Category Archives: Apple watch

My thoughts on how productivity is way more portable than in the past, but how annoyingly some non-visual features only appear on products with larger screens

Posted on December 13, 2019

Johan Sebastian Bach probably wished he’d had a better way to work on his “Musikalisches Opfer”, “A Musical Offering” when he traveled back home to Leipzig from visiting King Frederick the great of Prussia  near Berlin in 1747. Ok, he probably instead really wished for something faster and more comfortable than a horse-drawn carriage.

I still remember being in high school, when I had a 30 minute ride between school and home, each way; wanting a portable typewriter that ran on batteries; all the homework I could have done.

In 1987, Deane Blazie and his company, Blazie Engineering, came out with the Braille ’n Speak, very awesome for its time. David Holladay told me there was nothing like it in the sighted world at that time. He considered buying one for his own use, even though he is sighted.

The original version was a braille note taker, had 192K of memory that could be separated into 30 separate files. It was kind of that portable typewriter I wanted; it had  actually already been out when I was a senior in high school, I just didn’t know about it until a month before   I started college.. The Braille ‘n Speak was 8 by 4 by 1/2 inches and was way easier to carry around than the Perkins braille writer which I still used in my dorm room, just not loudly in my classes.

People everywhere got excited when laptops became viable, affordable, and light weight enough to not break the average back, though the most portable models even today are still definitely breaking wallets. Even the lightest of laptops back then still had rather large footprints, until the netbooks came out in the late early two thousands. People liked netbooks because they were easy to carry, and although not very powerful were good for writing projects and web browsing.

Back in the blind community, Levelstar came out with both the Icon, and the Braille Plus, which were kind of the Braille ‘n Speaks of their time in 2007. The Icon was 3 by 5 by 1 inches, the Braille Plus slightly wider. They both ran linux,, excited many people, and probably would have gone much farther if it weren’t for the industry-wide disruptive changes brought by Apple and their iOS devices. Yes, they also killed the netbook market.

When the first iPads came out, people thought they were just personal screens to consume content on; but now, ten years later, as iPads continue to get more powerful, many people see with significant success, how much work they can do on them while on the run; just ask  Federico Viticci. You can even get very nice iPad cases with keyboards built-in so that they in some ways almost function like laptops, though probably a netbook would be more accurate. The problem is, most people are photon dependent, and they can’t seem to get anything done without a large flashy screen to look at.

I often hear people talk about how much they can get done with their iPads, and that’s great, but my annoyance is that this means the majority also think that the iPhone is useless as a productivity tool. This means: I can’t press command-tab to move between open apps on my iPhone, or get a list of keyboard shortcuts offered by an iOS app. Even though both of these are completely available using the exact same Bluetooth keyboard on  iPads. I can’t think of any technical reason why the same keyboard-focused productivity features used on iPads every day can’t also work on iPhones.

Since 2010 I still carry a foldable Bluetooth keyboard along with my iPhone, and since 2014 braille screen input, more often called BSI has also been available. This means that blind users have been able to be just as productive as their sighted counterparts with their larger iPad screens. If I were in college writing papers today, I could probably do 95% of them on my iPhone only needing my MacBook for finishing touches. If I were sighted, I’d probably want larger screens too, but I hopefully would still appreciate that small screens can also be just as effective.

It seems that many products only offer their high-end features on their larger screened devices. This can be interpreted by some as kind of a screen tax. “I, who can’t use a screen am forced to pay more money for a larger screen that I can’t benefit from, just to get a quad core CPU instead of two cores, etc.” “We only make phones with huge screens and no home button, because that’s what everyone wants.”  When individuals or companies come up with some new awesome product, I just wish they would not assume that everyone thinks the same ways they do.

I still smile when I remember how my friend Eric Knapp explained how confused people looked when they saw me typing on my keyboard but couldn’t see any screen or device; my iPhone was under the table attached to my belt. I wear bone conduction headphones in public, so VoiceOver speaks to me through them just fine. If the iPhone got those cool keyboard shortcuts on the iPad already mentioned above, I would consider that a nice step towards improvements.

There is a very cool app for both iOS and Android called Voice Dream Reader, it can read all kinds of file formats, and to some degree, makes digital text into a kind of audio book. I use it every day. I also thought how amazing it would be if I could have Voice Dream Reader on my Apple watch, the smallest e-book reader ever. Alas, the Apple watch can only play audio through Bluetooth headphones and speakers. Yes, I totally get how bad music would sound through the watch’s very small speaker, but for reading a book; especially if I’m just laying in bed, it seems like another opportunity to think outside the box not taken. Voice Dream Reader is on my watch now, but requiring a Bluetooth audio device makes it inconvenient for me to use.

If I were complaining just to complain, I could have succeeded by babbling to myself in an echo chamber. I wrote this to hopefully show mobile productivity from a different angle, hoping a reader or two might take the next opportunity they have to think or better yet just step outside the box and include more users, regardless of what screen preferences they might have.

How I think watches are way more useful than many think

Many say that watches are useless now that we have cell phones and just as many don’t even wear one, , but I still say it’s much easier to look at your wrist if sighted or do voiceover gestures on your Apple watch, than to take your phone out of a pocket to get the time; and a smartwatch can do so much more.

What makes smartwatches most useful are complications; having apps display and update bits of data on the screen. Many iOS developers have added watch apps to accompany their iOS offerings, and many of those also have complications combined with those by Apple; there’s a wide range to pick from. Anything from moon phase to temperature to next calendar appointment to counted steps for the day, or sports scores, , and many more; before discounting watch complications as useless, think of your daily routines and consider when getting a piece of information meaningful to your activities more conveniently might help your day be more efficient. They’re somewhat like a screen of widgets, or how people using several monitors on their systems have updating windows open on their second or third screen. It’s the closest voiceover users will probably ever get to that use of multiple screens.

Right away I found the modular watch face was my favorite because it had the most, 5 complications. I’d heard people rave about the different faces and wanting more, but I’m too much of a Vulcan to enjoy such frivolity as say Mickey mouse. Then watch OS 3 came out and people liked that you could switch between faces much easier than before, 2-finger swipe right or left, but I still didn’t care; until I figured out that I could delete all the other faces and only have multiple modular faces with different complications. That was cool, I could have 3 watch faces, all modular, so 15 complications all easily reachable even with voiceover, the productive part of my mind was very happy.

Before I wished there had been a watch face with more complications, this solves that now.
Yes, the phone can practically do anything that the watch can, but the watch is way more convenient whether you’re blind or sighted, and putting dynamic bits of information on a smartwatch is very helpful when pressed for time. Time until the next bus, workout stats while at the gym, data that changes very rapidly right on your wrist; whereas it would be much more cumbersome to either have to dig the phone out of your pocket, oh wait no pockets in gym shorts, or change between different apps on your phone once it’s out.

I think augmented reality is way more important than virtual reality, especially for blind people, and the Apple watch can go a long way towards helping with that. Beyond the complications, tactile feedback is my second favorite feature. Getting turning directions tactilely is great when a loud truck or bus going by makes spoken GPS directions difficult to hear. Speaking of difficulty hearing, there are already cool articles about how deaf and deaf blind people are using Taptic taps to communicate when they need to quickly, like in public
Another case, though it shouldn’t exist, is some times the watch app is accessible to voiceover, whereas the iOS app is not; in my case it’s the app of my financial institution, but that’s a whole different story.

. As time goes on, only our imagination will limit us from creating ways for our Apple watches, and for many including me it’s accessibility features, to improve our dynamic lives even more.