Yesterday (10/14/14), I posted an article called “Apple: The Company I Hate To Love,” in which I described my personal history fighting Apple on things regarding intellectual property law and software freedoms as well as discussing their recent iOS/8 release (a major disappointment to me). A few of my most loyal readers suggested that I break the article up into two or more pieces as I did with the Android articles written throughout this year. So, this is the a revised version that will serve as part one of the series and it discusses the IP related issues and Apple’s poor record on such.
For the past few years, based on what I’ve written in this blog and elsewhere, blind enthusiasts of the Android platform have labeled me as an Apple fanboy. It is true that I use Apple devices and that I applaud Apple for its outstanding out-of-the-box accessibility in iOS/7 and the pretty good version of the same on OS X. For full disclosure, I also have an AppleTV attached to our home entertainment system (if you like Netflix, Hulu Plus and the other content available on this set top box, this $99 device is fully accessible and works really nicely with its mini version of VoiceOver) and we use an Apple TimeMachine router with a really big in hard disk for backups. I make my personal purchasing decisions based almost entirely on accessibility and, today, Apple is the clear leader in such.
What the Android fans neglect to notice are the 66 articles I had published on BlindConfidential that mentioned Apple. Most of those, all but eight if I counted correctly, treated Apple with harsh criticism. In those days, Apple products were an accessibility nightmare and I took them to task for such. For most of those years, in fact, Apple’s accessibility was so bad that it wasn’t even worth writing about.
My Mentions of Apple in BlindConfidential, therefore, had little to do with accessibility as, really, how much can one write when the content can boil down to “Does. Not. Work?” My criticism of Apple, then and again in the piece you are reading right now comes in their what I believe to be terrible history in many things related to intellectual property. Unlike their then miserable accessibility, this aspect of Apple hasn’t changed in any substantive manner in the years hence.
I did write about this with some frequency on my old BlindConfidential blog. BC was a very different sort of blog than is this one. Then, I published nearly three times per week and wrote in a very informal personal essay style. I rarely cited references in those days and wrote mostly opinion pieces based in my own gonzo view of the world. BC also contained a lot of satirical fiction written by my alter-ego and nom de plume, Gonz Blinko which a lot of people enjoyed back in those days. BC was really popular in its day but, over time, it became too hard to keep up its pace and I got tired of writing from such a personal perspective.
If you go back and read the things I wrote about Apple in those days, please do also read what the Apple fanboys said about me back then. If I did a global search and replace on words like “Apple,” “Macintosh,” and “iPod” with “Google,” “Android” and “Nexus” the comments are virtually identical to what I read in the comments I got from Android fans when I write about their favorite thing. Then, as now, I compare all accessibility to the gold standard. Today, iOS/7 is that gold standard, when I wrote BC, it was JAWS on Windows XP and, of course, in those days I was labeled a Windows fanboy.
When Apple got accessibility mostly right, I changed my position, that’s how I roll, I’m not “religious” about anything, when new information is presented, my position changes. That’s just how we skeptics behave. Based entirely on the logical fallacy called “argument from authority” (it’s the opposite of ad hominem, it suggests that because of the messenger, an idea is a good one) I believe that Peter Korn (just because he’s Peter Korn), the head of accessibility at Amazon these days, will lead the Fire OS products to a level of accessibility similar to that which we enjoy on Apple products today. If and when that happens or when any other player reaches that level, I’ll celebrate it loudly.
My History Around Apple
The rest of this article comes from the original version. It discusses some areas of intellectual property law related issues with which I’ve fought Apple tooth and nail in the past. Some readers ask me why I don’t write about such anymore. First, for a long time, I was the only blind blogger who ever ranged into areas involving intellectual freedoms, FLOSS software and other similar ideas. I actively embraced the free software philosophy but, in four years as the Director of Access Technology at Free Software Foundation, I accomplished nothing of merit but sincerely hope that Jonathan, my replacement in the role, can be more successful in it. I had done my time in that arena, had felt rejected by that community purely on accessibility notions and had decided to move on.
