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back to article iPad app that lets mute kids speak menaced by patent lawsuit

A company that makes specialist talking tablet computers for speech-disabled children has mounted a patent lawsuit which seems set to kill off an iPad app that does the same thing for a tenth of the price. The firm is making no commitment to provide replacement affordable software for consumer devices. Prentke Romich's Minspeak …

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Hard to sell your ridiculously overpriced hardware solution when somebody can do the same thing on an iPad for a tenth of the price, huh? Better break out the lawyers so you can keep milking the cash cow of parents of disabled kids.

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Childcatcher

It's not about milking the parents of disabled kids.

It may be a very emotive subject but someone has infringed on the patent of someone else here.

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Anonymous Coward

Take a FSCKING flamethrower to it all

Software patents are bullshit - we all know it - don't defend it.

It's bad enough when it cripples and/or makes our little smartyphones and other superfluous gadgets overly expensive, but this is a whole different category of rightly indignant rage.

They can stuff that patent up their arse.

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Facepalm

Re: It's not about milking the parents of disabled kids.

"someone has infringed on the patent of someone else here."

In a fair world, "someone else" should have their patent invalidated for obviousness. I mean, honestly, a keyboard of symbols that get strung together to form a spoken sentence?

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Anonymous Coward

sometimes

Its about siding with the bad guys against the really bad guys.

My enemies enemy is my friend.

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Re: It's not about milking the parents of disabled kids.

Yep. Totally agree.

Well, I guess we only need to look to the pharamceutical industry to see patents blocking development. Especially in gene research :/

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Anonymous Coward

if

They succeed in removing the app I'd throw it open on the web to all comers for free, if they won't let me make any money I sure as hell would stuff them back in the process.

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Software patents are bullshit - we all know it - don't defend it.

No, they are often BS, and the system is crappy, but that does not mean the concept of patenting stuff used in software is BS. Investing in R&D for an algorithm is no different than investing in R&D for a physical invention.

In this particular case, it sounds like BS though. The company issuing the suit should create their own official iPad app and sell it for $500 or something.

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JDX
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Re: if

You realise giving it away for free doesn't stop you getting sued?

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WTF?

Re: It's not about milking the parents of disabled kids.

And this is a perfect example of why such patents should not exist.

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Re: if

Yes you can still be sued giving it away, it would cost them thousands, in money and goodwill but I would feel good about it and know they would soon be out of business.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Software patents are bullshit - we all know it - don't defend it.

JDX - there are already copyright and trade secret protections for algorithms. There is also encryption available for compiled software. I'm trying to think of a real world example of where that is inadequate for software and not really coming up with anything...

In the interest of not throwing the baby out with the bath water, are there any real life examples you can think of for a good and proper software patent? I'm wiling to listen.

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Re: It's not about milking the parents of disabled kids.

A patent on having a computer say a word when you click on a picture of it? What's the invention? is it not "obvious".

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good and proper software patent?

Wouldn't H264 be a valid case? Creating something like a new codec could be a massive cost in R&D. Therefore licensing it to users seems fair to me. I don't know nuances of H264 specifically, but an original codec seems fair.

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Anonymous Coward

@Tegne

Are you serious?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: good and proper software patent?

Good choice, a patent pool wrapped into a popular ISO standard - that's a tough one... but playing Devil's advocate here nonetheless :)

On the positive side: we have a kinda, sorta, mostly free-for-now (subject to the whims of MPEG LA) very effective codec that is the de facto compression standard and as such enjoys common compatibility across disparate systems, software and devices... without which the world would be deprived of gems like this... and Skype, Netflix, Hulu, etc.

In the meh column: Without software patent protections potentially H.264 and the associated ISO MPEG standard would never have been created as a published standard. I say this is "meh" because I'm not convinced how solid this case is that *no* alternative would have ever come about.

In the negative column: The H.264 patents are consistently used to prevent anyone from creating alternative (even completely different/incompatible) compression schemes. The patents grant them a small protected monopoly for their "inventions" and the associated ISO standards have made them ubiquitous. End result: MPEG LA has everyone by the short and curlies if (when?) they decide to start charging for free content in 2015 and, if they were so inclined, do all sorts of dastardly things quite legally. That's AFAIK... anyone know if there are FRAND terms around H.264/MPEG4?

