There was a special Apple event in Cupertino on the 20th of October entitled "Back To The Mac". We were treated to a plethora of Mac-related announcements which have plenty of fantastic accessibility implications. I'm going to briefly run down what each announcement was, and why it matters for Mac accessibility.
State Of The Mac
Firstly Apple's Chief Operating Officer (COO) Tim Cook told us how the Mac was faring as a platform and the news is very good. There are more Mac users and Mac developers than ever before, and Apple is making plenty of money off all of us. The full information is available in MacLife's article: State of the Mac: "The Momentum Has Never Been More".
Why does this matter for accessibility: Firstly, there's no danger that Macs and OS X will be going away which is of course good! The iDevices and iOS are great but they don't do everything that everybody needs and it wouldn't be good if OS X disappeared at this point.
The fact that Apple as a company is making plenty of profit, despite the world economy, is good news for accessibility because unfortunately accessibility progress is often one of those not-very-visible things which tends to be cut back if a company hurting. This is obviously not something that Apple users need to be worrying about just now!
Steve Jobs discussed the new iPhoto included in iLife 11
The newest edition of the iLife suite (including iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and GarageBand) will be iLife '11, and is available immediately. Improvements to the iLife suite include full screen modes for iPhoto, more ways to create iPhoto slideshows, audio filters and a 'movie trailer' mode for iMovie. GarageBand will sport some timing "fixer" technology knows as GrooveMatching and Flex Time, as well as new amplifiers and instrument lessons for aspiring piano and guitar players.
All of the iLife programs will be significantly updated.
It wasn't announced on the day of the event, but Maccessibility reports that iLife '11 also sports significant accessibility improvements, especially accessibility improvements in GarageBand. They don't cite their sources but Maccessibility are known for generally being accurate.
iLife '11 requires that you use the Snow Leopard operating system, and is available now for US$49 for an individual installation and US$79 for a family pack.
FaceTime Now Available For Mac
FaceTime, the video phoning application available on the iPhone 4 and newest iPod Touch, is now available for the Mac computer also. The downloadable version is still in beta so it may have a few problems, but it has been reported by members of the MacVoiceover list to be fully accessible to VoiceOver users.
Because FaceTime can be used to call people via a regular mobile phone number as well as via an email address, and is available on the very portable iPhone 4, it has been eagerly used by the Deaf community for video phoning. Having the service available on the Mac will be a huge bonus to Deaf users who don't have access to an iPhone 4 but know people who do, as well as to others who have family and friends with iPhone 4 or the new iPod Touch which also uses FaceTime.
FaceTime is free for Mac users and you can download it right now!
OS X 10.7 Lion Preview
After OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard will be OS X 10.7 Lion, expected to be available in mid 2011.
Lion will import some of iOS's good features back into OS X, including more multitouch gestures, a new Mac App Store, app home screens, full-screen apps with no menu bar at the top, auto save and apps that resume where they left off when relaunched.
OS X Lion will have many features imported from the iOS devices.
Some of these things have accessibility potential for those with neurological impairment: things like auto-save and resuming where you left off when you launch an app make memory problems less of a problem. The simplicity of getting apps via a Mac App Store which takes care of downloading and installing for you means there's one less infrequently-done task to learn and remember, a bonus for those new to the Mac as well as an accessibility boon.
Multi-touch gestures that match those used on the iPad, iPod Touch, and iPhone will be great for some users - I use the mouse extensively myself and find gestures are fantastic. Unfortunately these require a high level of fine motor control in multiple fingers, so multi-touch is generally not very accessible to several groups including those who must use a stylus or a mouth stick, and are completely out for those who can't use a trackpad but need an alternative pointing device such as a joystick or trackball. Hopefully all multi-touch gestures will be implemented with keyboard equivalents so that users aren't left out in the cold.
The Mac App Store could also make it easier to spread the news about accessible apps and apps to aid accessibility, as has happened with the existing App Store. This would undoubtedly be a good thing, but I am concerned that app developers may be the losers in this new scenario - several things about the iOS App Store are very difficult for developers to manage and I wouldn't like to see developers give up on their accessibility apps for the OS X platform because of App Store issues. Hopefully this will not be an issue, but it does concern me. We won't have to wait long to find out: The Mac App Store will be launching for Snow Leopard within 90 days!
Also new to OS X Lion will be Launch Pad: a new way to launch apps from your desktop, similar to how it's already done on the iPad. This means that users can keep commonly used apps right in front of them without cluttering up the dock - another win for easy usability which also helps those with neurological issues.
A final new feature called Mission Control was also described but I can't tell you how easy it is to use because I didn't understand it! It has elements of Spaces, Expos and the Dashboard all mixed together, and I hope it's useful.
New MacBook Air Models
Two new Macbook Air laptops were announced, one 13.3 inch model and one 11.6 inch model. These don't have touch screens but were described by Steve Jobs as what happens when "an iPod hooks up with a MacBook"!
The 13 inch model is a tiny 2.9 pounds, and it shares many great features with the iPad: the ability to instantly start up, offering great battery life (7 hours of use has been quoted), amazing standby time, solid state storage with no optical or hard drives, and it's thinner and lighter than ever. The 11.6 inch model is pretty much the same, but with more of the "smaller and lighter" at only 2.5 pounds, and with a bit less battery life because there's less battery fitting in there.
The 11.6 inch MacBook Air is almost unbelievably small
For those who find the iPad is not accessible due to their disabilities, or those who just don't like typing on an iPad, these new laptops look to be a fantastic option. With instant start-up they will be great for taking notes in class, for use as communication devices, and other situations where waiting a few minutes for your laptop to boot just isn't sensible.
Having only solid state storage ("flash memory" like your iPhone, iPad, or camera has) and no hard drive or CD/DVD drive means the laptops are small and light but also that they have very few moving parts except the keyboard itself - Apple hasn't said so but I strongly suspect they will be more robust because of this. We've seen how much an iPod Touch or iPad can survive being dropped or otherwise battered around in daily use - imagine a laptop that would probably be OK if knocked off a desk or wheelchair tray! And of course smaller and lighter laptops mean less mounting equipment is needed for those with special positioning requirements.
I think that these new laptops will be "the iPad for switch users", and others who need non-standard input devices that the iPads don't cope with yet. I still hope, of course, that the iPad will grow into coping with a wider variety of input devices but these new MacBook Air devices are a "mid point" between the regular MacBooks and the iPads in terms of size and weight. You can get a glimpse of it in MacLife's First Look at the 11.6" MacBook Air article.
The 11.6-inch MacBook Air starts at US$999 with 64GB (US$1199 for 128GB) while the 13.3-inch model starts at US$1299 with 128GB and is also available with 256GB for US$1599. Both models are shipping now.
All in all, these announcements are a huge win for accessibility for Macs and Mac users in multiple ways. I am thrilled to see that Apple's commitment to accessibility continues unabated, and that their passion for Universal Design rubs off in the direction of accessibility so very often.
Which announcement are you most excited about? I really really wish I could get myself one of those teeny tiny laptops, but in the absence of a spare thousand dollars I'm most excited about OS X 10.7 Lion and the new iLife '11. Those are things I can actually use, and use soon.
Here's to the future!
- Ricky Buchanan
PR images courtesy of Apple. Screenshots by me.