Joe Clark: Brilliant Curmudgeon
I try to take at least two days per week off from writing Blind Confidential articles. Mostly, this helps give my hands and shoulders a break and let’s me try to remain fresh and contemplate new ideas for this blog. Yesterday, however, we received a comment from a celebrity, Joe Clark, noted author and web accessibility expert to which I felt I should respond.
Once again, a criticism to the thread on Apple’s patent strategy attacks me, corrects a few minor items in the piece I wrote yesterday and says nothing about the particular patents that Apple has filed nor about their possible effects on future choices by people with vision impairments. I had expected better from Joe as he tends to have terrific insight into issues surrounding accessibility but, in this case, Mr. Clark, my favorite Canadian curmudgeon, chooses to assail my integrity rather than taking on the meat of the matter. This sort of tactic, attack the messenger if you cannot find a hole in the message, falls beneath the bar of intellectual integrity that I tend to associate with Joe but, alas, we all have bad days.
In my own defense:
Joe starts by reminding me and other readers that I am a “former” VP at Freedom Scientific. The key word in this sentence being “former” as nothing in Blind Confidential is influenced by Freedom Scientific and I rarely have contact with anyone who works there. I admit I still have friends who work for FS and didn’t think this was a secret of any kind.
Next, Joe mentions my testimony on behalf of Microsoft in their antitrust suit. If anyone reads my written direct testimony, which is available on the Internet, they can see for themselves that I did not speak to antitrust law (a subject in which I have no credibility) but, rather, I discussed how Microsoft was friendly to assistive technology companies and how they did their best to assist in the advancement of innovation in the AT industry, especially when compared to other companies in the OS business at that time. If one looks at the date of my testimony and then checks the date Apple announced its VoiceOver screen reader, one can also observe that the Apple solution for people with vision impairments hadn’t even reached the point of rumor when individuals at FS, GW, AI^2 and others in the biz received frequent assistance from MS employees to make their AT products better.
Joe then points out some errors I had written in my explanation of copyrights and how they are granted. I thank Mr. Clark for correcting my mistakes, his assertions are right and I did not do an adequate level of research on this matter. What I did do on copyright was to write from memory which, as our regular readers know, is the style in which I run Blind Confidential. Excepting when I quote directly from another article (in which I always provide attribution); Blind Confidential is an exercise in stream of consciousness writing. After I complete a piece, I check that the entire item is in the same font (copy and paste can throw this off), I run the spell checker and, when rereading the item before posting it, I fix sentences that are truly miserable. I do not claim to be a journalist but, rather, a commentator, critic and, occasionally, a writer of entertaining essays and stories.
Nonetheless, my factual inaccuracies on how one can get their work copyrighted are only incidental to my description of how copyrights work and their distinctions from other forms of intellectual property law. More so, the entire section in yesterday’s article about the three major forms of IP protections was to illustrate their differences and did not reflect on the primary thesis that Apple’s recent patent disclosures were both non-unique and potentially harmful to our community in the future.
Finally, Joe Clark asks me how I can argue against Apple’s patents when Freedom Scientific has its own patent on the books. If you follow the link in Joe’s comment, it will, indeed, bring you to a page that lists the Freedom Scientific patent on its “whiz wheels” that sit on either side of a Braille line on their refreshable Braille displays. I will start by pointing out that this patent was issued in 2002 and its application was filed by Blazie Engineering before Freedom Scientific existed. I will also state that this invention and its associated patent covers a hardware device and doesn’t fall under the realm of a software patent. If anyone knows the history of the LPF, the Free Software Foundation or my other actions on open systems and opposition to certain intellectual property structures, they will surely notice that my efforts have fell entirely into the software side of the argument. I do not understand nearly enough about hardware hacking (electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, industrial or manufacturing engineering) to proffer even a marginally educated statement on the subject. I do know, from hanging around the AT biz and having played with a wide enough variety of refreshable Braille displays that FS makes the only ones with cheez whiz wheels but virtually all other manufacturers have some kind of analogue (rocker bars, buttons, sliders, etc.) to perform the same or similar functionality so I don’t see FS using this patent to stop others from offering their users similar features. As I stated at the top, I am a “former” VP of Freedom Scientific and one should go directly to them if you have questions about their intellectual property strategy as I have no influence over it. I have not even visited the Fs facility in close to 18 months and, all of you readers can rest assured, I have no influence over FS, its products or legal strategies whatsoever.
The Apple patents that I’ve been discussing for nearly a week now, are far broader than the FS “whiz wheels” and would cover any implementation of a self-voicing menu navigation system that announces the name of songs (both an obvious concept and one for which we have seen prior art in the MPower) and over the generic concept of a multi-purpose, wireless user agent type of device that has been discussed ad nauseum in sessions of V2 and many other articles and presentations around the technology world, mainstream and assistive alike. So, Mr. Clark, in order to discredit the messenger rather than debate the message, chooses to compare Apples with Sharks (so to stretch a metaphor).
So, why does Joe Clark have such a resentment toward me and Freedom Scientific?
Typically, I try to keep personalities and ad hominem statements out of Blind Confidential. I like taking the high road, writing about topics I find interesting and having fun with this blog. Today, because I had planned on taking the day off from writing to rest my hands and shoulders and because Mr. Clark seems to take every opportunity to criticize me, I will retaliate by exposing a bit of his history and, perhaps, why he is often crippled by the weight of the chip on his shoulder.