In my mind the question is... how is this better for us than a world where - for example - clean room implementations of ISO standards, APIs, etc are allowed? Even without H.264 patent protections, I think *something* still would have come along and displaced Real Player. Things definitely would be different... but how different it's tough to say. Maybe we'd be living with 2009-quality internet video here in 2012 instead of where we're at... mebbe?

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Re: Software patents are bullshit - we all know it - don't defend it.

How dare you come in here with your nuanced arguments.

RABBLE RABBLE RABBLE

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Anonymous Coward

>Better break out the lawyers so you can keep milking the cash cow of parents of disabled kids.

AAC is an entitlement in the UK so its us, not parents, that foot the bill. Its a big bill too ~ easily £10 million PA across health & education.

Until very recently its been a very nice business for AAC devicers - DynaVox still manage to extract 20-30% of most iOS AAC App revenue thanks to Acapella TTS as iOS has no public TTS API [really it doesn't]. Don't kid yourself its a low volume niche either - eg Proloquo To Go is an all-time top grossing App.

Most AAC companies are either radically refocussing on software or looking at the wall writing, not a surprise the latter group are digging out Patents from the knickers drawer.

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FAIL

Re: It's not about milking the parents of disabled kids.

"I mean, honestly, a keyboard of symbols that get strung together to form a spoken sentence?"

They better go after Logitech, Microsoft and other keyboard makers, then. THEIR keyboards are exactly the same; it's the information content per symbol that differs.

I personally find the iPad a useless thing, but hope sincerely that the patent trolls get slapped with a "prior art", and the people who need this app to communicate do not get hindered.

(Why they didn't put it on the Samsung Note, however, I'll never grasp. IT, at least, is portable as opposed to the iPad)

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Re: Take a FSCKING flamethrower to it all

Software is every bit as real as hardware.

The first PRC Minspeak boxes I saw 20 years ago were almost pure hardware.

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Linux

Re: It's not about milking the parents of disabled kids.

We've seen it time and again - software patents lead to a lot of stupidity. Copyrights, sure. But the software patents don't lead to innovation, they stiffle it.

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Re: It's not about milking the parents of disabled kids.

It is indeed a very emotive subject as you correctly point out - but patent is not fundamental fact of the universe, it is an artefact which societies have created to fit their purposes. It is no longer fit for purpose.

If there were a law which allowed - say - slavery, that would be an inappropriate law. You would, I'm sure, agree that fighting it was appropriate and obeying it was wrong.

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Toys out of the pram...

Looks like the first party has been selling at over inflated prices for years and wants to continue doing so for many years to come.

However, $299 for a point and speech interface is taking the mickey too...

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Re: Toys out of the pram...

Only taking about 10% of the mickey, mind you :o)

Actually, thinking about it, isn't there some kind of customisable soundboard app for tablets that would do 85-90% of the same, anyway ?

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Re: Toys out of the pram...

I agree. It's essentially a soundboard that can change someone's life. When someone can knock up a swearatron for free on the interwebs, how can $299 be considered reasonable?

Taking advantage of the disadvantaged.

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Re: Toys out of the pram...

Precisely what I was thinking when I came into the comments section.

Could probably knock this up in an afternoon. TTS is the hard part and its already done.

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WTF?

Re: Toys out of the pram...

$299? Woah, that is ridiculous. I read it as $2.99 :-\

I'm somewhat less sympathetic now. Half-tempted to knock up a free clone, to be honest.

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Re: Toys out of the pram...

The app was created by qualified therapists I presume. Months of their time and expertise must have been spent working on this drawing on all of their experience. Is that worth nothing?

Likewise if anyone puts their own expertise into a project are they not entitled to make a living in return or does everyone have to work for free to satisfy the iPad/Android consumers who are far too used to paying nothing for 1000's of existing apps, or a few $ for other apps.

