 2007 now; MP3 players are everywhere, and so to a lesser degree are on-line music stores. Hardware always breaks. The only reason why Apple has remained as popular as they are is because, once customers bought iPods, Apple could hook them in. Bought a track? You can only play it on our player! Want to use another player? Okaaay, but you'll have to completely reorganize your library, first. Again, not due to any technical limitation; just because Apple wants you to do it that way. Let me make this perfectly clear. Apple's advantage in this one (only) market they have an advantage in is due to nothing more than, at this point, ceaselessly brilliant marketing. If Apple ever licensed their proprietary protected AAC format to other player manufacturers so that iTunes music store tracks could be played on anything other than iPods, Apple would lose its stranglehold on the portable digital player market almost immediately. And meanwhile the Apple zellets mock the Zune because it doesn't have plays for sure on it... yet.
So how does the blind community respond? Typically; by bowing, once again, to Apple. Brian updates his scripts, so now there is a perfectly workable solution: buy a Shuffle, buy a (overpriced) screen reader, then buy the scripts so that screen reader will work with the iTunes program Apple makes for you to buy song downloads at a bad encoding format. Do they honestly expect us to sit and take this kind of behavior?
This isn't just limited to the iPod market, of course. We've all seen the (oh so very amusing) Apple press releases touting the Macbook Pro as a "portable computer, and not a laptop. Gods, what are you doing putting that thing on your lap? That's crazy talk! What are you, crazy?" Apple, just like Dell, has outsourced their tech support to other countries; only for some reason, though Dell gets hammered on almost constantly for it, I very rarely see anyone complaining about Apple doing it. And I'm not even going to go into trying to get the Macbook discoloration issue solved any other way than by bringing the unit into an Apple store. Windows gets almost constant abuse (mostly by people who run Macs) for running badly, crashing, or being unstable. To them, I ask this question: what would happen if OS10 was run on the same hardware? Since we're all running Intel machines now, and you can run Windows on Apple machines, it's an entirely fair question. The answer of course is that it would do as badly or worse than Windows, and Apple ties it to specific hardware platforms they know work because it makes their OS look beyond reproach. OF course this means that Apple software developers can get lazy and not have to worry about how resource-heavy and needlessly glossy their products are because the hardware people will just throw more processing power at it, but hey, no one'll notice anyways, right! OS10 is not any more secure than Windows Vista will be (OS10 does prompt you for a password a lot more often than XP does, so you can't install at least the same amount of brain dead backdoors); the only reason why Apple is seen as this golden harbinger of safety is because Apple users are statistically insignificant. Even in the last big Apple event Steve Jobs himself did basically nothing except bash on Microsoft constantly. Meanwhile, I don't recall Microsoft ever telling anybody that in order to copy files from the hard drive to their peripheral device you have to use their program to do it. Besides, how does that kind of immaturity help a company's image? It can't. It just can't.
I don't know what exactly Apple is playing at with the accessibility market, but ignoring the people who literally cannot use their program that Apple makes as necessary to use as they possibly can in favor of impressing everyone else with how sparkly it is -- not once, but twice -- is, as I see it, a deliberate snub And maybe that is Apple's strategy: to cater to the large crowd at the expense of completely alienating the smaller one. And it is fine for them to do that. But it is then also fine for me, as a member of that smaller crowd, to say "Snub me, will you? All right!" I cannot express my disappointment in words when I see how willing the blind community is to gloss over all of this and keep using iTunes STILL, after all this; to keep dealing with the same problems which Apple obviously knows about and has absolutely no interest in ever fixing.
I mean, what is it going to take? Will Apple have to turn every control in the program into a graphical symbol accessible only by clicking with a mouse before we will say enough is enough? The saddest part is that that's not a rhetorical question; for all I know, the situation has gotten there already. This kind of pandering is truly pathetic, and it disgusts me to see it continue. We should all be ashamed for not being willing to take a stand on an issue where a large company has made it repeatedly clear that they do not care about us. So, I have and will continue to. I use WinAmp to handle all my media playing, organizing, and converting needs (I use MP3s. Why? Because I have a personal stake in the audio format war? No, just because the Shuffle won't support non-Apple flavors of AAC. Thanks AGAIN, Apple.) I use EAC (soon to be dBpoweramp) to rip my CDs and I haven't needed to burn any audio CDs yet, though if I do, it will probably be some flavor of Nero or, again, dBpoweramp. To handle the syncing that Apple tries to make iTunes exclusive for no reason at all I use Annapod Explorer. Yes, I would rather pay money than use iTunes, and it's ridiculous and insane that it has gotten to the point where I will buy a program over a free program that does the same thing just as efficiently only because the UI is better. But that, I am afraid, is the situation that we are now at. As for updating my firmware, the last thing Apple has done to force people to use their worthless piece of software? If any updates to my firmware are anything like updates Apple makes to iTunes, I think I would rather go without. But thanks, all the same.
About the author: Lysander is a sight-impaired computer user in Alaska.