File picture: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
File picture: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Maker of keyboard apps for the blind sues Apple, claims anticompetitive behaviour

By The Washington Post Time of article published Mar 22, 2021

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By Reed Albergotti

The maker of FlickType, a keyboard for the Apple Watch, sued Apple on Wednesday for allegedly abusing its market power, adding to the growing opposition to the way Apple runs its App store.

FlickType, which allows Apple Watch users to type directly on their watch face, says it was praised by Apple and presented the technology at Apple's headquarters in 2019. But then, "Apple threw up roadblock after roadblock that made no sense," the lawsuit alleges, keeping the technology out of the App Store for nearly a year.

Then, when the app finally found success, it was undercut by "copycat and scam applications" that used allegedly fake App Store reviews to boost downloads, according to the suit. FlickType also is suing Apple for fraud.

"Apple's promise to help developers build, test, market, and distribute their products and grow their business through a secure, trusted, and accessible marketplace is just a facade designed to wrongfully entice developers to the App Store," the lawsuit says.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

The developers of FlickType are the latest to come out swinging against the powerful tech giant and its App Store, the exclusive distribution method for software on iPhones, iPads and Apple Watches. From Blix, the little-known developer of email software, to Epic Games, the maker of video game Fortnite, companies operating on the App Store are taking Apple to court and joining coalitions aimed at forcing the $2 trillion company to allow competing app stores. Blix and Epic are part of the Coalition for App Fairness, which has argued that Apple should be forced to allow alternative app stores and payment systems.

Apple has so far escaped the fate of its big tech brethren such as Google and Facebook, which are facing massive antitrust lawsuits brought by the U.S. government. But competition probes focused on the App Store loom. The U.S. Department of Justice and state attorneys general began a probe of the company last summer.

U.S. lawmakers are still mulling whether to take action against the company, after releasing a 449-page report that accused Apple of using its monopoly to exploit app developers by competing against them on an uneven playing field and charging them exorbitant fees on sales on its platform.

Apple has denied anticompetitive behavior and defended its App Store policies. It says it must control software distribution through the App Store to protect its customers' privacy and security and to keep out undesirable or misleading apps. In the lawsuit Epic brought against Apple, for instance, Apple's lawyers argued as part of the company's defense that Apple's App Store policies "protect Apple's customers" and that "every app is reviewed by experts," which helps make the store "the world's most trusted marketplace for apps."

But FlickType's lawsuit alleges Apple's defense is disingenuous. "Apple justifies its monopoly by claiming it is necessary to protect its users and developers from unscrupulous conduct and ensure a fair competitive marketplace for the benefit of both," the lawsuit says. "In truth Apple turns a blind eye to rampant fraud and exploitation to make an easy profit."

FlickType was created by a veteran app developer named Kosta Eleftheriou.

Eleftheriou, whose father has limited vision, began developing keyboards that could be used for the blind and visually impaired. In 2009, he created his first app in the space, called BlindType, which allowed smartphone users to type without looking at the screen by analyzing the location of finger taps to predict which words the user is trying to type.

Apple sought to acquire BlindType, according to the lawsuit, but Eleftheriou sold it to Google in 2010.

Eleftheriou went on to create a new typing system for the blind called Fleksy, which in 2012 received an award from the Royal National Institute of Blind People and was honored by Apple, according to the suit. The app was acquired by Pinterest, where Eleftheriou worked until 2017.

After leaving Pinterest, Eleftheriou set out to use his keyboard experience to build one for the Apple Watch. Apple includes a way to type on the Apple Watch by drawing letters on the screen, but Eleftheriou said he found that method too slow.

Eleftheriou created FlickType, which he first launched on iPhone in April 2018. He waited until the fall to add Apple Watch compatibility, when an updated version of the watch offered a larger screen and a more powerful processor that Eleftheriou believed would support his FlickType technology. He updated FlickType to include Apple Watch capability, and Apple approved the update.

Although FlickType was meant to ultimately become a mainstream keyboard, Eleftheriou said in an interview he primarily marketed it to the blind and visually impaired. He planned to update it and improve it over time, he said.

But he alleges there were limitations imposed by Apple on how the app could be used. For instance, his lawsuit says that to respond to a text message on a third-party keyboard, users have to launch the app. From there, they can send a message. Because of Apple's limitations, Eleftheriou believed one good outcome for his invention would be an acquisition by Apple.

In January 2019, Eleftheriou met with Randy Marsden, Apple's text input special projects manager, according to the lawsuit. Marsden is a keyboard entrepreneur himself, having founded Swype and then Dryft, which he sold to Apple.

Marsden was excited about FlickType, according to the lawsuit, and told Eleftheriou it "could be a key feature for the watch." According to the lawsuit, Marsden told Eleftheriou that Apple should buy his app and that he hoped it wouldn't be too expensive.

On Jan. 24, Marsden told Eleftheriou he presented FlickType to the Apple Watch team, including a senior engineering manager on the product side, that it had gone well and he would be discussing it with his boss, the lawsuit says. Eleftheriou believed Apple might offer to acquire the app and his technology.

But when Eleftheriou improved the FlickType Apple Watch keyboard to make it more useful to a broader audience beyond just the visually impaired, Apple refused to allow it into the App Store on the grounds that Apple Watch keyboards were not allowed.

Eleftheriou said Apple approved other Apple Watch keyboards at the time, such as Shift Keyboard Swipe and Type. Apple would not explain to Eleftheriou why other apps that did the same thing were being approved, and his was not, according to the lawsuit. The opaque nature of the app review process at Apple is one of the key complaints of mobile developers.

While he was barred from the store, Eleftheriou allowed other developers of Apple Watch apps such as Chirp to use the FlickType keyboard as a feature. He viewed the strategy as a way to market his technology and draw attention to his product.

It wasn't until January 2020, about a year later, that Apple finally allowed the full version of the FlickType keyboard on the App Store. Eleftheriou doesn't know why it was suddenly accepted.

It quickly became successful. In less than a month, it generated $130,000 and was the top paid app in the U.S. App Store on three days in February 2020, according to market research firm Appfigures.

But the success didn't last. Copycat apps that were "barely usable" and meant to scam users appeared on the App Store and hurt FlickType's downloads, the lawsuit alleges. And the apps were allegedly bolstered by high ratings because of fake reviews, the suit says. Eleftheriou said in an interview that he analyzed the ratings of those apps and discovered patterns suggesting they were inauthentic. In some cases, for instance, the written reviews were almost entirely negative, while the non-written reviews were almost all five stars. The alleged presence of scam apps and fake reviews stands in stark contrast to Apple's marketing, the suit says, which promises users that the App Store is a safe and trusted place.

"Despite possessing massive resources and technological savvy, Apple intentionally fails to police these fraudsters, costing honest developers millions, and perhaps billions, while Apple continues to amass huge profits for itself," the lawsuit alleges.

Because Apple limits the functionality of all outside keyboard apps on the Apple Watch, he says some users complain, and his overall rating on the App Store is 3.5 stars. The copycat apps, one of which popped up just a few weeks ago, have five-star ratings because of what Eleftheriou alleges are fake reviews.

On Wednesday, he decided he had no other options. He filed suit.

The Washington Post

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