The bitter lawsuit hanging over the Apple Watch’s new swipe keyboard

In January 2019, Kosta Eleftheriou had every reason to believe Apple was about to close a deal, his lawsuit alleges. Apple’s head of keyboards loved its FlickType keyboard app for the Apple Watch, gushing about how few mistakes it made. “Apple should buy this from you,” the man exclaimed, saying it “could be an important feature for the watch.” He demonstrated it for the Apple Watch team on January 24, where a senior engineer is reportedly also coming out.

That evening, Eleftheriou received a message from Apple, but not the message he expected. Over the course of an afternoon, the company had seemingly decided that Apple Watch keyboards were against the rules. “Specifically, the app is a keyboard for Apple Watch. For this reason, your app is currently being discontinued from the App Store,” Apple wrote.

This Tuesday, Apple unveiled its own swipe keyboard app alongside the new Apple Watch Series 7.

Eleftheriou was Sherlocked.

He is far from the first. Apple has a long history of looking to its own app developers for inspiration, copying their ideas and integrating them into its own operating systems for free. (It’s called “Sherlocking” because Apple copied many features from the third-party Watson app to its Sherlock desktop search engine in 2002; here are some more recent examples.)

But this isn’t your typical case of whether a developer should be entitled to their income or whether users earn the functionality for free – and not just because Apple makes users pay for a new Watch to get it. When Apple blocked its app two years ago and kept bickering with it about updates, the company made an enemy of Eleftheriou. He has become one of Apple’s most outspoken critics and has built a reputation as a scam hunter. He constantly and effectively points out that Apple is bad at keeping fraud out, leaving ordinary users with exorbitant sums of money.

In March, he filed a lawsuit against the company over its app, claiming that the company continued to refuse and hold up its Apple Watch keyboard for months in an attempt to force it to sell it cheaply to Apple. “Clearly Apple thought that Plaintiff would simply give up and sell his application to Apple at a discount,” the indictment said.

This is the part where you might think, “Wait, hasn’t Apple banned every keyboard app for the Apple Watch in 2019?” or “Didn’t Eleftheriou just tweet that rejection message and say ‘goodbye in court’ a few days ago?”

The timeline is a bit confusing, it’s true.

Yes, Eleftheriou filed his lawsuit nearly six full months before the Apple Watch Series 7 announcement. It’s not clear what impact the Sherlocking could have on the suit, and he won’t say. His lawyers advise against saying too much to journalists.

But no, Apple didn’t turn down every Apple Watch keyboard app in 2019 — Eleftheriou believes its app was picked for this treatment. shift keyboard had already arrived in February 2019, and even partner apps featuring Eleftheriou’s keyboard technology (the complaint names Nano for Reddit, Chirp for Twitter, and Lens for Instagram) are said to have made it.

Apple tells The edge it changed its mind over time. Originally, the company didn’t think it was appropriate for a keyboard to take up the very small screen of the Apple Watch, but decided differently in 2019 after seeing the potential, saying it’s been encouraging Apple Watch keyboards ever since. In fact, the company admits that removing Eleftheriou’s app was a mistake and claims that it quickly fixed the problem.

But Eleftheriou disputes that last point, saying it took a year of appeals and resubmissions to get his keyboard back in the shop. “By [January 2019] on, I discussed a FlickType acquisition with them at the same time, while I was also rejected,” he tells me. And Apple initially made it seem like those appeals failed as well.” The App Review Board reviewed your app and determined that the original rejection feedback Please note that all results of the appeal are final,” reads Eleftheriou from a message he received in May 2019.

In the complaint, he claims that his Apple Watch extension was not approved until January 2020, a year later. When FlickType for Apple Watch finally arrived, it became the number one paid app in the entire store, raking in $130,000 in its first month, he claims, and was named one of Apple’s highest paid apps of 2020. That’s what he uses as the reason he was financially disadvantaged in the lawsuit.

Not that he’s necessarily too worried about finances right now. “The FlickType income, yes, I expect it will eventually go away as the functionality is now built in,” he says casually. “I don’t have a day job, but hey, this isn’t a big financial problem for me,” he adds when I ask. I wonder if he made good money when he sold his keyboard company Fleksy to Pinterest about five years ago. (Microsoft bought the keyboard app SwiftKey for about $250 million a few months earlier.)

Eleftheriou says FlickType has “mainly been a hobby,” but his other hobby — spotting scam apps and exposing the App Store’s shortcomings — also stems from this whole situation. He was fed up watching competing apps thrive, including scams, after his own apps were blocked by App Review.

And last month, Eleftheriou publicly gave up its popular iPhone keyboard extension for the blind after one too many rejections, over what he describes as Apple’s App Review team’s latest misunderstanding about how its app (and the company’s own VoiceOver screen reader technology) works. should work.

“Our rejection history spans more than FOURT [sic] pages full of repeated, unwarranted and unreasonable rejections that frustrate and delay end users rather than benefit. And dealing with App Review isn’t just time consuming. It’s also very emotionally draining,” he wrote at the time.

In fact, Apple tells me that this was a mistake on its part as well. The company now says it realizes that the keyboard does indeed meet the guidelines, has explained this to Eleftheriou several times and has repeatedly encouraged him to resubmit the app. Apple would rather he didn’t take it away.

But Eleftheriou says he’s had enough. This is the statement he sent me:

I’ll be happy to bring back the accessible FlickType keyboard for iPhone when Apple finally fixes their broken third-party keyboard APIs on iOS and allows developers to compete fairly with Apple’s own keyboard. They also need to make sure every reviewer gets basic VoiceOver training – we keep getting rejections because reviewers don’t know or don’t even understand how to use VoiceOver.

I’ve spent thousands of hours developing my app, working around numerous keyboard API issues, and dealing with app reviews, so I’m really looking forward to Apple’s improvements and will resubmit the FlickType VoiceOver keyboard immediately if sufficient progress has been made in these areas.

As a separate note, I also call on Apple to allow developers to access their own rejection history. Apple is currently hiding this from developers and even refusing to provide it upon request. It’s unacceptable for Apple to send us rejection messages that disappear shortly after, without us ever being able to access them again.

He is particularly annoyed by the fact that Apple’s own keyboard has an unfair advantage because it doesn’t have to use its own APIs, and how those APIs lack features. that Apple publicly promised years ago.

Technically, Eleftheriou is the one making the iPhone keyboard extension disappear, not Apple. It still exists in the current version in the store. He submitted a new version that removes the extension, a version currently pending with Apple’s App Review.

For now, Eleftheriou takes his keyboard and goes home.