He helped make technology—and the world—more accessible

The day before Steve Jobs died in October, Apple, the company he co-founded, from which he was once fired and to which he returned to lead to unprecedented success, announced the latest generation of the iPhone—the iPhone 4S.

It is fitting that one of the most compelling features of the new phone is Siri, a voice-recognition application that promises to make the latest iPhone even more useful for all users, especially people with visual and other impairments.

On the Siri web site, Apple says: “Talk to Siri as you would to a person. Say something like ‘Tell my wife I’m running late.’ ‘Remind me to call the vet.’ ‘Any good burger joints around here?’ And Siri answers you. It does what you say and finds the information you need. And then it hits you. You’re actually having a conversation with your iPhone.”

That’s pretty amazing stuff. And to reinforce the potential of the application, the Siri demo video showcases a blind woman pausing while reading Braille to confirm a dinner date using Siri-enabled voice recognition.

I’ve pointed out several times on this blog (including here and here) that under Steve Jobs’ leadership Apple took great pains to ensure its products are as accessible as possible. That commitment, which is expressed very eloquently here, is making a positive impact on countless lives.

Here’s one example of that impact: Jobs’ death inspired a Wire.com writer named Tim Carmody to post a thoughtful, personal essay about how important Apple products, especially the iPod Touch, are to his four-year-old son, who has autism. In the essay, he wrote:

“It may be a stretch to say Steve Jobs invented the iPod Touch or most of the technologies contained in it. But Steve Jobs certainly put it in my son’s hands, both by making it a sub-$200 device (and in our case, giving it away free with a laptop) and by helping to create an ecosystem of software applications for people with disabilities — perhaps especially communication disabilities.”

It is still too early to know if Siri will live up to the excitement that accompanied its introduction (voice recognition software is not new, although a seamless, versatile and consistent voice-recognition interface would indeed be revolutionary). But we have reason to be confident Siri will deliver because Apple, especially in recent years, has done an excellent job delivering on its promises.

Steve Jobs will certainly be missed, but I’m confident the commitment to accessibility he instilled in his company will continue to open up the world to people with impairments – visual or otherwise.



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