More About Apple and Me

The item I wrote yesterday about the iPod and Apple’s poor history of investing in accessibility seems to have struck a nerve in our community.  Blind Confidential received more hits in the past 24 hours than any other single day in our three month run.  I also received a lot of private emails about the subject and thank everyone for participating.  As I’ve said before, I don’t have the answers, I just like to make sure we ask the questions and hopefully do so in an informative and entertaining manner.  Today’s entry will contain some response to the comments posted yesterday and, in the name of full disclosure, a little more about my anti-Apple bias.

Way back in the late eighties and early nineties, a lot of IP law regarding software had yet to be settled.  Thus, Federal courts got jammed up with cases regarding user interface copyright and whether or not patent law applied to software.  Richard Stallman and I founded an organization called “League for Programming Freedom” that dedicated itself to opposing UI copyright and software patents.  We won the UI copyright battle in the Supreme Court in the landmark Lotus v. Borland case but, sadly, lost the battle over the fundamentals of software patents.  You can google for “Patently Absurd” an article I wrote a lifetime ago and probably still find it on the MIT and other free thinking web sites today.

How did Apple figure in all of this?  

After Microsoft released Windows 3.1, Apple Computer filed suit in Judge Walker’s court claiming that they had a copyright on things like icons, point and click procedures, overlapping windows and a whole lot of other items standard to any graphical user interface.  Apple wanted to become the terminal point in a legacy started at MIT with Greenblatt’s Windowing System (circa mid 1960s) for the original Lisp Machine.  Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) filled with students of John McCarthy (Stanford), Greenblatt and Minsky (MIT) who all got to hack on the original Lisp box (on which the first Lisp based emacs would make its appearance) took the basic ideas and created the Xerox Star, the first computer with a graphical user interface to attempt to enter the commercial market.  Then, Steve Jobs visited PARC and his eyes lit up, first came the Lisa (how many of you geeks ever touched one of them?) and then, in 1984, with memorable Super Bowl advertisements and all, Apple took on Big Brother and released the Macintosh.

When Microsoft developed windows, Jobs ego got in the way of his memory and history itself.  Suddenly, as if Greenblatt and Xerox never existed, Jobs and Apple insisted they should own the graphical user interface concepts entirely and argued that, rather than admitting they too stood on the shoulders of giants, rounded up a bunch of lawyers and went to Federal Court.  Meanwhile, on the East Coast, Lotus had filed suit against Borland over Quatro Pro providing a “1 2 3” mode to ease a users learning curve if they switched spreadsheets, Lotus having forgotten that they took their UI lock stock and barrel from Danny Bricklan.  The Supremes ruled against Lotus while Apple v. Microsoft remained in the lower courts and all UI copyright ended suddenly.

During these years of IP battles, Stallman coined the phrase, “Innovate, Don’t Litigate!”  Which I still use pretty often today.  Back in the days of the LPF, I thought of the old fanged Apple logo that went onto buttons, coffee mugs, stickers and all sorts of other items surrounded by the phrase, “Keep Your Lawyers off My Computer!”  (I did not do the drawing as I don’t have that sort of talent.)  I was also the one who designed the Day Glo stickers depicting a nineteenth century, “wild west” prostitute emblazoned with the slogan, “Only a Whore Charges for a Look and a Feel – Boycott Apple and Lotus” which our small organization paid homeless people in cash to plaster all over downtown and the Las Vegas strip during a COMDEX convention.

Needless to say, there is little love lost between old time Apple people and me.  So, when I got into the AT biz and Steve made his proclamation that “speech technology is superfluous to our mission” I already had a distaste for them and their poor to non-existent accessibility didn’t do much to help change my mind about the company located at One Infinite Loop, Cupertino, California.

Onto the comments I received yesterday:

Prior to the comment posted anonymously that mentioned a few other portable digital media players, I hadn’t heard of the open source rockbox project.  A few people mentioned the project via email as well.  The latest version of Rockbox apparently works on an iPod and has optional self voicing menus as well.  I didn’t have much time to research this project but, in my cursory look, Rockbox does not seem to include a speech synthesizer so you can navigate the program menus but not the content.  As an iPod contains a ton of storage and my collection of recordings spans from Glenn Gould playing Bach to Eminem insulting me for buying his album, I really need to have access to the content I am about to play as you might guess that I would be in different moods when I would select Hogwood’s rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth or when I might want to listen to Miles Davis and his super cool 1957 line up.  

Also, it comes as no surprise that the Rockbox developers build the software voluntarily and without any notable support from Apple.  If their accessibility solution falls into, “let the community do it” they don’t really have an actual accessibility strategy.

Another anonymous comment called into question the facts in Jay Leventhal’s Access World review of the Apple screen reader.  As I have known Jay for a long time, respect his opinions and find that he can be neutral to a fault, I tend to give him the benefit of any doubts.  Having also recently published an article in Access World (this month’s issue if you’re interested) I have gone through their rigorous vetting process and feel strongly that they do very solid fact checking in their publication.

With that said, though, following the link included in the comment, I first noticed that I had a factual error regarding Jay’s review in yesterday’s BC post, I said it ran in December when, in fact, it appeared in the September 2005 Access World.  Some of the factual errors listed about Jay’s article have little importance to the reader.  Some, however, stand out as fairly major failures in the editing of the review.

The page linked to in yesterday’s comment points out that Jay describes the Macintosh he used for testing with highly ambiguous terms and mixes up some features of desktop and laptop Macintosh models.  This could certainly cause confusion in the mind of a consumer and should have been caught in the editing process.  

