Productivity on mobile platforms

Over the past few years, I’ve seen something that kind of troubles me. While people on iPhones Write books on using the iPhone on their iPhones, clear out their Email on their Apple Watch and manage the rest on their iPhones, and use their iPhones as their primary computing devices, Android users feel like one cannot be productive on any mobile system. So, here’s the thing. When you are around sighted people, even at a job sometimes, what are they using? Their computer? No. They’re on their phone. Maybe it’s an iPhone, or perhaps it’s an Android; it doesn’t matter. Either way, people are doing all kinds of things on their phones. When you go to a center of blind people, what do you see? People on their computers? Sometimes, but for younger people, they’re on their iPhones.

I’ll talk about the differences between iPhone or Android later. But this cannot be understated. The phone is now, for the majority of sighted, and even blind, people, their main computing device. And even a few older blind people I’ve talked to, they would rather not use a computer now. They’re all over their iPhone. So, what does this kind of productivity look like?

Quick flicks are best

Fast access to information is important. But being able to act on that information is even more significant. If I can’t quickly archive an email, I may not mess with using a Mail app that much. I want to get through my inbox, quickly, able to read through threads of info. The iPhone does this well, allowing me to flick up or down, double tap, and the email is out of sight. Within a conversation, I can move to the previous or next message, and archive, reply, or flag an individual message in that conversation. On Android, in Gmail, I can act upon a conversation, but inside a conversation, there are no quick actions. One must navigate through the message, along with any quoted or signature text, find a button, and double tap. Yes, there are other mail clients. Aqua mail comes close to being like the iPhone mail app. But it has no actions, and if one can get an honestly great mail client out of an iPhone without needing to buy another app, why should someone consider Aqua mail and Android?

A Book on a phone on a phone

I can’t get over how good Ulysses for iOS and macOS is. While I’m using Ulysses for Mac right now, I still consider what a person was able to make with just an iPhone, an app, and a Bluetooth keyboard. You may then say, “Well, if you’ve got a keyboard, you might as well have a laptop.” To which I would show a marvelous invention, called the pocket. A phone in your pocket, headphones in your ears, a keyboard in your lap (particularly one of those slim Logitech keyboards), and you’ve got a nice writing environment that is much less bulky than a laptop. A laptop with its trackpad and screen adding weight and thickness, along with the CPU and hard drive.

Next is the app. I’ve tried a lot of writing apps on Android. From iA Writer to a lot of Markdown note apps, I looked for a replacement for Ulysses that would give me the power that allowed a blind person to write an entire, large book on his iPhone. And I couldn’t find it. From unlabeled buttons, to no way to navigate by heading or link inside the document, to no way to link chapters together and export as a book, none of the apps were viable. This is not to imply that no app will exist in the future. And this does not imply that Android will not have a good enough accessibility framework to allow the creation of such apps later on. But right now, the iPhone, the most locked down operating system in the mobile space, has allowed a level of creativity from a writer which was before only seen on Windows beforehand. Furthermore, it allows a far more accessible writing environment, enabled by Markdown.

Android, meanwhile, is still trying to get dictation without TalkBack speaking over the person dictating, or Google Assistant without TalkBack loudly talking over it, phone calls where you don’t hear “keypad button” at the start of each call, image descriptions, a pronunciation dictionary, and so on. This isn’t to imply that the iPhone and VoiceOver are perfect. They are not, and amass bug after bug with every release. But, as of now, the iPhone is still the most productive platform. Android is coming around, quickly speeding up over the last year or so. I really hope it gets to the point where we can not only write books on our phone, but can also create apps, music, edit audio and video efficiently and effectively. At least, I’d love to be able to do any office work a job may require, with our phones hooked up to USB-C docking stations and keyboards and external displays.

More than likely, though, VoiceOver on the iPhone will continue to decline. TalkBack will reach where VoiceOver is right now, and stop because they ran out of ideas. The blind community will continue having to come up with workarounds, like not using the Notification Center when a Braille display is connected, or using Speak Screen on older iPhones from 2020 because VoiceOver is so badly optimized that it runs out of memory while reading an online article. Meanwhile, TalkBack will gain image descriptions, and it’ll be more than “gift card,” “blue sky,” on an app where you clock in and out of work, which is what VoiceOver does. TalkBack already speaks the text of the button, rather than describing the button. Yes, the button is unlabeled.

But the thing that really holds the iPhone up is the apps. Lire for RSS, Overcast for podcasts, Ulysses for writing, Seeing AI for recognition, and so on. And there’s an actual website with lists of apps for iOS. Android has podcast apps, RSS apps, writing apps, and recognition apps. And some, like Podcast Addict and Feeder, are great apps. But they don’t approach the accessibility of their iOS counterparts. Podcast Addict, for example, has the following layout when viewing episodes of a podcast: “Episode name, episode name button, and contextual menu Botton. Overcast, on the other hand, simple has a list of episodes. Android pros get around this by saying one should just feel one’s way down the screen, and scroll forward. What if one is using a Braille display or Bluetooth keyboard? What if one is both blind and lacks dexterity in the hands, so they need to use switch access? This is the kind of thing that iOS already has: a good, clean user interface. Sure, right now, it’s fallen into disrepair. Sure, you’ve got bugs crawling out from the walls. Sure, it feels sluggish on iPhones from just two years ago. But it’s still the best we have.

And this is where a sighted person cannot understand. To them, an iPhone X R is as good as the latest Galaxy phone, or even the latest iPhone, not mentioning the camera. Developers plan for sighted use. They make sure things look good, and flow smoothly, from the CPU on up to the touch screen. And yet, things work so differently to blind people. Adding a podcast episode to the queue may take a simple swipe on Android, but takes several swipes and taps for a blind Android user. And that’s why productivity, a good accessibility framework, apps development tools that automatically make a view as accessible as possible, and a good, high-quality screen reader are so important. And it takes all of that for a blind person to be productive, and that’s why most blind people in developed countries choose iPhone, every time.

Devin Prater @devinprater