TalkBack, the screen reader by Google, used to be a built-in screen reader on Android phones and tablets. However, things have changed. A few years ago, Samsung, one of the most renowned manufacturers of Android devices, decided to launch its own version of TalkBack on its devices.
While it’s not a negative step for a company to release its own screen reader, Samsung’s move caused significant confusion and trouble that persists and deepens with time.
How did it all start?
Samsung had its own screen reader, Voice Assistant, available exclusively on its devices for years. This screen reader was ahead of Google’s TalkBack in certain aspects, such as implementing multi-finger gestures before Google did. Voice Assistant had its unique identity, distinct set of features, and notably, coexisted peacefully with Google’s TalkBack. It was not uncommon to find both screen readers preinstalled on new phones, and even when they weren’t, acquiring and running TalkBack via the Play Store was a simple task.
However, with the release of One UI 3.0, based on Android 11, Voice Assistant was discontinued. an agreement between Samsung and Google was announced, making TalkBack the sole built-in screen reader for Samsung phones and tablets.
Initially, people embraced the change with enthusiasm, anticipating a superior TalkBack resulting from the collective experiences of Samsung and Google. It appeared to be a win-win situation for all involved. However, the reality didn’t quite meet these expectations.
The Buggy Launch:
They say a book is read by its title. The launch of One UI 3.0 with the updated TalkBack introduced a slew of unexpected bugs. The new TalkBack version was sluggish and notably lacked essential features like the Braille keyboard. Issues with activating items and a mixture of other problems were widespread, prompting numerous complaints. Those attempting to use Google’s version found it installable but unlocatable within the installed accessibility services, rendering it inaccessible.
Frustrated users sought alternatives, resorting to using ADB to remove Samsung’s TalkBack in order for Google’s version to function properly. Attempts to contact Google’s disability support team redirected users to Samsung. Although some shared the email addresses of Samsung’s accessibility representatives, many struggled to make contact with the team.
The disastrous launch left a bitter taste, indicating a lack of maturity and insufficient testing in the implementation. While the overall situation improved over time, significant problems persist.
The Current Problems:
Samsung’s TalkBack separation introduces more issues than it resolves, prompting doubts about the rationale behind its presence.
Different Version Numbers and Slow Updates:
The version numbers of Google and Samsung’s TalkBacks don’t match. Strangely, at certain points, an updated Google TalkBack ended up with a lower version number than the outdated Samsung version. This defied the logical expectation that a higher version means more features.
At the time of writing, Google’s TalkBack is at version 14, whereas Samsung’s lags at 13.5, showcasing Samsung’s notably slow update releases.
Samsung’s TalkBack updates move at a turtle pace, often taking months to catch up to Google’s features. This delay had even led to instances where Google released versions that Samsung entirely missed due to the sluggish updating of their TalkBack.
Different Sources for Delivering TalkBack Updates:
Google’s TalkBack updates are delivered through the Google Play Store, while Samsung’s updates come via the Samsung Galaxy Store. To access the latter, users must log in with their Samsung account. This creates confusion as many assume their TalkBack will be updated through the primary store, leading to complications for users.
No Easy Way to Use Google’s TalkBack:
Samsung opted to integrate its screen reader as TalkBack, which, in essence, is rooted in Google’s TalkBack with slight modifications. However, the issue lies in the lack of a simple method to seamlessly switch between the Google’s and Samsung’s TalkBacks.. While users can install Google’s TalkBack from the Play Store like any other app, it doesn’t appear among accessibility services, making it practically unusable.
Launching Google’s version becomes a challenging task, only achievable through complex methods such as running ADB commands or removing Samsung’s version using ADB. This presents a dilemma, as the average user might not be familiar with ADB—a tool they might never otherwise need. Consequently, these users are left with the choice of delving into ADB or enduring prolonged waits of several months for new TalkBack features on their Samsung phones.
