Getting Touchy Feely with the Beta Version of the Blackberry Screen Reader on the Q10 / v10 of the blackberry OS (bbOS)
by Jeffrey Stark
March 21st, 2014
At the time of writing this article, the Blackberry v10 Operating System and suite of devices has just got interesting to the community of blind mobile users because in the last few months Blackberry has released the Blackberry Screen Reader for v10 in beta. The screen reader comes pre-installed for free on the latest version of the firmware for the Q5, Q10, Z10 & Z30
While still in beta (with a full release version projected in the coming year), it shows real promise.
The V10 Operating System was a huge leap for Blackberry as it is a complete rewrite from the ground up. It is even based on completely new core technology (called QNX) that allows it to do true multi-tasking. Because it is a completely new operating system, this also meant that the screen reader and all accessibility features had to be written from the ground up.
The Q series has a physical QWERTY keypad & touch screen. The Z series have only a touch screen. Both series of devices have a lock, volume up, volume down and action key as physical buttons.
I have been playing around for the last month or so with a Q10 and will focus mainly on my experiences using this device.
The Q10 is about the same size as an iPhone 4. However, the touch screen on the front face of the device only takes up half of the front face with the lower half containing a QWERTY keypad with very distinct tactile keys. I personally have always found in type at least 3 times faster on a qwerty keypad in comparison to an on-screen keypad. The Q10 is no exception, as a quick test has me typing somewhere around 25 wpm (with my thumbs). Be aware that even though the device has physical keys, navigating and interacting with the device is done through the touch screen. The screen reader alters the way the touch screen behaves and provides touch based methods of interaction. Touch Exploration, which allows a blind person to explore the screen with touch without activating the items on the screen. A set of additional gestures are provided to move around on the screen from item to item and to activate specific screen reader functions (such as reading a block of text). Users of iOS, Android & windows touch screen based screen readers will quickly see similarities in the gesture system that is implemented. Swiping left/right gives forward/backwards through interface elements; double tapping activates the interface element in focus and 2 fingers swiping up/down scrolls lists. The text to speech engine is the familiar nuance vocalizer engine. There is no braille support at the time of this writing. The suite of commands that the screen reader has available is extremely rich. The screen reader still needs some work in what it announces to users, how users can be certain of actions being registered & a few other areas of inconsistent behaviour. However, this is still a beta, updates are coming regularly and I will assume that many of these issues will be ironed out prior to the official release.
While iOS & Android are very similar in the way they operate, there are some distinct differences in how the bbOS operates. The core communication capabilities of the device revolve around the "hub". An app that combines all communication types, mediums and services in a consistent, unified and hierarchical system. When you first load the hub, you are presented a list view in chronological order of all emails, text messages, blackberry messenger messages, twitter conversations, Facebook conversations, etc. You also have a set of "tab sheets" that give you different views of your communications. There is a tab for viewing each service or message type separately. (I.e. your email inbox or text messages). You also have a tab called your "priority hub" that sorts all communications in priority order based on importance of sender or message. This view is particularly useful for managing very high traffic inboxes and avoiding missing important messages such as emails from your boss.
It is obvious that the device is geared to getting work done and heavily in favor of simplifying communication. Once you have used the priority hub, you will wonder how you lived without it.
BbOS has single finger gestures that are activated by single finger swiping from the edges of the screen. Swipe from the bottom up to unlock the screen. Swipe from the bottom upwards to load the task manager. Swipe from the left edge of the screen rightward when in the task manager to go to the hub, swipe from the right side of the screen to move from app drawer to app drawer. Swipe from the top downwards to open the notification / quick setting screen. I found these gestures surprisingly intuitive and found them to make moving around on the phone a very quick activity. However, personally I found that I often had the swipe leftéright screen reader command & swipe from the edge of the screen OS command getting activated on the small Q10 screen by accident when I wanted the other command. I also found scrolling in lists to need a little work.
The Blackberry Q5 & Q10 is offered on a number of carrier’s plans at an extremely low cost (often $0). This makes it an extremely good choice for the budget conscious customer and because of its physical keys it will for sure appeal to many people
While the screen reader seems a little buggy and has definite room for improvement, I think that Blackberry has made a good first start in providing blind users with access to the latest Blackberry environment. Once they fix the stability issues & add a bit of additional functionality, I am sure that this device will really appeal to the business traveller, people who do a lot of email, text messaging or social media and those looking for an easy efficient interface for dialing and telephony.
Who knows, if they fix the bugs & make the behavior more reliable they may finally catch up to Apple or Google for accessibility in the coming years. I am looking forward to seeing how far they get at the time of official 1.0 release. (Expect an update to this article at the time of the full release).
You can find out more about the screen reader & how it operates by checking the Q10 User Guide