So, after reading reviews and consulting with some friends, I’ve decided to move back to Android. Throughout the years, I’ve used many devices, running on various platforms. I’ve been fortunate enough to compare and contrast them and have reached my conclusions after carefully considering my options. I am not a dogmatic apologist for any particular platform; I see the strengths and weaknesses of each one and weigh them. I am not pushing one over another. If you prefer a particular operating system or smartphone brand, then that’s totally up to you. All I wish to do is to present my observations and my reasons for switching back. In order to do this, I have to take a trip back through time to paint a complete picture of my experiences with these platforms.
My First Cell Phone
It’s hard to imagine a time before the modern smartphone. Nowadays, we take for granted the fact that we can pick up a device that is paper-thin and can comfortably fit into the palm of a hand, though some may stick out if they have large screens. Most phones average six inches in length, but they don’t weigh you down.
Decades ago however, they were thick as bricks. I still remember my parents’ old phones; it felt like I was holding thick blocks of cheese, or sticks of butter. Buttons covered the top and sides of the phone and numbers had to be manually dialed. Later on, we got the ability to program in speed dial contacts, so all you had to do is hold down a digit and a contact was instantly dialed. Most people then still memorized numbers and would punch them in.
Fast forward to 2005 and I received my first flip phone. It was one of those Samsung SGH models, though I can’t remember exactly which model I had, since I wasn’t really paying attention to those details back then. Considering there was little in terms of accessibility built into them, all I could really do with it is place calls; though texting was also available, there was no way for me to read, or compose text messages. On top of that, the phone had a t9 keypad, which meant that doing so would be painstaking; we didn’t have the luxury of pairing a Bluetooth keyboard, or using braille screen input. I had two such models, one running on the Sprint Network and the second on Verizon. Both phones were considerably lighter than the candy bar models that were also common at the time. It was nice to be able to answer calls by simply flipping the phone open and closing the lid to hang up. Then, out of nowhere, things changed with the introduction of the iPhone.
iPhone Vs Android: the War Begins
Things really started getting exciting when Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone in January of 2007. It was literally the first phone of its kind:
- It featured a capacitive, rather than a reactive touch screen, requiring no stylus to operate.
- It only had a few buttons to control volume, power on and off, as well as a home button.
- It combined the functions of an iPod, a phone and internet connected devices, such as pocket PCs.
In short, this phone was like no other found on the market; all other smartphones at the time featured qwerty keyboards that slid out, making them quite bulky. They also ran older operating systems designed for the pocket PC and PDA era, which didn’t feature very rich interfaces that allowed users to install apps from third-party sources. Most devices in this category were geared towards heavy business use, while most ordinary consumers still used candy bar and flip phone models, which were considered feature phones. Beyond calling, texting and emailing, there wasn’t much you could do with them.
In March the following year, Apple introduced the app store, which allowed developers to write third-party apps for the iPhone. While this seemed like a great start for Apple, trouble was brewing at Google headquarters that would forever change the trajectory of things to come.
Google wasn’t going to sit around and let Apple dominate the smartphone market, along with Research In Motion’s Blackbury devices, so it went to work building an operating system of its own. Back in 2005, Andy Rubin, then the head of a small company called Android Inc, was working on an operating system that could be used on a wide variety of phones. However, it was focused on phones similar to other devices of their time, phones that had reactive touch screens that required a stylus and slide-out qwerty keyboards. A few years later, Steve jobs was shown one such model and he quite liked it, believing it to be a great competitor to phones running his arch rival Microsoft’s Windows Mobile OS. However, when he found out that Google was also working on a version of Android that could work with capacitive touch screens that supported multi-touch input, he was enraged.
In the summer of 2008, the first Android phone, the HTC Dream was unveiled, though it was exclusive to T-Mobile users, much the way the iPhone was to At&T.
