For today's chapter on the ongoing software patent debacle, let us have a
look at Apple's
patent application #981993
. This application, filed in November,
2004, has to do with providing an audio interface to a computing device.
In particular, claim 1 reads:
A method for providing an audible user interface for a user of a
computing device, the method comprising: receiving a selection of a
user interface control on the computing device; selecting an audio
file associated with the selected user interface control; and
playing the selected audio file at the computing device such that
an audio prompt is audiblized for the user, the audio prompt
describing the selected user interface control or a displayed user
interface item corresponding to the selected user interface
The additional, dependent claims make this technology more specific to
media players in particular. There is another independent claim which
reads like this:
A method for creating an audio file at a host computer system, the
method comprising: receiving a text string at a text to speech
conversion engine; creating an audio file based upon the text
string; and associating the audio file to a media file.
Numerous other claims assert ownership over various combinations of the two
above techniques. In summary, what Apple is claiming is the ability to
create voice files for a media player device, load them onto that device,
and have the device play those files in response to user actions.
This patent would appear to cover a relatively obvious technology.
Speaking computers are not particularly new; corporate voice mail systems
have operated in this way for quite some time. Experience shows, however,
that this sort of prior art often carries little weight in the patent
office. Unless something happens, the chances of Apple winning this patent
would appear to be fairly good.
The Rockbox project has produced a
GPL-licensed firmware distribution which runs on a wide variety of media
players from a
number of vendors - including Apple. Rockbox adds a number of interesting
and useful features; see this LWN
review from last January for more information. One feature of
particular interest at the moment, however, is the voice interface
capabilities built into Rockbox. This feature would appear to be well
described by the Apple patent application; it uses voice files generated on
a host system to allow navigation through the menus in an audible manner.
When the voice mode is enabled, Rockbox's prompts are indeed "audiblized"
for the users.
Rockbox has had this feature since early 2004. That is prior to the filing
of this patent (though not the requisite one year prior), but Apple's
application references an earlier one, filed in 2003. So Rockbox cannot
serve as prior art in this case.
One of the most encouraging and heartening things your editor has seen over
the last year has been the stream of blind users showing up on the Rockbox
mailing lists. By making this feature available, Rockbox has made media
players accessible to a broad community of users who have been ignored by
the manufacturers of these devices. It is a beautiful example of how the
free software community can meet the needs of a user community which is not
seen as being profitable in the proprietary world. Apple may have been
busy filing patents back in 2003, but it was Rockbox which first brought a
voice interface to the iPod.
The voice menu feature in Rockbox has been an empowering addition for a
number of people. The idea that it could be shut down by this patent is
appalling. But Apple will have a clear incentive to do exactly that:
Rockbox turns the competition's players into much nicer devices. Should
Apple's near-monopoly on media players begin to erode (and there is no real
reason why it should last forever), Apple will, beyond doubt, reach for
legal weapons which might inhibit competing offerings. Apple has done that
before, after all.
This particular weapon should be neutralized before it becomes a real
threat. It is a fight which should be winnable - the idea of an audio
interface was not first conceived in 2003. But without some determined
resistance, Apple may well obtain the patent it is asking for. At that
point, the free software community will (in the U.S., at least) be fenced
out of an area which it explored before - and better than - anybody else.
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