“Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”
Microsoft’s mission statement rang loud and clear during the first two days of their 2017 Build conference. In every nook and cranny of development there were hints of accessibility achievements. In the past, Microsoft products have left a lot to be desired by way of accessibility. The last few years the tech giant has been making steps to rectify this reputation, and this year I think I finally believe that not only are they serious, but that they aren’t going to pull the rug out from under us.
The big pushes during Build have been the company’s implementation of AI (artificial intelligence) into apps, and their new Windows Graph idea. Though neither have been overtly built with accessibility in mind, both have a lot of potential for assistive technology users. Cortana, which is roughly Microsoft’s equivalent to Siri, is already available across Windows devices and provides a hands-free way of interacting with phones, computers, tablets, etc. Coming this year, this service will be reinforced using improved AI technology, some of which was debuted in the first two days.
Timeline is one of the powerful features being added. The demo used an example of an architect who needs to use multiple devices for business. Timeline will enable users to easily see what tasks they’ve been working on, on any device. So, say you begin a project at work and you’d like to finish at home, it will be possible to easily reopen the file from your house from timeline, exactly where you left off. While this would be a helpful tool for those in the business world, for those of us who rely on technology every day for everything from mundane chores like grocery lists to simply reading, this will be invaluable.
More cross-device features coming include the ability to have a cloud clipboard. What this will mean is that you will be able to copy information on one device, and paste it onto another. No longer will you need to email that link, address, or what-ever to yourself! You will simply copy on one device, move to another, and paste!
A cool new add-on for PowerPoint was also announced. Built-in translation was debuted in a very impressive demonstration featuring Mandarin Chinese. It will enable presenters to create live subtitles in over 60 languages. It also allows for audiences to use their own devices to respond using their native language which will then present to the speaker in English (or another language). This has enormous potential for Deaf individuals who have been left at a presentation without an interpreter or CART. It also presents an interesting prospect for anyone who has trouble speaking, or would otherwise better articulate in written form, to participate in Q&A or other discussions.
Finally, the real announcement we all needed to hear: the platform wars are over! Yes, that’s right, Microsoft’s war with Apple is over. This, more than anything, will be a huge game changer. Though I now have faith that Microsoft could create an accessible mobile phone experience to rival the iPhone, the market simply isn’t there for such a device. So, we’re left with the iPhone or an Android device, and Apple is still miles ahead of Android devices in accessibility. This means anyone requiring accessibility is guaranteed to be using a mixed ecosystem unless we go all-in for apple. I’m not including Google products, because frankly, I hate them and when I get Google docs to work without me wanting to throw my devices out windows, I’ll get back to you.
The end to Platform Wars will mean a more user-friendly experience. It will mean that your iPhone will be able to work with that PC your work uses and vice versa. Currently there are many things that are clunky about getting files on and off OneDrive onto the iPhone, particularly photos. This is a clear sign that things will start to look smoother in the years to come.
Microsoft isn’t stopping here, though. Something else I’m very excited about has been their push to get app developers to pay attention to accessibility. Jefferey Petty held a session titled, “What’s new in Accessibility & How to Get Started for Developers” which spent roughly half of the time talking about new features (some of which Femme de Chem has already covered) and the other half helping developers. Visual Studio, a tool for code development, includes features that enables developers to test for accessibility, and any infractions will be flagged. Developers are also able to not only launch Narrator while in Visual Studio, but also activate developer mode.
Narrator in developer mode works identically to the way that it does normally, but it looks slightly different. Through Visual Studio the developer can run the application (or, test it). While doing this, a screen curtain appears over the window the application is running in so that the developer can no longer interact with it visually and is forced to use Narrator controls. However, on the black curtain, there will be a highlighted area, showing where the focus is and anything that Narrator is saying will appear in text form. What I found particularly interesting about this, is it is an extra level of inclusivity. Hypothetically a deaf developer could test narrator even without being able to hear what it’s saying.
I’m hopeful that companies that create apps will step up to take advantage of all the tools Microsoft is making available—be it through Visual Studio or other tools. As of now the Netflix app is still not compatible with Narrator, which is disappointing. As an example, for Xbox to definitively become the best choice for people who have family members with disabilities, these apps need to resolve these issues.
This push for accessible apps is important. Not only for people with temporary and permanent disabilities—a crucial point made during the presentation—but for all users, “When you pressure test an experience with a person with a disability, you end up finding cliffs in your experience that you might not otherwise have found.” Petty emphasized. This has proven to be true for several places that take accessibility seriously. It can lead to a more user-friendly design.
I’m looking forward to seeing everything we saw in the first two days of Build being released later this year. With Timeline, AI, the use of the cloud, PowerPoint translation, and cross-platform support—it is certainly going to be an exciting year for accessibility at Microsoft.