While a series of lawsuits were waged back and forth between Apple and various Android manufacturers, the blind community continued to be frustrated by the lack of accessible mobile phones. No matter which side of the fence you sat on, all major operating systems at the time didn’t have robust accessibility services built into them. Blind phone owners had to buy third-party screen readers from vendors that cost hundreds of dollars for Windows Mobile, Symbian and Blackbury devices. These screen readers were also limited primarily to applications that were already installed on phones, since there was no guarantee that third-party apps would work with them; developers back then had no standard APIs that they could work with to make the process of building accessible apps efficient. Instead, the screen readers had to be customized with scripts in order for certain apps to be made accessible, though this didn’t fix all the gaping wholes found in most of them. This all changed however, when Apple released the iPhone 3GS and iPod Touch 3G in 2009.
My First iPod Touch
For the first time in smartphone history, a screen reader would be built into a smartphone. It was a scaled down version of the VoiceOver screen reader found in Mac OSX. It now allowed blind users to comfortably navigate their phones at no extra cost. Accessibility guidelines were also developed that would allow developers to code apps that would be accessible to VoiceOver users, no longer requiring custom scripts; though there are downsides to not allowing customization, these guidelines were a huge step forward for the average user. Web browsing became much simpler with Safari, listening to music was a breeze and typing was now possible with the touch screen; gone was the t9 keypad, now we could simply find the letter and double-tap on it to type it. While touch typing was still a few years away, this was definitely a step in the right direction.
This was the year I got my own iPod Touch 3G. While I still had the Samsung flip phone, I began to familiarize myself with VoiceOver. I enjoyed watching YouTube videos with the then builtin YouTube app, looking at Google Maps with another builtin Maps app and browsing the web. This was all great, accept for the fact that iPhones were still exclusive to At&T customers, which meant that I wasn’t able to get one, since I was and still am to this day, a Verizon Wireless subscriber. I could have done a few things: switch to At&T in order to get an iPhone, or stick with Verizon and hold on to the flip phone, or look for a phone that had some sort of half-baked accessibility service available for it. I was still nine months away from being eligible for an upgrade, but I was already thinking hard about this decision. Then, in June of the following year, it was time for my first smartphone.
Motorola Droid: the First Popular Android Competitor to the iPhone
While the iPhone remained an At&T exclusive and Blackbury and Palm phones struggled to fit in, not realizing their days were numbered, Android continued pushing forward like a berserker charging into battle. Before the launch of the iPhone 3GS, Google’s Eyes Free Project was working on their own screen reader called TalkBack. While this seemed promising, it was plagued with serious flaws from the get go:
- It didn’t support multi-touch screen input, instead relying on a track ball and a directional pad for navigation.
- Most apps were still inaccessible and robust APIs for building them didn’t exist like they did on iOS, though work in that direction was underway.
- Depending on the manufacturer, phones would vary greatly in design, which meant that not all models had the aforementioned track balls and directional pads necessary to use TalkBack.
- There weren’t as many apps for Android then as there were for the iPhone.
This meant that I would have to jump through hoops in order to get an Android phone to work. Despite these limitations, I took the plunge and got the Motorola Droid.
As I predicted, the experience was terrible from the start. Unlike the iPod Touch 3G, I required sited help in setting it up. I then had trouble figuring out how to use the directional pad, since getting used to the slide-out keyboard was tough; though there was an app called Eyes Free Tutor that helped me figure out the controls, it was difficult nonetheless. I appreciated having a qwerty keyboard at my disposal while composing text messages, but that was really its only benefit. I had no way of using first letter navigation, as I was accustomed to on a PC for navigating menus. Web browsing was out of the question, since no web browser was accessible with TalkBack. Most importantly of all, the Android Market, which would eventually become the Google Play Store, was poorly designed at the time; installing apps was a drag and the only way to do it was to navigate using the d-pad and then selecting the app using the select button that I wanted to install. Then, I had to tap the bottom of the touch screen once, hoping I would hit the install button. It was a hit or miss situation, sometimes I hit it, other times I didn’t. Finally, the Svox TTS engine was terrible; the voice sounded like a saw scraping metal, it made using the phone a migraine.