The speech app is a specialist program and is already 10x cheaper than the nearest thing. The therapists could have paid an experienced developer for several months of work to create the app, plus they could have taken 6 months off from their day job to produce it. So their investment could easily be $150,000. That will double/triple now they have to get a lawyer involved!

I say let them earn their money because it sounds like they deserve it. Just ask the parents who are no doubt overjoyed that their purchase (the price of a few speech therapy lessons) has effectively "unlocked" their children and given them new freedom to communicate - any ability that most people take for granted.

Software developers shouldn't have to work for free or a few quid. A lot of us are qualified and highly experienced professionals with mortgages and other loans to pay, children to feed and clothe, and many freelance or self-employed developers don't even have pensions, and sometimes there can be weeks or months of zero-income while waiting to see if they get another contract.

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Re: Toys out of the pram...

You're missing the point. A mass-market iPad app sells thousands and thousands of copies so $2.99 is fine. If only a few people buy it you still have to spend the same amount of work creating it therefore the price is higher.

That's why niche software costs more, basic economics really. The ultimate case being bespoke software where you have one customer who pays $100k.

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Re: Toys out of the pram...

I guess you need to pay an artist to draw all the pictures, and that costs something.

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Re: Toys out of the pram...

No, I understand the concept very well. However, being a developer myself I can price the cost of development for an App. If someone spent months writing that App they are either not a good programmer or are very new to Objective C. I doubt the requirement catalog for the App even ran to one page.

And for what it's worth, there are similar apps in the store for $10-$30.

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Re: Toys out of the pram...

It's not just a 'point and speech interface'.

Guys here seem to be forgetting that not all the value in a piece of software comes from the technical difficulty in executing its infrastructure (shocking, I know!). In this case, the value obviously doesn't come from the difficulty of pushing on a picture and having the iPad respond.

People seem to think that because most iPad apps are two bucks, this should be too. Nuh-uh. Consider:

1) Quantity. Fartmaker 3 has a potential audience of all the idiots who own iPads. That's a lot. How many people have children with speech problems *and* have iPads? You can get 100% market share and you're not going to be on any top-100 lists. Suppose you sold this for two bucks and there are 200,000 potential customers out there, and every single one buys it. Now you've got 400,000.. wait, there's Apple's take; now you've got $280,000... wait, there's federal and state corporate taxes; now you've got $182,000... $182,000 to pay all your people, pay for your offices, handle support for 200,000 people who all have young children with a difficult disability, pay for legal, AND pay for development of the next major release. So that $182,000 has to get you through the next two years, say, pay for all of the above, AND pay to develop the next version.

For which you'll get half the money, since everyone already has version one.

Ready to sign up? You're *damned* lucky to be able to run a business with a few people on less than a million a year gross, and that's at a really high profit margin. $299 per copy is nearly starvation money; a tenth that would be suicide.

2) Functionality. It's not about pressing buttons and making sound. It's about knowing which icons to use, how to present them and in what order and location on the screen, knowing how a child will try to interact with them, and so forth. You don't just go QWERTY and hit Control-S. And if you get it wrong, you run the risk of screwing up a kid's ability to interact in this way.

3) Documentation. FartMaker 3 costs a dollar, but it hasn't got a manual, and doesn't need one. If it did, the consequences would be a non-issue if it was incorrect. The documentation for something like this needs to be accurate, comprehensive, and well-organized - something that's not easy even for simple things. If you want to hire a technical writer to do it (and there are good reasons to do this) you're looking at a minimum of five k. And again, if you get it wrong, you genuinely harm people rather than just pissing them off because a bug prevents them from getting to level 39.

4) Support. FartMaker 3 really doesn't require any customer support. It farts or it doesn't. This software's success or failure is hard to quantify, and support is essential; if the support is bad, again, people and their kids actually suffer for real. You can't (or shouldn't) screw around with it. Charging somebody $100 less and then being unable to help them use what they bought does neither of you any good.

5) Legal. FartMaker 3 is disgusting, but you're unlikely to be sued because of it. Make medical software, and all it takes is one nutball family (or one bad mistake on your part) and you're in deep doodoo.

