Saturday, July 26, 2008

Throwing My Voice Into The Echo Chamber Or My Take On “FS Vs GW”

When I heard the news about the new litigation by Freedom Scientific, my original thought was to stay out of the fray. I know a lot of the people involved, I still work with a lot of the people involved and a lot of the people involved know me and this blog. I hoped that I could steer around the two great ships in the night and continue my little nattering's about Vista, press releases and my usual rants on how hypercritical Mac users are. But a few weeks ago I wrote about how some of us who write professionally, or in my case semi pro, could form an Assistive Technology trade press of sorts. That one idea had me on the phone for about five hours all told yesterday. And the majority of calls were inbound rather than outbound. Better yet, most calls ended with someone saying “I can’t wait to read what your take is on all of this..”. So my plans of sitting on the sidelines have been scuttled for the moment, however, I’m probably not going to come back to this subject much if I can help matters.

Let me also say that anything written below is my opinion. This isn’t a “hot scoop”. This is a real  deal and I will keep the jokes down to a minimum. I also don’t have a reason to take any sides here. I think what Doug and Co. have done with their lease to own plan was extraordinary [which I’ve blogged before] and just this month I said that I thought Eric’s public discussions on JAWS running without a Video Interceptor were forward thinking. I am sincere here when I write that I hope that an amicable resolution can be reached for all parties including both groups of users. I say all this because I don’t want my comments in this post to be misunderstood as being favorable to one company over another. And I also speak for myself and not for anyone else I may know or be associated with in the AT world.  

Before I pontificate through dozens of run on sentences, lets do some light reading first. If you haven’t done so already you should start off by reading the post at GW Micro.

Then there is one viewpoint at the Blind Access Journal..

And here is another take from a technical perspective..

Finally, the Blind Geek Zone posted this from the comments off of that blog..

This is just a smattering of what I have read over the last 64 hours or so. It helps though to get several perspectives on the issue before I toss in my two cents.

Long time readers, and those unfortunate people who have sat through some of my multi session presentations, have heard me say this phrase often…

“There is no nobility in the Assistive Technology Industry.”

Naturally to have an industry you must have a conglomeration of businesses. Therefore, you have to look at things from a business perspective when working with people, places and things within the Assistive Technology Industry. With that in mind, one can easily see that to run a business one must abide by the rules and regulations of that industry. Sometimes this requires a business to take an odd stance on what would be seen as an almost trivial matter.

For instance, take the case of Mike Rowe vs. Microsoft.

Mike Rowe thought it would be neat to create a domain that played off of his name and somewhat capitalized off of the name/brand of one of the largest software makers in the world. While many would not confuse Mike with the House that Windows built, the rules of business require that MS react to this as a threat to it’s brand identity. So Mike was faced with legal action and eventually the matter was resolved. Well it was resolved after the company took a lot of flack publicly for going after one person for what some saw as a sort of humor based play on words.

The problem is that businesses have to defend themselves on just about any challenge to their copyrights, brand identity or intilectual properties. The second you don’t aggressively or seriously move on any or all challenges is the second you will lose a more important or damaging case which could radically impact your business. By ignoring other minor issues you leave yourself wide open with a harder job to defend your property when a major challenge does come along. If Microsoft did not take Mike’s case as a threat MS’s competitors could move in and also make similar plays on words to gain business off of Bill Gate’s success.

Now that doesn’t mean that some cases aren’t just plain silly. Take the one a few months ago when Engadget was told that their use of the color magenta confuesed people on the web with a telecom service.

In this article it is difficult to argue that the color alone would confuse anyone because it isn’t like Engadget makes phones or delivers telephone services. But after looking at these two examples you might find that Freedom Scientific had a reason for pursuing  their legal wrangling's last year.

This new case, however, isn’t a matter of clouding or confusing names within a specific business “Space” though. Since I don’t code, script or have the desire to do either, I am going to stay far away from making any calls on the merits of the complaint. I’ve talked to almost a dozen people on the subject, who have varying degrees of technical knowledge, and the rough opinion poll vote count resulted in a split right down the middle for each side on who is going to come out ahead in this situation. Since my informal census amongst the people I respect on things like this ended in a tie, I think it is best to not speculate too far going with the neutral opinion of “let the courts decide”.

You may say “Hey Ranger, you’re taking the easy way out”. And you can sure say that my opinion is a little anticlimactic. Therefore I will give you some inkling as to the reasons why I am taking this tact. In most of my conversations and research within the hallowed halls of AT I have never seen as many people use noncommittal language. Even people in the business not affiliated with this case have no desire to speak about it or they have been directed by the upper levels to not discuss it in any way. That, my friends, is a rare thing in AT as usually we all have some opinions on just about everything. This “wall of silence” should provide you with an order of magnitude as to the seriousness this case is being treated amongst the Blindness Technology Community. Nothing since the fall and subsequent rise of Telesensory has polarized this many players. And rightfully so as their may be splash damage from an unfavorable ruling. again, this is a business and this is sadly how businesses operate.