So, after two weeks of this failed experiment, I ended up switching to a Windows Mobile phone. It doesn’t deserve its own coverage here, since most of the apps were mediocre and using the web browser was an insult to me after using Safari on the iPod Touch. For the next two years, I made the most of the HTC Ozone with a version of Talks, exclusive to Verizon users, until April of 2012, when I finally was able to get the iPhone 4S.
Finally, My First iPhone!
When the iPhone 4S launched in September of 2011, At&T exclsivity came to an end. From then onward, the iPhone was available on all major carriers. This meant that now the door was wide open for me to get my hands on my first iPhone. While I struggled with the HTC Ozone, I still did most things on my Netbook and my iPod Touch. The phone was hardly in the picture. The iPhone operating system was maturing at a rapid rate and year after year, VoiceOver users saw improvements. Most notable of these was touch typing; now I could text rather comfortably and searching YouTube was simpler than ever. However, the iPod still couldn’t do what a phone did: I couldn’t call, or text. I wanted to be able to put VoiceOver to better use and do it full time. So, in April of that year, I finally got the iPhone 4S.
Setting it up was a breeze; all I had to do is restore the phone from the latest backup of my iPod Touch and boom, all of my music, apps and settings were imported. It didn’t feel like much of a setup process. I could now do everything I wanted. Texting with iMessage was lots of fun, since anyone with an Apple device could do it, no matter where they were. FaceTime was also a great alternative to Skype, though audio-only calling was still a few years away. Listening to music, as well as making and buying ringtones became so much more efficient because I no longer required two separate devices to do it. When I had my Windows Mobile device, my iPod Nano and iPod Touch were still my main music players; however, the 4S made them both practically obsolete. Soon, I installed Pandora and started streaming lots of music online; the need to buy music from iTunes was no longer necessary, but I still bought albums from time to time.
The only drawback to the 4S was its battery; I couldn’t even go a whole day without having to plug it in. Fast charging wasn’t an option back then, which meant it would take me almost four hours to completely charge it; in addition, battery saving modes didn’t exist in iOS, so the battery consumption was brutal. All of that aside though, the experience was great. I really couldn’t complain about the phone. The double-sided glass made it susceptible to shattering rather easily, so I made sure to slap a back cover on the bottom of it, as well as a screen protector. It fit in the palm very comfortably and could be used with just one hand. It would be the last phone Steve Jobs would ever design; unfortunately, he passed away just two days after its release.
While I still had the iPod Touch and iPhone 4S, the folks over at Google weren’t done giving Apple a hard time and now, they had a rude surprise for them that would start a series of tablet wars to come. This made me think about what my next options would be as I contemplated my next device purchases. I was quite happy with the iPhone, but always felt the experience rather limiting, as it pertained to freely installing apps and customizing various parts of the interface. Then, that summer, I would take yet another road that would broaden my appreciation for what was possible in the world of mobile computing, this time with a seven-inch tablet.
Nexus 7: the Jellybean Everybody Just Couldn’t Resist
On June 27, 2012, Google unveiled the Nexus 7, a seven-inch mini tablet powered by Android 4.1, Jellybean. It was the first Tablet Google ever released, intended to serve as an entertainment device; it was great for reading eBooks, browsing the web, listening to music and watching videos. However, the most exciting thing for me was Google’s implementation of Explore by Touch, a set of gestures that could now be used to operate the device completely from the touch screen; no longer were track balls and directional pads and keyboards necessary, since TalkBack could now navigate the interface with the touch screen alone. Dedicated gestures could take me to the home screen, launch menus used to select different navigation modes, as well as simulate the back button. This was a huge step forward for Google, which until then, was seriously lagging behind Apple. There were still massive leaps to be made in order for Android to catch up to iOS, but things were slowly moving in the right direction. I could now browse the web with Firefox, download apps from the Play Store, send and receive email using the Gmail app and listen to music with the builtin Play Music app, as well as Pandora, both of which were quite accessible with TalkBack.