This isn't some photo processing app or word processor or compiler or video game. Its development takes rare expertise (despite its technical difficulty being low), its correct operation affects the health of children, and it aims at a very small market. $299 is a chunk of change, to be sure, but I don't know that it'd be possible to do something like this for less (assuming you want to stay in business).

The guys selling $10,000 'video enlargers' for the legally blind, that essentially consist of a web cam, a tripod, and some shitty software? Rat bastards. The guys who sell a clunky, out-of-date tablet with (most likely) legacy-hell software for $7,500? Rat bastards. The guys developing a new piece of software, at high risk, for an inexpensive platform, at 1/5th the price, and that price being one that may not keep them fed let alone make them rich? *Not* rat bastards.

Assuming that Speak For Yourself should be $3.00 (or whatever) just because it's on the iPad is like seeing that PhotoShop costs much more than The Sims 3, and declaring in outrage that PhotoShop is an unconscionable ripoff (no jokes about Adobe software, please; you know what I mean).

Please, consider the background of the situation when you see "$299", rather than disengaging your brain and letting your knees jerk.

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Re: Toys out of the pram...

Hmm, this whole thread seems like a conversation with a non-technical manager. "What do you mean it'll take months, it's just a bunch of buttons. How long can it take to make a button?"

And if it's $299 how do you know what the app does to see what it would involve?

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@ Andrew Moore

If I could do it for $29.99 I would. There you go. Michael Taken. :)

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Re: Toys out of the pram...

The skill here is in laying the buttons out on the screen and designing the pictures for them, not the technical wizardry that happens when you press one of them. In any case, I believe iOS has a TTS engine, certainly Android has one. If not, they could licence one pretty cheaply or hire some actors to record the words.

In terms of the technical stuff, you could supply a load of mp3s with file names matching the word that is recorded and play them in iTunes to put together your sentence. That's why I don't think it should get a patent.

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Re: Toys out of the pram...

@David. W: you've hit the nail on the head.

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Speak For Yourself's $299 app

And I suspect "Speak For Yourself" will be suing when somebody makes a free app that does the same thing

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Re: Speak For Yourself's $299 app

Yeah, I'd have alot more sympathy for them if their app wasn't so expensive. While its clearly a specialized application with a fairly narrow market, it doens't really look that complicated.

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Facepalm

Place your bets

How long do you reckon it will take before the wave of complaints buries them and they decide they were 'quoted out of context' or some equally obvious management-speak attempt at a get-out?

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Anonymous Coward

Tough one...

The whole point of the patent system is to reward the years of hard work and massive investment needed to invent something decent with a monopoly so you get to reap the benefits. It's up to you how you reap that, whether you produce crappy hardware for a scandalous fee or an overpriced soundboard app for a mere moderately scandalous sum, the point is it's your invention to do with as you please for a few years.

Which is brilliant in theory. Not so brilliant when it hits this 3-year-old kid. Or when it's a pharmaceuticals company that's spent a billion developing a new AIDS drug, and sells the drug at a high price so they can make that money back.. while millions in africa die because they can't afford the drug, and another company gets sued out of existence for manufacturing the same drug for a few pennies and selling it to africans.

There's no right answer unfortunately. Stop the patents, and people don't spend billions inventing new drugs or disability tools, everyone suffers. Keep them, and the rich minority benefit from an inferior product while the 3 year old is denied the ability to communicate.

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Re: Tough one...

But there is an argument (which I am not neccesarily making, just highlighting) that to obtain a patent, something must be "innovative". The problem with the minspeak is it wasn't really innovative. A point which is underscored by the fact that with very little effort, someone was able to duplicate it's functionality with off-the-shelf hardware, and a little bit of software.

With tablets, smartphones, and things like the Raspberry Pi flooding the market, any piece of kit which relied on a dedicated computer is at risk, if all the "innovation" was to ruggedize it.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Tough one...

Lots of stuff is obvious once somebody's done it. The test is whether it's innovative at the time it was patented. A lot of the "what? But it's so obvious!" patents people criticise weren't obvious at all back when they were patented. Problem is, 5 years later it's totally obvious, and the market gets held back because somebody patented it.