More importantly, though, is that mainstream thinkers like my friends Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen do a far better job at addressing than do I. My expertise is in accessibility and I think I do a pretty good job of commenting on such. I understand a lot of the theory and philosophy behind the free software movement, intellectually, I embrace a lot of it still but, if you want to learn about such matters, read what you can by Stallman and Moglen and you’ll learn far more than I can teach you. My accessibility niche is good enough for me but I encourage you to read the real leaders in that field to learn more and make informed decisions on your own. Thus, if you’re looking to read about free software, please read the best work from the top guys and not my occasional rantings on the matter.
Finally, these days, accessibility is my passion. I work with a number of super smart and talented young blind technology people and see them, on a daily basis, struggle with things that were simple for me when I was a partially sighted college student back in the late seventies. I have one friend and business partner who, when he wanted to build his own HRTF library, had to teach himself enough of the differential equations, linear algebra and other really hard high level mathematics by reading raw LaTeX files. Without support for MathML, something FS tried to patent more than a decade ago, a screen reader really cannot perform to the level he needs to accomplish his educational goals. For me, that this extraordinarily bright young man has to deal with such overt inconveniences, is a fairly of accessibility in general on all platforms as none provide him with what he needs now. His situation makes me angry as hell, FS could have been doing this with JAWS for a decade now but, instead, a small market portion (math students) of a small minority (blind people) gets even less attention than the already tiny level of attention that a more generic set of use cases for a blind person would. It’s for guys like him, the future of people with vision impairment that I get excited. If, in any way small or large, I can contribute to a more accessible future, I’ll do so. Thus, I don’t spend too much time thinking about information and software freedom issues anymore. I’m just not that into it these days.
Apple v. Microsoft
In early 1987, I worked programming in assembly language and C on DOS and Unix based computers. I was a low level hacker who worked on device drivers and other silicon under the fingernails, right on top of the hardware programming tasks. If you had less than 1K left on a ROM chip and needed a routine optimized for size, I was your guy. While, a few years earlier, I had done some work on Apple II systems in 6502 assembly language, Apple, in the early Macintosh era, played no noticeable part in my life.
Then, the phone rang in our Cambridge condo. My wife answered it and called, “Chris? It’s rms on the phone.” I had no idea that this call from Richard Stallman would have such a profound influence on the rest of my life. In fact, the call itself was only to invite me to join him and a few others from around the MIT Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence for lunch at a Central Square Italian restaurant.
As that meal was eaten more than 27 years ago, I ask my readers to forgive me for not remembering who else had joined us that afternoon as there would be so many more informal meetings like this in the immediate future that, in my mind, who was in attendance at any particular one in any particular restaurant all blends together. I was always there, Stallman was always there, Gerry Sussman, Hal Abelson and others were often there. Lots of others popped in and out.
At the first Central Square luncheon, Stallman presented the idea of working to fight a legal assertion made by Lotus Development Corporation that their user interface was covered by copyright. Lotus had filed a lawsuit against two small software companies who made Lotus 1-2-3 knock-offs called “VP Planner” and “The Twin.” Our little group of friends with an interest in intellectual freedoms would, to fight further encroachment of such by broadening the scope of copyright to include functional elements, would form the League For Programming Freedom (LPF) and Stallman and I would be its first leaders.
Unfortunately for VP Planner and The Twin, the LPF was incorporated and off the ground a few months too late. They had both lost their cases at the federal district court level and neither had the financial wherewithal to file an appeal and settled with Lotus out of court. With this victory in hand, Lotus would escalate their monopolistic assertions and file suit against Borland over having a 1-2-3 compatibility mode in Quatro, their spreadsheet. Observing the success Lotus had in the lower courts, Apple Computer would, in turn, file a “look and feel” lawsuit against Microsoft for having overlapping windows in Windows 3.1.