However, as mentioned, there were still large problems for Google to address. First, there was no support for multi-touch gestures; this meant that tasks had to be performed using l-shaped sliding. While I quickly got the hang of this system, many people who were accustomed to using the iPhone and iPad with VoiceOver found these gestures annoying. Chris Hofstater, an experienced programmer who worked quite a long time for Freedom Scientific, described them as a witch dancing around a bonfire. Comical as that may be, this deterred most blind users of the iPhone from switching to Android. Most of the accessible apps were still better on iOS and braille support on Android was infantile. All that said, I loved being able to switch back and forth between my Nexus 7 and 4S; now, I could test iOS and Android versions of the same app and see which version was more accessible. I could directly compare TalkBack and VoiceOver to one another and could provide the Eyes Free team with suggestions. This however, came with many frustrations, as the team wasn’t very good at responding to feedback. Many issues went unresolved for years and this made it hard for me to consider switching to Android full time.
However, the great thing about the Nexus 7 and Android in general is that Android is open source and customizable as a result. This allows it to be tailored to the individual needs of the user much more readily than iOS. I could install apps from third-party repositories, change my default apps, switch to a totally different app launcher and most importantly, drag and drop files between the tablet and my computer. No longer did I have to rely on a proprietary program like iTunes to manage and sync content; it was as simple as plugging the Nexus 7 in and copying files to and from the device. File explorers could also be used to directly browse files on the device itself, something Apple wouldn’t allow for many years to come. My experience with the Nexus 7 however, opened my eyes to the possibilities that Android had to offer. It gave me hope that I could get a phone that would mimic the flexibility of a PC, rather than the walled garden I was stuck in on the iPhone 4S. Two years later, I would be forced to make that decision.
Droid Turbo, The Storm the iPhone 6+ Couldn’t See Coming
In the fall of 2014, the iPhone 6 models were unveiled. By this time, Apple was making standard and plus models available; the main difference between them is that the plus models had bigger screens and better batteries, but for the most part, they were the same phones.
Naturally, i was pretty happy with the 4S at the time and thought that continuing on with the 6+ was a great idea. I wanted a bigger phone this time because I wanted more room to type on the screen. iOS 8 introduced Braille Screen Input, a virtual braille input method that would allow VoiceOver users to type very efficiently on their devices. This was huge, as there was no mainstream keyboard that would allow users to type quickly; touch typing could only get me so far and the speed was nothing compared to typing on a physical keyboard. Braille Screen Input would allow me to text, email and search the web using contracted braille input which makes things much quicker and easier.
However, the Apple orchard didn’t yield the harvest I was expecting; rather, iOS 8 was a flop from the start. During my use of iOS 8, both on the old 4S and the new 6+, I would run into serious issues that made productivity extremely inefficient. The lag was terrible when trying to type and in many instances, VoiceOver would stop responding, or the keyboard would lock up. During an incoming call, VoiceOver would lag so badly, that I could not tell who was calling me and answering the call was hindered by freezing yet again. This got so bad, that it made the experience frustrating. This was only two and a half years after I purchased my 4S and already the phones were declining in quality after Steve Jobs’s death. Unlike Jobs, Tim Cook didn’t seem to care what quality the software and hardware were in, as long as he made shareholders happy by releasing products often enough to generate revenue.
While I was considering my options, I came across a review of the Motorola Droid Turbo and instantly, I knew I had to make the switch. The phone featured a 2.7 GHZ Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor, 3 gigs of ram, 32 gigs of storage and a 3,900 MAh battery, which could be fast charged in just two hours. How could I possibly justify holding on to the 6+, which required four hours to charge and was plagued with buggy software? I simply couldn’t and decided it was time to ditch the Apple orchard.
