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The Mobile Web Is Firing On All Cylinders: Can PwDs Catch Up?

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, holding a Kindle Fire tablet on stage.With yesterday’s announcement by Amazon of the new Kindle Fire e-book reader, and the upcoming rollout of the iPhone 5 and iOS 5 by Apple, we are moving inexorably toward a world dominated by mobile technologies. Gone are the days when consumers were wowed by the release of a snazzy new laptop, a nifty new printer, or the launch of a new desktop browser. This is why Dell is struggling, HP and Kodak are re-assessing their consumer technology strategies, and Google’s Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox are developing features that utilize the mobile experience.

What does the widespread adoption of the mobile Web mean for people with disabilities (PwDs), who already deal with accessibility issues on the desktop Web? A provocative article recently posted by Firefox co-creator Joe Hewitt about the potential demise of the open Web got me thinking.

Hewitt writes:

Haven’t [the web evangelists] noticed that the world of software is ablaze with new ideas and a growing number of those ideas are flat out impossible to build on the Web? I can easily see a world in which Web usage falls to insignificant levels compared to Android, iOS, and Windows, and becomes a footnote in history. That thing we used to use in the early days of the Internet.

My prediction is that, unless the leadership vacuum is filled, the Web is going to retreat back to its origins as a network of hyperlinked documents.

Reactions to Hewitt’s article are here and here. Yet, Hewitt may be right. If this plays out the way he predicts, the implications of this trend for people with disabilities (PwDs) are potentially significant. As things stand now, the new ideas that developers are focusing on are better supported by mobile operating systems such as iOS, Android and Windows Phone than on the desktop platforms driven by Mac OS X and Windows. Although mobile technologies have delivered impressive applications that improve accessibility for PwD’s – such as a paper currency identifier for the blind, mobile phone communication for the deaf, and an app for people with speech difficulties – the fact of the matter is that most mobile applications are not accessible to PwDs. And the types of mobile hardware – i.e., smartphones and tablets that are smaller than their desktop/laptop counterparts – carry their own sets of challenges for PwDs.

Much work has been done over the years to make the open Web accessible to PwDs. WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) standards were developed in 1999, and revised continually over the years, to provide web developers and designers with a template for ensuring their websites are accessible to PwDs. Yet, in an increasingly irrelevant open Web (if Hewitt’s warnings are to be believed), the WCAG standards may be less useful. Already, Apple’s latest Mac OS X for the desktop, the Lion, was designed with the mobile Web in mind, and future desktops and laptops may be defined more by iOS rather than Mac OS X. This has prompted WCAG experts to create an associated set of guidelines for the mobile Web, called Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP). As mobile technology is continuing to evolve very quickly, MWBP standards will have to catch up.

Is an open Web necessary for everyone, including PwDs, to have equal access to the entire Internet? Are you concerned that the presence of iOS, Android, and Windows Phone as the dominant mobile platforms threaten equal access to the Internet for PwDs?

[Full Disclosure: ZVRS, which is mentioned in an article I linked to, is one of my current clients.]

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