As in their cases against VP Planner and The Twin, Lotus would prevail in the federal district court. Unlike those earlier cases, though, Borland had the resources to appeal; they had Philippe Kahn, a nice guy in person but a ferocious CEO in battle; they had Bob Kohn, another super nice guy in person but one of the smartest general counsels any corporation has ever had on their team and they had LPF on their side. Likewise, Apple would win their case in the lower court and Microsoft would file an appeal.
What could a tiny non-profit like LPF do with its few thousand dollars in the bank to effect the outcome of a lawsuit between bazillion dollar giant corporations? We decided our best strategy would be to do whatever we could with publicity for as little money as possible but, more so, I would organize a “friend of the court” brief to file with the circuit court of appeals demonstrating how Apple and Lotus were wrong in their legal reasoning. In this effort, I had the fantastic opportunity to talk to and gather the signatures of most of the greatest minds in computer science history to oppose Apple and to oppose Lotus. Among the signatories were Marvin Minsky and John MacArthy, the fathers of artificial intelligence. Richard Stallman, the founder of the free, libre, open source software movement. Jerry and Julie Sussman and Hal Abelson, authors of the most popular computer science textbook in history. Geoffrey Knuth, the man who invented the science of algorithmic and the author of TeX and LaTeX. We had 125 individuals of this sort on the list. We won the case in Borland and the court hearing the Apple case put that one on hold until the Supreme Court ruled in our favor, where we had filed another very similar brief but with 150 signatures of top computer scientists around the world.
The battle over look and feel copyright, a battle we would win in the US Supreme Court, was a lot of fun for me on a personal level. I got to meet and spend time with legends of computer science, pretty lofty company for an assembly language hacker who specialized on working in tiny spaces where complex algorithms need not apply. It was also fun winning such a big and important effort. For a few days after the Supremes made their ruling, I got to celebrate with Philippe Kahn (who gave LPF a huge part of the credit for their win) and a bunch of others. As this was my first serious endeavor in software freedom policy, though, I also didn’t realize how hard the future would be.
The next major effort taken on by LPF was to stand in opposition to all patents on software. I still hold this position today. All software patents are, for a variety of very good reasons that you can read in works by Stallman, Moglen and even older articles that I wrote on BC and before with titles like “Patently Absurd” and “Patently Ridiculous,” a bad idea. If you don’t care to read what the leaders in that movement have written about such, I’ll summarize: all algorithms can be expressed as a function of the lambda calculus, hence, all algorithms are , indeed, mathematics and math isn’t invented but, rather, discovered. When Benoit Mandelbrot and IBM tried to patent his work on fractal geometry, the US Supreme Court ruled that mathematics cannot be patented as math is a discovery and not an invention and, thus, is not covered by US patent law. A number of court cases, led most notably by AT&T, chipped away at this ruling and ultimately we find ourselves in the horrible intellectual property framework we are in today.
Apple hopped onto the software patent nonsense early and often. They have not changed a wit since those days more than two decades ago when I was active in LPF. As far as I can tell, Apple has not, as I suggested they would, use their patents on accessibility technologies against any of their competitors but, due to the ridiculous notions about patents in the US, EU, Japan and elsewhere, Apple is permitted in the “free” world to take away your software freedoms. Again, don’t blame Apple, they are doing what is best for their business; blame democracy for allowing their populations to elect officials who would promote such intellectual monopolization. You, my readers, are also voters. I’ve testified in congressional hearings, have written articles, have organized briefs, I’ve done everything I possibly can to stop software patents and I’ve, as an individual, failed in this effort. If you are as angry about software patents as me, go out and do something about it. Otherwise, we cannot blame big corporations, Apple or otherwise, for acting legally. If we, the voters, give Apple these business advantages, we have only ourselves to blame when they screw us.
This section is easy, Apple has today and has always had a deplorable record on issues involving intellectual property and software freedoms.