From the start, I was impressed. The Turbo ran an almost stock version of Android 4.4.4, Kitkat, which resembled the experience on the Nexus 7. In addition, I could install all the same apps that I used on the tablet. Many of my settings and accounts were imported from the backups of my Nexus 7 on Google Drive, so setting the phone up was very simple.
No longer did I experience lag when answering calls. Now, all I had to do is slide from left to right on the bottom of the incoming call screen to pick up; in addition, Motorola also provided special gestures that could be set up in the Moto app that allowed me to simply wave my hand over the proximity sensor at the top of the phone to do the same thing, as well as snooze alarms. For three years, I used the Turbo with high levels of satisfaction. The only major thorn in my side was that Motorola wasn’t releasing timely updates. My Nexus 7 at the time was already running 5.1 Lollypop, while the Turbo shipped with Kitkat. I would have to wait until the following July to receive the Lollypop update and I only received version 5.0.1. This made me a bit worried that the phone wouldn’t last, but a year and a half later, I received one last update to Android 6.0, Marshmallow. This would be the last update Motorola would release for the Turbo. I now was looking for my next phone.
Moto Z²: a Force to Be Reckoned With
In November of 2017, I knew it was time to upgrade. The Droid Turbo was showing its age. Not only was it not receivving Android updates and security patches, but the phone started to lag because of TalkBack updates. After three years of use, apps that were updated started to work less efficiently with Marshmallow as TalkBack features meant for Nougat were unavailable. Nougat had already been released and was running on Pixel phones. I was considering the Pixel 2 as well, but I loved the motorola experience enough that I eventually went with the successor to the Droid Turbo, Turbo 2 and the Moto Z, the Moto Z² Force. It shipped with Android 7.1.1, Nougat out of the box. It weighed 143 grams (5.04 ounces), was only 6.1 millimeters (0.24 inches) thick, had a 5.5 inch 1440×2560 pixel display, supported micro SD expandable storage, had 4 to 6 gigs of ram and came in 64 and 128 gig capacities. It’s battery was notably a downgrade to 2,700 MAh, from the Turbo’s 3,900 MAh battery, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t hold its own; even with the batter capacity drop, it turned the iPhone 8 and 10 models into Apple sauce. They simply didn’t come close, nor did they even support fast charging, something the Moto Z² Force and it’s predecessors have had for years.
The software experience was a continuation of what I had grown used to on both the Nexus 7 and the Turbo. TalkBack was getting better and web browsing became more efficient. Keyboard commands were added to allow TalkBack users to navigate their phones, much the way NVDA users do a Windows 10 PC. Though braille support was still lagging behind Apple, more supported displays were added. Everything seemed fine. For two years, I got a handful of security patches and two major operating system updates, but like the Turbo, that was all Motorola planned to push out to the Z² Force.
Then, in November of 2019, the phone crashed suddenly. I went to charge it one night and when I went to turn it on, it got stuck on the boot up screen. The boot loader and recovery menus are inaccessible to blind users, so I couldn’t really do much to put it into recovery mode. I took the phone to the Verizon Wireless store to see if they could troubleshoot it, but they said there was nothing they could do; they lied of course in order to get me to buy a new phone because a few months later, my sister helped me to recover it. Nonetheless, it was time for an upgrade anyway, since I wasn’t going to get anymore software updates. I was going to continue with Android, but the Pixel 4 at the time was a rather terrible release for Google. Also, I was in the middle of two Galaxy phone releases; Samsung released the Galaxy S10 series the previous March and I was only four months away from the release of the S20 models. I was also considering the One Plus 8 Pro, but it had to be bought unlocked and it was a rather large phone. So, that year, I went back to the Apple orchard with the purchase of an iPhone 11.