They say all patents are invalid when they're issued too, that's the other issue. The patent office just does a rough check, then leaves it to the courts to narrow it down to the bare bones of what's actually valid and patentable (or nothing at all in a lot of cases). A small company like this can't afford to do that though.

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WTF?

Prior art?

I seem to remember when I was a teenager some kind of English language teaching aid that had picture cards that slid into/onto the surface of a plastic box. When an image on the card was pressed a very synthetic voice or poor quality sample said the word associated with the picture. Now if i could only remember the name of this device.

If I stick a picture of an ice cream on one of the keys of my midi keyboard and set it to play a sample of me saying ice cream I breach some copyright or patent?

I think I could knock something like speak for yourself up in a week or two using my own sampled voice and some images, I would give it away just for the kudos and good feeling. $299 is plain extortion.

Somethings really should be free or at most sold for cost.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Prior art?

If you can remember the name send it to the app's developer - it might help them get the patent declared invalid. Probably not, but every patent invalidated is a victory for us all :)

Then again, it costs *MASSIVE* amounts of money to dispute a patent, especially in the US. We're talking $50k to just go to court, potentially millions to seriously fight it. Most likely the dev will roll over or be bankrupted. Or both. The american patent system is an absolute disaster for smaller companies, they can't afford to play and just get fucked, guilty or not :(

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Go

Re: Prior art?

Anyone who's used an iPad knows it's prior art - it's the pattern tag in text entry HTML, which implements a dynamic keyboard (in iPad's case, used for changing the keyboard around for web and email addresses.)

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every patent invalidated is a victory for us all

No it isn't. It's not a victory for those of us who pour our own money into R&D for new products and want to avoid someone reverse engineering it and selling it for half the price!

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Re: every patent invalidated is a victory for us all

Go cry me a river. Do you think moviemakers get annoyed when a rival releases a very similar movie just days before your own is about to hit the cinemas?

Software is already protected by Copyright. Software patents serve no logical purpose other than to make lawyers fatter. In case you hadn't noticed, the EU doesn't recognise software patents, and for good reason. Strangely enough, the software development industry over here has failed utterly to implode as a result of this policy.

If it's algorithms you wish to protect, I have to ask: Why? From a programming perspective, an algorithm is merely "an idea". Everyone can have ideas; you can only copyright an execution of that idea. Why do you consider it fair to prevent any other companies doing R&D in the same field from benefiting from their work? If you're that reliant on R&D alone, you're doing it wrong.

Apple didn't invent the tablet form-factor or the basic concept of a smart phone, yet they're creaming most of the available profits in both those markets. Why? Because Apple sweated the user experience—all those fiddly little details most programmers look down their nose at as being beneath them. ("Real men use a command-line!") And which most of Apple's competitors still—despite the mind-boggling amount of ignorance this demonstrates—don't appear to have grasped either.

Details matter. Implementation matters. Execution matters. An idea is only ever as good as its implementation.

The purpose of patents and copyrights is to provide limited monopolies. A full-blown monopoly is dangerous. It kills the business sector, razing competitors to the ground, despite the merits (or otherwise) of their offerings, leaving it a desolate, barren desert of a market, with no choice at all.

Technology moves so quickly, it's idiotic to waste time buggering around with the slow purgatory of patent lawyers and the USPTO. By the time a mere software algorithm has been formally filed, accepted, challenged, defended in a courtroom, then lost through a prior art demonstration, the market will have moved on. Meanwhile, the lawyers (and USPTO) will have all been paid their fat fees and commissions.

Software patents do not exist for the benefit of businesses. They exist solely for the benefit of lawyers. They are an obstacle to business.

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Re: every patent invalidated is a victory for us all

An algorithm is not "just an idea". The work is not all in the implementation... for instance if you were working on an image compression algorithm 90+% of the work would be in the algorithm which involves hard computer science and mathematics. Implementing it is just following a list of instructions.

Unless your work involves creating new algorithms, I don't think you're placed to say how hard it is to create them. "Just an idea" only shows your ignorance... people spend their life's work creating algorithms.

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