My first encounter with Joe Clark came in a phone call we held while I sat at my desk at FS. I don’t recall the details of how the call came about, nor do I remember who called whom. I do have some vague memory of an email correspondence between the two of us about testing web sites for accessibility, the price of testing tools and the effect of this cost on independent web developers.
During our telephone conversation, Clark posited the idea that Freedom Scientific should sell JAWS at a reduced price to web developers so they can test sites for accessibility against the de facto standard screen reader without taking on the burden of the $900 cost of the software. I asked why sighted independent web developers, ostensibly with businesses and clients should get JAWS as a development tool for less money than blind people who use JAWS for every other purpose. Joe argued that by removing this cost burden from independent web contract businesses that more sites would become accessible. I suggested that such developers use the variety of web test tools available without price reductions from MacroMedia, Microsoft and elsewhere. I also suggested that these developers could hire a blind tester from time to time to help out testing for accessibility with JAWS.
Clark continued to argue that this was an unreasonable burden on small consulting businesses. I asked if purchasing the web development tools from Microsoft, MacroMedia or which ever tools they chose were an “undo” burden. I continued by asking about tools like PhotoShop and other expensive bit diddling tools that web developers must acquire. Finally, I asked about licenses to various media servers, web widgets and other items that go into building a commercial web site. Clark responded that these were all necessary tools of the trade and unavoidable expenses.
Thus, Joe Clark, notable author of an excellent book on web accessibility, argued that, although independent web developers can justify the expense of all of their other tools, getting JAWS as a testing tool is, by following Clark’s argument, somewhat superfluous to the task of creating a web site. In my mind, you can have it one way or the other – you can advocate for web accessibility or you can suggest, by requesting a reduced price on accessibility tools that an accessible web isn’t really worth the added cost.
I also asked Mr. Clark how Freedom Scientific should explain to its blind customers why sighted web developers were getting a discount so they can do their jobs but we blinks had to pay full price to do our jobs. Clark had no response that I can remember. Finally, I asked a question about the blind web developers (of which there are many) and whether or not they should pay full price, because they are blind, the discounted price because they are web hackers or some price in between? If I remember correctly, both Clark and I had pretty well lost our tempers by then and I don’t think either of us uttered an intelligent thought afterward.
Since then, Joe and I have traded the occasional email and may have spoken on a few occasions. We had both been members of what is now a dormant email discussion list about user interface concepts for users with vision impairments. Also, in response to Clark’s arguments that there should be some way for web sites to be tested for accessibility without taking on the extra overhead of buying AT products to be used as test tools, I, along with a friend out in Berkeley, started a email list where web developers could post links to their sites and receive feedback by a group of volunteers who use JAWS, Window-Eyes and other AT products. I stopped following the web test mailing list after I left FS and had to deal with my health problems as my primary activity but I think it has also gone cold due to lack of interest.
So, that’s the history between Joe Clark and me. I respect his intellect and his work on accessibility issues, I learned some things from his book and, more often than not, Joe is on the right side of arguments surrounding people with disabilities.
A question to my readers?
I know people seem reticent to post comments here. I don’t know how to add one of those surveys to my blog or to a web site in general and, if I did, I would put one up to ask this question. As I am a poor web hacker, I will have to ask you to please post a comment with your answer to the following question:
Do you think that sighted people should receive discounts on assistive technology products to use as testing tools at a discounted price while people with vision impairments are required to pay full price?
I really, really didn’t want to type today. I broke my rule of avoiding an ad hominem in BC and, to those of you who, like me, dislike such behavior, I apologize. I still find it annoying that no reader, whether they agree with me or not, has taken up the issue of these two specific Apple patents and their possible effect on technology for people with vision impairments in the future.
People have defended Apple, attacked Microsoft and have attacked me personally. This is fine, although I have comment moderation turned on, I publish every non-spam comment without regard to my opinion of its content. I have a thick skin as, for many years now, I’ve taken on controversial issues and have had to defend my positions in front of Federal Courts, the USPTO, on panels, in debates, presentations, question and answer periods and in nearly every other forum I can imagine. I just wish my critics would make even a slight attempt to argue against my positions rather than dancing around Apple’s aggressive IP policies and finding ways to attack me, other companies or praise the almighty Macintosh.
Just because one believes that Microsoft, one or more of the AT companies, other mainstream companies or me personally have done things they feel are wrong does not mean that Apple is above fault. If a political observer disagrees with George W. Bush on a particular issue, it doesn’t automatically mean that they support John Kerry or other members of the opposition party. It doesn’t mean that people who decry Hitler and the Holocaust are saying that Mao, Stalin, Andrew Jackson and other genocidal maniacs were good people. It simply means that they are criticizing a particular action by a particular company. In this case, it was Apple.
I hope regular readers have observed that my articles in BC criticize a lot of different companies, technologies and discriminatory acts against blind people. I also celebrate advancements in the state of the art, cool new ideas, interesting new developments and write about lots of other items that aren’t controversial.
One final question, is Joe Clark, noted author and web accessibility expert, the same Joe Clark who served as Canada’s Prime Minister? If so, I can even further understand his general negative outlook on life as going through life being remembered as Canada’s Dan Quayle might make one pretty uncomfortable <smile>