Apple Simply Isn’t Worth It
After spending thousands of dollars on all of their products combined, I came to the grim realization that Apple products are over priced and don’t deliver what they promise. My iPhone 11 may be getting more consistent updates than my previous Motorola phones, but the software has been getting less and less stable. VoiceOver screen recognition doesn’t fix accessibility problems as much as Apple would like you to believe it does. You still can’t write your own add-ons or scripts for it to extend the functionality of apps that developers haven’t bothered to make accessible. The home screen is what it is and you can’t switch to an alternative launcher of your choosing. While we now have third-party keyboard support and default web browser switching, that just isn’t enough. Music players, email clients and many other categories of apps cannot have their stock defaults changed. We also have better file exploration on the iPhone than we did before, but dragging and dropping doesn’t work; iTunes is still needed to manage content on an iOS device and iCloud for PC is a joke. It isn’t accessible to major Windows screen reader users, which means managing your storage and upgrading your plan has to be done on the iPhone itself. I could go on and on, but you get the picture by this point, I hope. There is just no reason to stick with iOS, even with iOS 15 getting a little bit better. At its inception, it was infested with more bugs than a dusty, moldy, abandoned apartment building and though some of them have been squashed, most still remain. VoiceOver continues to lag and the aforementioned text and screen recognition features haven’t improved much, beyond having an image exploration mmode, similar to the one found in Seeing AI.
So, it is once again time to abandon the Apple orchard. I am now considering my options, but I will most likely go with either the Pixel 6, or the Galaxy S line; the only thing to decide in that case is whether to get the current S21, or wait until March of next year to get the S22. However, I am satisfied that no matter which model I get, switching back to Android will make the most sense. Acessibility is steadily improving and with the recent inroduction of multi-touch gestures and the TalkBack braille keyboard, typing on Android, which has been a problem for a long time, no longer will be an issue. I will return to an environment that will remind me of the one I am familiar with on my PC; I will be able to install apps from any source I choose, use alternative screen readers and launchers and not worry about losing access to apps because the powers that be decided to pull an app from the App Store, or the Play Store for that matter. Apple’s arbitrary pulling of apps like FlickType, which made typing for blind users much easier, is a good reason why I can no longer trust Apple with the sole discretion to provide me with a reliable repository of apps. I need to be able to choose where I get my apps from and not be restricted to those Apple approves.
Whether or not you get an iPhone or an Android phone will depend on what you believe the guiding philosophy of your phone manufacturer should be. If you like your phones to be as simple as possible, provide you with an easy to use app store, protect you from all kinds of undesirable content and minimize the learning curve for new users, the iPhone is clearly for you. You don’t have to worry that you will install an app from a source that will end up infecting your device with a virus, or other kinds of malware. The iPhone doesn’t allow for that, so security won’t be as much of a concern, though exploits do exist that allow spyware to be installed on the iPhone, which Apple has to address. VoiceOver just works and though it can’t be customized with add-ons and scripts, it does what it does quite well, far better than screen readers for mobile operating systems that came before it. However, if an app is not accessible, there is no other way to make it so, other than to beg the developer to make the desired changes in order to make it work. Apple will probably never allow scripts and modifications to its screen reader, or any part of the operating system, for that matter, without the need to jail brake your device. Most users don’t have the time, or the desire to learn how to do so, which means they won’t have access to these modifications. Text-to-speech voices also aren’t plentiful, but if the ones that come with your phone satisfy you, then you’ll be fine.
I want to be able to do all of these things, so Android is the operating system that lines up with my general philosophy. I don’t mind taking the risk of getting infected with a virus, as long as I know which sources I can trust. Having the right anti-virus suite also helps to defend against such malware, which is no different from what you have to do to secure your PC. Dragging and dropping files is also important to me, which makes it much easier to move pictures, documents and other content back and forth. Having access to additional text-to-speech voices is something I also care about, so Android will make that possible. If these things align with your way of thinking, then you will concur that leaving the orchard and its rather terrible crops behind will lead you to greener pastures for a long time to come.