Author Archives: Chris Phethean

Access Tools Menu for a Mac USB Pen Drive?

With the Windows version of the Access Tools menu undergoing tests before it is released, time has been spent looking at whether a Mac version of the system should be developed.

An important factor in determining whether this should be undertaken is what portable applications are available for the Mac. Freesmug provides a selection of common applications in portable form, although there are not really any portable accessibility tools available. This is not a huge problem, as Mac OS X has accessibility features built in, so these would be available on any Mac without the need for a portable version. The range of portable applications is also much smaller than for Windows.  This would limit the added benefit that a pendrive could provide.

A small test was undertaken to investigate what kind of menu systems could be used on the Mac. Three portable Mac applications (Portable VLC, Portable Firefox and Portable Sunbird) were downloaded and placed onto a blank USB drive. It was immediately clear that  the applications were a lot simpler than their Windows alternatives, with only a couple of extra files in each folder, along with the application itself. Using the Cover Flow view in Finder, there is a visual way to scroll through the folders (which are decorated with the application’s icon), open the folder, and then easily locate the application. The other views in Finder all provide a similar organisation, although Cover Flow was visually the most pleasing.

To simplify this further, a Smart Folder can be used. A Smart Folder can be used to organise common files, without worrying about their location. This means that a Smart Folder could be created that would contain just the application files for all portable applications available. By creating a new Smart Folder using Finder, the word “Portable” was used as the search term. This located everything on the machine (and connected devices) with “Portable” in its name, which found the applications on the pendrive, but also a considerable number of other files. For this reason, the search was then limited by ‘Kind’ to search for particular types of files. Selecting the ‘Kind’ as Applications meant it would now only show Applications that had “Portable” in the name. This limited the results to just our portable applications.

Creating the Smart Folder to search for all Applications with "Portable" in their name

Creating the Smart Folder to search for all Applications with "Portable" in their name

By selecting ‘Save’, it was now possible to place this Smart Folder onto the pendrive, and take it from machine to machine, where it would always show shortcuts to the portable applications, without the rest of their associated files. The folder was named ‘Menu’, as it provides similar functionality. The user can open this folder, and scroll through the available applications just as a user would scroll through the application list on the Windows pen drive version. Cover Flow and the other view modes are still available for this, which provides an attractive visual interface.

The contents of the pendrive - the Menu smart folder, and the three application folders

The contents of the pendrive - the Menu smart folder, and the three application folders

The Mac pendrive Menu folder displaying as icons. Only the applications themselves are shown.

The Mac pendrive Menu folder displaying as icons. Only the applications themselves are shown.

Because these features are built into Mac OS X, along with the lack of portable accessibility tools and small selection of portable applications in general, it has been agreed that producing a Mac version of the Access Tools menu would not be worthwhile.

Access Tools Menu Beta Testing

After making some changes to the layout and interface of the Access Tools menu, it has now been distributed for beta testing. The new design makes the menu much more stable and prevents some of the early problems that were occurring when resizing the text.

Additional features have been added such as the ability to change the titles of applications and documents with the use of the right hand mouse button once the pointer is over the individual item and also to resize dialog boxes and increase text sizes, change colours etc  with keyboard commands.  The help file has the short cut key commands and software applications can be added to the menu via the folders found on the pen drive.

The underlying code has remained relatively constant, and has so far been able to create the application list in the menu with very few problems. This stability has allowed a longer period of time to be spent on refining the interface and improving the accessibility features of the application, which initial tests have shown to work well.

The possibility of a Mac alternative will be investigated in the next few days, along with an in depth look at what portable accessibility tools are available for the Mac.

In the meantime, development will continue on the Windows version in response to any issues that are raised during the beta period, to ensure that the final version provides the best possible experience to all users.

Access Tools Menu showing the list of Accessibility Tools and Applications that are installed.

Access Tools Menu showing the list of Accessibility Tools and Applications that are on this USB drive.

HTML Pendrive Menu – Test

Initial research into the development of an accessible menu for a USB pendrive containing applications has shown that HTML may not be the correct choice of language to write such a program in, and the reasons that indicate this will be highlighted in this activity.

A test page has been written in HTML, which can be downloaded in a .zip format along with sample applications that you can test to see the results when  attempting to launch them as if they were on a pen drive.
Download the HTML menu files, and then unzip the received folder to begin this test.

The test page is intended to show the outcomes of attempting to link to applications using HTML. By clicking on a link shown in order to launch one of the applications, various results are obtained.

In Internet Explorer and WebbIE 3, the same dialog box appears that would indicate that you are downloading a file. However, the file would be on your own pendrive, and selecting “Open” simply copies a temporary copy of the file, and then opens it from this temporary location, as if it had just been downloaded from the Internet. By selecting “Save”, the user would end up saving an additional copy of the file, resulting in more problems. This is clearly an un-wanted obstacle for a user who quickly wants to launch an application. It may also cause confusion to users who may not realise that the application is still being accessed from the pendrive, and not the Internet.

In Firefox, clicking on the link results in nothing happening at all. There is no obvious way of accessing the linked file, and as Firefox would likely be provided as the browser on the pendrive itself, and would therefore probably launch the page, the option of creating the menu in this way seems flawed.

Finally, in order to allow the user to customize their menu, JavaScript was needed, and in this example it provides the functionallity to change the background colour and increase the text size. More features could be added in a similar way, but without a suitable method of launching applications for direct use, any extra options seem superfluous. Furthermore, these settings can not be preserved for future use i.e. the menu will always start with its default settings, which could become frustrating for the user.