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September 15, 2021

“Copy that”: Developer to sue over Apple Watch keyboard resembling his rejected app

By Robert Scammell

Apple has launched an on-screen keyboard for its newest Apple Watch after previously rejecting an apparently very similar app for listing on its App Store.

Announced at Apple’s California Streaming keynote event, the Apple Watch Series 7 will have a full QWERTY keyboard that gives users the option of tapping letters or swiping and letting machine learning algorithms predict the word.

US-based FlickType launched a similar predictive keyboard for the iPhone in 2018, initially marketed for the blind and visually impaired with the aim of gaining mainstream appeal. Later that year FlickType launched a version compatible with the Apple Watch and at one point it was briefly the number one paid app in the App Store.

While Apple initially approved the keyboard for the App Store, it allegedly forced limitations on FlickType before finally taking it down altogether. After months of appeals, the keyboard was then reinstated on the App Store. Flicktype founder and developer Kosta Eleftheriou said this resulted in a year of lost revenue.

Following Apple’s launch of its own similar keyboard, long-time Apple critic Eleftheriou said he plans to file a lawsuit.

“So now we know. See you in court, Apple,” Eleftheriou said via Twitter, attaching a screenshot of an App Store review letter that gave the reason for his keyboard’s rejection as “specifically, the app is a keyboard for Apple Watch”.

Apple launched its keyboard for Apple Watch with images showing the text “copy that” being typed into the QWERTY display.

The Cupertino-headquartered company did not immediately reply to Verdict’s request for comment.

In March this year, Eleftheriou filed a separate lawsuit against Apple alleging anticompetitive behaviour.

The lawsuit alleged that Apple “through roadblock after roadblock that made no sense” prevented the FlickType Apple Watch keyboard from listing on the App Store for nearly a year. It is currently available for download in the App Store.

However, FlickType discontinued the iPhone version in August, citing the dispute with Apple. Eleftheriou said that Apple required the keyboard to work without being given network access. However, Eleftheriou said the app works without full access.

“Apple has thrown obstacle after obstacle [at us] for years while we try to provide an app to improve people’s lives, and we can no longer endure their abuse,” FlickType said at the time.

One of Apple’s main arguments for maintaining its tight control over iOS software distribution via the App Store is that this keeps its customers safe from fraudulent and malicious apps.

But Eleftheriou claimed Apple was allowing scam apps, including keyboard rivals, to remain in the App Store while his was taken down. He said fake reviews were pushing these scam keyboard apps to the top of App Store search results, “leaving honest and hard-working developers in the dust”.

FlickType has also sued Apple for fraud.

Eleftheriou, whose father has limited vision, has designed other keyboard apps for the blind and visually impaired. In 2010 he sold predictive text keyboard BlindType to Google after initial interest from Apple. Another similar app was acquired by Pinterest.

He has previously claimed that Apple was interested in acquiring FlickType in 2019. Verdict has contact FlickType for comment.

From Apple Watch keyboards to Fortnite, developers aren’t happy

The keyboard Apple Watch keyboard lawsuit comes amid an increasingly vocal rebellion from software developers, who are frustrated by the way the $2tn company polices and profits from the App Store.

Apple takes up to 30% commission on in-app purchases and its seemingly opaque rules have become a focal point for complaints.

“The [Apple Watch keyboard] is an example of Apple abusing its market power to increase its dominance,” said Laura Petrone, principal thematic analyst at GlobalData. “Developers are increasingly keen to voice their discontent over Apple’s ecosystem rules.”

She pointed to the recent Epic Games vs Apple ruling, which has “emboldened” Apple’s developer critics. While a California judge did not find Apple to be monopolistic and sided against Epic Games on nine out of ten counts, it issued a permanent injunction that lets developers direct consumers to alternative payment options outside of the iOS App Store.

Regulators outside the US have also been taking a tougher stance against the tech giant. Earlier this month, South Korea passed a bill permitting developers to use their own payment systems, effectively blocking major app store operators such as Google and Apple from collecting app purchase commissions.

US lawmakers have proposed similar legislation in a bipartisan push against Big Tech.

Separately, Apple also said it will let developers of “reader apps” link to their own external sign-up website, allowing companies such as Netflix and Spotify to avoid paying commission that would be collected if using the App Store’s in-app payment system.

And in August, Apple agreed to a settlement with small developers in the US that will allow them to share information on how to pay for purchases outside of the App Store.

All of this comes amid a wider crackdown on app store rules that extend beyond payment methods.

In preliminary findings for its antitrust probe, the European Commission accused Apple of choking competition by making developers agree to what it called unfair rules.

The EU’s proposed Digital Markets Act also has Google and Apple’s app stores in its crosshairs.

In March, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority launched an antitrust probe into Apple’s App Store terms to establish whether they break competition laws.

“Apple has been heavily criticised on both sides of the Atlantic for how it runs the App Store and the Apple Pay payment system, and momentum is building at the regulatory level for adapting antitrust laws to the digital economy, including to digital monopolies like Apple,” said Petrone.