Unjustified Restrictions and Omissions in Samsung’s TalkBack:
Adding to the existing complexities, Samsung appears to be removing or mandating certain settings in its versions of TalkBack, rather than allowing them to remain optional. In an unwelcome development, Samsung has now limited the new features of TalkBack 14 to the latest One UI, a constraint that Google itself doesn’t impose. These features are entirely capable of functioning on earlier Android versions, raising questions as to why they’re exclusively available on devices running One UI 6, especially when Google’s TalkBack on Samsung phones seamlessly integrates these features without issues.
One notable past example involves missing options, is the automatic icon description feature added to TalkBack. When introduced in the Samsung version, it was set as a default with no option to disable it, despite causing issues in certain apps such as Telegram.
No Observed User Gains:
It’s been almost three years since Samsung introduced its version of TalkBack, yet there haven’t been significant improvements to justify the shift or the complications it brought. Personally, I haven’t observed any noticeable improvements in responsiveness when using Samsung’s TalkBack. There haven’t been exclusive features that stand out, perhaps just better compatibility with Samsung apps here and there, but nothing groundbreaking. What makes the Samsung move more unjustified is that sometimes, the Samsung’s TalkBack retains the same bugs present in the Google’s version, despite being released at a later date.
In the Android 11 version of Samsung’s TalkBack, the primary addition was multi-finger gestures. At that time, Google’s TalkBack couldn’t utilize these gestures on Samsung phones, which seemed more a result of a business decision rather than a technical limitation. Interestingly, other screen readers like Jieshuo had no issues using these gestures.
To worsen matters further, users often struggle to find where to report bugs in their TalkBack version. While many are familiar with Google’s disability support, this doesn’t cover Samsung’s version. Even if using Google’s TalkBack on a Samsung device, it’s unlikely that Google’s disability team will offer assistance because the device employs Samsung’s TalkBack, not Google’s. This lack of support channels adds to the challenges faced by users encountering issues with TalkBack on Samsung devices.
Fragmented Experiences that are hard to explain:
Beginner Android users might be aware of third-party screen readers on the platform, but many prefer the convenience of the built-in options. However, the complexity arises when they discover that the built-in TalkBack on their Samsung devices may miss features found in others’ TalkBack, leading to confusion. Explaining this puzzling state of the talkback in simple terms to those users is quite challenging. also, despite Android’s open nature, they’re unable to access these features immediately through Google’s version, leaving them in a state of uncertainty.
Unfortunately, despite all the opposition and issues surrounding the Google-Samsung TalkBack saga, it seems it is here to stay, with no indication that the current shortcomings will be addressed in the near future. If Samsung can offer updates along with Google’s updates that reach all other devices, or if it provides users with something better that’s worth the wait, we might say that all of this complication deserves it. But this is not the case. If Samsung simply aims for a smooth operation of TalkBack on its devices, and here we are speaking theoretically because there’s been no considerable difference in the speed between the two versions, it can work closely with Google teams to implement those improvements in one unified version accessible to everyone.
All of this fragmentation serves no one, at least not the users. Samsung is known for duplicating Google’s apps, but usually, users can easily switch to the Google app when needed. Moreover, TalkBack is a core element in the blind user experience; the screen reader is not a testing ground. With built-in screen readers, the user experience should be similar, and the development team should ensure that people receive the same features simultaneously.
Is this article going to make any change? Obviously not, but it’s an expression of frustration at a step that has brought more losses than gains and continues without any regression. In fact, it is becoming worse and less justifiable with time. Am I inviting people to stay away from Samsung? Definitely not. I’m not even recommending people to install Google’s TalkBack on their Samsung devices unless they truly want to and have some knowledge about what they’re doing. Also, on some Samsung phones, Google’s TalkBack may encounter issues, like muffled speech, where the speaker seems slightly covered.
Google and Samsung should have been more transparent about this move. Both should have released clarification statements, not only to praise their agreement when it was first released but also to address any problems it might cause.
For us, third-party screen reader users, we are just sitting aside watching how the episodes of the failed Samsung’s TalkBack unfold, wishing that one day this mistake is rectified, and a unified built-in screen reader experience becomes a reality.