Some of the comments from the Blind community that I have read from blogs, lists and heard on public transit have been derisive and they tend to look at this as a negative move by Freedom Scientific. What I have to remind a lot of people outside the business is that Freedom Scientific is owned, like a lot of AT companies these days, by a parent company. And sometimes the subsidiary doesn’t get a say in the matter if the parent company feels that it must react to a situation to protect their assets. That old phrase “nothing personal.. its just business” comes to mind.

I do realize to a lot of people that this is far more than numbers on a spreadsheet. And certainly this goes beyond the friendly rivalry of two classic sports teams batteling it out in the league championship. No matter if you are a JAWS or Window Eyes fanboy or fangirl the fact is that there will be a winner and a loser at some point and a group of users are going to be directly affected by the outcome of this case. My hope is that the outcome doesn’t involve a “nuclear option”. By that I mean I pray that a positive resolvement can be reached that keeps both players on the field without drastic changes coming to how one can or cannot make a traditional Screen Reader. Because I may know a lot of people involved in this case but there is a greater number of people out there I’ve never met who use both products every day to live and work. And I want to believe for them that for just one second I will be wrong and there will be a nobal act in the Assistive Technology Industry.


Darrell said...

As an evangelist in the connected online blind community, my inclination is to believe that this move on the part of FS represents a potential threat to innovation in the assistive technology industry. My question is, thus, what, if anything, should we do about the situation as a blind community?

Anonymous said...

Your post on this topic is another example of why I always make sure I read your blog, even if I fall behind some with the more irrational blogs on blindness technology.

As an attorney, and I need to make it clear that I am not giving a legal opinion but merely making an observation, it appears to me that most of the contributors to the considerable noise on this matter have no idea what a patent is. Just as a trademarked name is property, a patent is property too. If GW Micro has taken this property without paying for it, they are no better than someone who takes a loaf of bread without paying for it. I want to be clear that I am not saying that they have. If they have not, then the jury will decide accordingly. In that event, Freedom Scientific will have to pay GW Micro's costs, and perhaps additional punitive measures will be imposed by the court.

Most of the very uninformed comments I have read during the Internet-wide discourse on this matter attribute motive to Freedom Scientific. In other words, they think they can see inside a corporate/collective head and that there is no shadow of a doubt that these measures are being taken because they are frightened of GW Micro, and want to bully them. Everyone I have met at conventions from Freedom Scientific has been professional, and it seems to me, dedicated. I wonder why we cannot discuss the merits or otherwise of the case without attributing motive and descending to name calling. I have seen the company and individuals within it called quite appalling things, merely for seeking to protect what the company perceives to be its property. Does this mean that we should all be entitled to steal from companies/entities richer than ourselves? Some may well believe so. It would be interesting to know how many proponents of this view also pirate music and other media.

There is one paragraph in Freedom Scientific's release that caught my attention. It reads,

"This practice is by no means new in this industry. Freedom Scientific itself already pays for the use of patented technologies pertaining specifically to assistive technology."

I am sure Freedom Scientific could not get away with making this up and putting a falsehood in a public statement. So if this is correct, then perhaps there is quite a lot of mass hysteria going on when people say that this will change the nature of the industry.

I am no technology expert. I use it to help put food on the table, and I take an interest in developments, particularly legal matters. I believe if Freedom Scientific successfully convinced the Patent office that they had an original concept, and if, and I must stress if, that concept which Freedom Scientific now owns has been used without license, then Freedom Scientific has every right to cry foul.

Most of us are not in a position to determine this based on the facts out there, and are simply jumping on a bandwagon of uninformed high-tech hysteria. I have faith in the judicial process to resolve this matter, and I suggest we should allow the matter to take its course. Meanwhile, let us continue to use the technology we find best meets our needs in the interim.

Yours respectfully,
Thomas Johnson

TheBlindTech said...

my first thought, is what the hell is this "Blind Community" that everyone keeps mentioning. its stupid.

secondly, MR. Ranger, this is one of the most poorly written nonsense written piece I ever read from you. sure you don't like us mac users and you written nonsense about us in the pass about it. but this takes the cake, let me translate what you wrote in to a couple of sentences.

Hi folks, its me ranger, because I am a passive panzie who doesn't want to rock the boat all I want to say on the fsw vs gw matter is that I will sit here and let the courts decide because I want to keep allot of my phone friends I know in both companies because if I say something wrong, one of my phone friends might get mad at me and I'll won't be part of that cool blind club.

Get over it.