updated 03:45 am EDT, Thu June 14, 2012
Speech application removed by Apple pending outcome of hearings
Following complaints from patent holders Prentke Romich Company and Semantic Compaction Systems, Apple has removed augmentative speech application Speak for Yourself from the iOS App Store. Speak for Yourself allowed speech-challenged children to tap pictures on-screen to string words into sentences which were then spoken aloud by the iPad. The patent case involving Speak for Yourself's developers and Prentke Romich is currently being heard in Pennsylvania's western district court. In spite of the removal of the main app, the limited free trial of Speak for Yourself is still available for now.
In an email exchange with Speak for Yourself employees, the developers said that they "will continue our vigorous challenge to the validity of the PRC/Semantic patents, and defense against the claim that our app infringes on any valid patent -- it does not." They went on to say that the core of the PRC/Semantic patent dispute, polysemous symbols, isn't used in their application. The concept, which involves non-literal symbols matched to words that have more than one meaning, was said by the developers to be "confusing" to many therapists, teachers, and parents, and that "[Speak for Yourself] can more effectively teach individuals to use augmentative or alternative communication."
Calls to Semantic Compactic Systems for comment this story were not returned. A statement on the SCS Facebook page says that "there's a reason patents are in place, to protect decades of hard work and research that go into our devices. To take someone's life work and market it as your own is simply wrong." They go on to add that "SCS and PRC filed the patent infringement lawsuit after we reached out to [Speak For Yourself's] founders and offered various business solutions, but were refused."
PRC does manufacture custom hardware devices for speech augmentation, which run from $2,600 to over $15,000, a portion of which is typically covered by health insurance. Speak for Yourself is a $300 app, so the cost of entry (including the purchase of at least an iPad 2) is a minimum of $700. The cost of the app (and iPad if needed) are generally not covered by insurance, regardless of the cost savings over custom solutions.
The immediate effect of the application's removal from the store is the inability for new users to purchase the title. Should the removal become prolonged or even permanent, users will be unable to upgrade the app or re-download it if they failed to back up the purchase. A future revision to the iOS or upgrading to newer hardware may also impair the functionality of the application as it is today. Current users of the app can continue to work with Speak for Yourself, but should ensure the program is backed up and may even need to avoid OS updates until the patent case is resolved.
MacNN has spoken with a parent whose autistic child uses Speak for Yourself on a daily basis. When asked if they had considered using any other applications for communicative purposes, the father said that several alternatives exist. One alternative he had tried was PRC's own Vantage Lite, which costs $7,500. The father said that although he has "no problem with PRC suing [Speak For Yourself] if they think their patent has been infringed upon," he felt Apple should not have removed the app before the trial had run its course. The father added that "unlike the PRC device -- [which may need] to be sent off for repair -- if something happens to my son's iPad with Speak for Yourself, we can just go to the nearest Apple store or Best Buy and have his 'voice' back in minutes."
Beyond the emotional implications of the removal of a program designed to assist speech-challenged individuals, the Speak For Yourself dispute is not the first time Apple has withdrawn an app before legal claims were settled. An argument between VLC for iOS developers and project curator Rémi Denis-Courmont forced the withdrawal of the popular universal video player application from the iOS store.
Other applications for assistive speech are available on the App Store, but it can be difficult to migrate an autistic or otherwise "special needs" child and their parents to a new program when the old one worked well for them. Apple has just recently showcased an expanded effort to use the iPad to help disabled and autistic users, including the introduction of a feature called Guided Access that should allow parents and caregivers to customize apps so that they work better in the hands of developmentally-challenged users.
The root of the problem lies in the nature of technology patent lawsuits, something Apple is all too familiar with. PRC/Semantic pioneered the commercial use of assistive talkers using their polysemous symbol technology, which does work for some talker candidates. The Speak for Yourself developers are therapists themselves, and have said they did not set out to violate patents in the coding of the application and development of the principles it is based on.
MacNN will continue to monitor this story and report on any developments.