Jay’s critic points out that the Access World article slights the VoiceOver documentation and suggests that rather than snippets of information that the documentation included on the Macintosh, supplemented by the online help system is quite robust.  As I have not seen or tried to read either the help system that comes with OSX or checked into the online documentation either, I cannot make an informed comment.  I will, however, state that one man’s “robust” might be another’s “snippet” when neither Jay nor anonymous provides a baseline standard for screen reader documentation.  I’ll put this criticism into the category of subjectivity rather than fact.

Our critic writes, “The equivalent of the Windows desktop on Apple computer is, of course, the Mac OS Desktop.  For users migrating from Windows, Apple has good material describing What’s What, What’s Where.
There is readily available information about the OS X Desktop and Dock.

“The Dock doesn’t have a close analogy in Windows, but it might be considered as analogous to a hybrid between the Windows Task Bar and Start Menu.”  In response to Jay’s statement, “The equivalent of the Windows desktop on Apple computers is the Dock.”  I don’t know the Macintosh well enough to make any comment on this.  Perhaps, I should visit the Apple salon store over in Tampa and learn a bit more.

The web page criticizing Jay’s article quotes Access World as saying, ” This editor [TextEdit] does not include a spell checker or other advanced word-processing functions,” and then goes onto list a number of very advanced word processing features, including spell checking.  As I have quoted Jay in BC when commenting on VoiceOver not supporting a word processor with a spell checker, I must retract my earlier statements as it sounds as if both Jay and I are incorrect in our assertions.  I’m curious, though, does VoiceOver make using the spell checker convenient enough so as to be obvious, like the way JAWS or Window-Eyes do with MS Word, or does it require some sort of convoluted procedure to access it?

Bruce Bailey, aka anonymous, has a very nice collection of pointers to articles about the Macintosh VoiceOver screen reader that you can get to by backspacing over the end of the URL posted in yesterday’s comment.  Bruce is definitely a smart guy and his web site contains a lot of compelling reasons to take a look at the Mac but probably not enough to cause one to run out and buy one.

As for the criticism of Jay’s review, I find that the question of the spell checker existing or not falls solidly into the important category.  I would describe most of the other points, though, as either subjective (in the case of the documentation question) or editorial sloppiness which is rare for Jay but certainly should be noted as it can cause a bit of confusion.

Why do I hold Apple to a higher standard than other companies who make portable media players?

I know that few marketing materials actually tell the whole truth and that even fewer mission statements and corporate images have any basis in reality but Apple has always gone far out of its way to describe its products as the most inclusionary and easy to use.  They have done everything to promote their “outsider” image from having their CEO appear barefoot at COMDEX to suggesting that their computers had so much power that they might actually be weapons.

I don’t fall into the category of the naïve, I don’t believe in either Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny so why do I occasionally fall for Apple’s hype?  

The original Macintosh slogan, perhaps one of the greatest piles of horse manure in history, described the lunchbox computer as, “The computer for the rest of us.”  In fact, a slogan like, “The computer for the best of us,” would suit it better.  Back then, the under-powered, tiny screen, low memory device cost twice what one would pay for a name brand DOS machine and had fewer than a quarter of the applications.  As John Dvorak described it in a PC magazine article back in the eighties, “It’s a yuppie machine, a closed box easy to use computer for dopes.”

The old Apple II machines had provided us hacker types with a dream machine.  We could bring it home, rip off its skin, design and install our own wire wrapped boards that could do everything from really high resolution graphics to speech synthesis.  Then came the Mac, an entirely closed system.  We couldn’t get at the OS and the Andy Herzfeld, ROM QuickDraw primitives were hidden from us.  Clearly, Apple had introduced a computer for the elite.

Meanwhile, Big Blue, the Big Brother of the 1984 Apple Super Bowl advertisements, provided us with a completely open system; we could replace interrupts at will, easily disassemble the BIOS and make incredible hardware and software hacks which, ultimately, led to its dominance.  Apple took the hackers out of the picture so only programmers who liked following rules could write software for it.  JAWS for DOS, Vocal-Eyes and all of the other screen readers that blinks could use to do jobs, get educations and learn their own way to hack had become impossible on an Apple platform.

Over the years, Apple has continued to promote its outsider image and, to me, most offensive of all was its advertising campaign that exploited true iconoclasts who dedicated and, in some cases lost, their lives to breaking down barriers and working toward a more inclusive world.  Gandhi, John Lennon, Martin and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, all appear in relatively recent Apple advertisements.  I wonder why they didn’t choose to include Helen Keller or Stevie Wonder to promote their products?


Beating up Apple two days in a row makes me nostalgic for the old days of hanging around the AI lab.  We’d have all sorts of take out from restaurants specializing in foods from around the globe.  The Free Software/Project Gnu/League for Programming Freedom gang, rms, wojo, mmm, hack, bfox, sgs, gsz, gjs, cdh and so many others would sit around the ninth floor play room, chowing on global cuisine, guzzling Cokes and green tea and talking about the information anarchism for which we all stood.

Richard Stallman, the effective founder of the free software/open source movement, the author of the GPL and emacs itself, still stands for everything we believed in.  I don’t know where most of the others went, I write these articles and work on technologies for us blinks and, while I still hold patent free software covered by GPL as the ideal, I put breaking barriers for blind people first.  My free software ideals have definitely been compromised to my ambitions of fighting the techno-discrimination against people with vision impairments.  I sure do miss those wild days when IP law was still up for grabs and we didn’t need make such compromises.  

Remember, it was Woz who “liberated” the source code to Bill Gates’ BASIC interpreter and published it in issue one of Dr. Dobbs Journal.  Boy, those Apple guys have come a long way since then.

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

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