More on Apple's Patent Follies
Yesterday’s Blind Confidential post about Apple’s ugly legal tactics must have struck some nerves as the hit count for this blog broke its all time record. The article received approximately triple the average number of hits which says something about the controversy over using predatory intellectual property tactics and the passion with which some people either love or hate Apple. I also found it curious that, although we nearly tripled our typical number of visitors for a 24 hour period, not a single reader left a comment. Was I absolutely correct in my assertions, are the Apple devotees struggling to come up with a counter punch or have those who pray at the altar of the almighty Macintosh chosen to assume that old Blind Christian is an infidel and better off ignored.
Having reread the article this morning, I did notice a few problems for which I should make corrections. First off, I misspelled the word “tactics” in the title, I use “Blogger for Word” a really useful little button bar that one can use to write and publish blog entries from directly within Microsoft Word. Unfortunately, JAWS 7.0 doesn’t read the title field with a say line command and, since the title caused the edit box to scroll, I couldn’t hear the last word properly. In yesterday’s post, I mention a product called “BookNote” I am uncertain if such a beast exists and think I had intended to write “BookWorm” in its space. Although I compose Blind Confidential pieces as a stream of consciousness and only spell check and edit truly horrible sentences, yesterday’s piece had a few more grammatical and punctuation problems than the average BC item. I apologize to our regular readers for such sloppiness and hope that new people won’t use yesterday’s post as an example of the regular quality here.
Now, onto more Apple Patent Follies:
In the May 5 edition of MacWorld UK an article titled, “Apple patents hint at future 'iUber' iPod,” describes a patent they filed in December 2004 but only announced to the public this week that covers a wireless enabled product that they describe as “a portable shopping cart.”
“The patent posits a device that's capable of connecting to a store using mobile phone networks or WiFi networks,” describes the article. This new super iPod will provide functionality that a user can employ to select items while in a store over its wireless network, to pick out songs from iTunes to download to their home computer later and to use for a wide variety of other purposes, including making telephone calls, sending text messages and looking at web sites.
In short, Apple is claiming that they have invented the universal user agent (UUA). If coupled with the self-voicing technology described in yesterday’s BC post, it would turn out as an incredibly cool device for use by people with vision impairments. As more smart technology gets installed in public places like shopping malls, hotels, universities, libraries, etc., a user agent becomes an increasingly important part of an individual’s gadget collection. Putting user agent functionality into a multi-purpose device makes it all the more usable. To wit, a PAC Mate, an MSP enabled iPAQ or an MPower with a wireless system (802.11 for instance) turned on and software installed to access smart technologies can make a terrific user agent for people with vision impairments.
Once again, the pair of Apple patents discussed here could provide them with an absolute monopoly on a multi-purpose, talking user agent. Thus, adding user agent functionality to a PAC Mate may cause it to violate Apple’s patent. I suppose a third party software developer could probably create a program that turns a PAC Mate, iPAQ or MPower into a user agent without violating the patent as they are not selling a multi-purpose unit that can serve as a user agent for we blinks but, rather, building an add-on to a multi-purpose device that will serve the same purpose. This is one of those fuzzy areas in the realm of IP law that no one can really answer without some litigation and case law to clarify the issue. So, even if a hacker writes a program for PAC Mate to handle this functionality, Apple can, at the very least, play litigation games in which the multi-billion dollar Apple computer could squash a smaller player by creating a legal bill so enormous that a company like Freedom Scientific, Code Factory or Humanware could never recover.
What makes things even worse is that this patent seems to preclude any mainstream manufacturer of a portable multi-purpose device (any of the other media players, an iPAQ, a Palm Pilot, etc.) from offering the same functionality. Thus, if HP chose to add its own self voicing interface to their iPAQ line of products and also provide user agent functionality, they may be stopped by Apple’s attorneys. Once again, Apple’s legal strategy, intentionally or not, looks like it will, if fully approved, be able to dramatically limit choices for people with vision impairments.
The notion of using a handheld computing device (the iPod is, in fact, a computer that passes itself off as a media player) is not exactly unique. I’ve heard the topic discussed in the V2 committee meetings and I’m sure it has been presented publicly prior to December 2004 as I remember discussing the PAC Mate and other talking devices as possible user agents in my presentation at the December 2003 ICADI conference where I talked about using a PM as a user agent in a smart house. Then, in March 2004, at the CSUN conference, I sat on a panel of V2 members that discussed this very same problem and I described how, if such smart technology had been installed at the LAX Marriott, I wouldn’t need to hold elevator doors open with my cane but, rather, could have used my PM to wirelessly talk to the elevator with far less hassle. In a recent BC post, I mentioned the panel on which I sat at the RERC on Wireless Communication held during spring 2004 where I also discussed and demonstrated the PM as a multi-purpose, talking wireless device that could perform both communication and command control functions. Finally, I wrote an article that discussed the PAC Mate as well as a number of other devices as user agents for a column in the IEEE magazine, “Computer.” This is my personal collection of published prior art. I’m sure that the austere group of BC readers probably knows of other publications in which such technologies had been discussed and I recommend that they be brought to the attention of the patent office before they waste too much time and money on Apple’s frivolous attempts at monopolizing technology that has been conceived well before they filed their paperwork.
Will these Apple patents definitely cause doom and gloom, higher prices and fewer choices for people with vision impairments? This question is difficult to answer. If Apple chooses to aggressively protect their so-called “inventions” the situation could get very bad. Small companies will probably avoid working on useful concepts like user agents and other talking technologies as Apple can destroy them with legal fees alone. Larger companies could try to release similar products but could be forced to hold them from the market by a simple injunction written by a judge who has no special background in patents, technology or talking computers. If Apple uses these patents purely for defensive purposes to prevent themselves from lawsuits by companies who may violate Apple’s patents but where Apple may infringe on their IP as well. A defensive use is less bad than an aggressive strategy but it could, at some level, prove to stifle innovation as a smaller company with a legitimate patent on a real invention may be prevented from protecting their IP because Apple can threaten them with these frivolous filings and, once again, the little guy won’t stand a chance. If Apple donates the patent to an advocacy agency or group thereof and they agree to split up a small licensing fee to be used to promote funding additional developments for people with vision impairments, it could possibly have a useful outcome if the licensing fees were kept small enough that they wouldn’t create a cost prohibition on entering the market sector.
So, yes, I do present worst case scenarios in the articles about Apple’s patent strategy. As a blink who has grown quite accustomed to hearing about really cool technical possibilities and then finding out that they are superfluously inaccessible, that a screen reader company doesn’t find it important enough to support or that the cost barrier is so large that only a few research types and really rich people can afford them, I have grown very dubious of many corporations and generally find that cynicism protects me from further disappointment.
The Macintosh was once sold as “the computer for the rest of us,” Apple seems to be saying that the iPod is, “the technology just for us!”
Please write to the USPTO, to Apple and to anyone else who you may think might listen. Please help stop legal maneuvers that may threaten our freedom of choice. Please remind all technology companies to innovate rather than litigate.