Collateral Damage in the SmartPhone Wars: A real concern for People with Disabilities

Collateral Damage in the SmartPhone Wars: A real concern for People with Disabilities

Can Accessibility become a Casualty of War as the battle between Apple and Samsung rages on?

Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy S3
Smartphones: Can you tell the difference?

The new tech war between Apple and Samsung entered a new sphere of operations recently when a German Court Judge ordered the suspension of an injunction that argued that Apple’s VoiceOver screen-access facility infringed one of Samsung’s patents.

In looking more closely at the background to this case, it is clear that Samsung and Apple appear happy to rage through international courts to score points against each other.  Over the past two years industry observers have been witness to  the intensifying competition between two of the world’s two largest SmartPhone manufacturers that has now seen them go head to head in courts across the world over patents and copyright infringements.

It appears now, that both tech giants are happy to go head to head without particular attention to or consideration for users of their respective phones.  This may have always been the case, as gaining a market share by any means possible appears to appeal to those in the Boardrooms of large corporations if not to the general ordinary user.  Previous rulings have resulted in an Australian court temporarily banning the sale of Samsung’s iPad alternative the Galaxy Tab agreeing that the Korean product infringes an Apple patent.  Apple has also managed to win similar injunctions against some Samsung products in Germany and the Netherlands, and continues to seek ways of blocking sales of Samsung models in the United States.  Although Apple appear to be winning the current battles, it would appear that this war is not over yet.

A comprehensive detailing of the ongoing issues have been well documented online, but until now most of us in the Assistive Technology industry probably only paid scant attention.

The latest in their disagreements has however, brought it home to us how we have come to depend on these so called Tech Giants to ensure accessibility for consumers with disabilities.

Access to mainstream technology has long been the desire of the majority of us working in the domain of Assistive Technology, encouraging manufacturers to incorporate accessible solutions and to design products with Universality in mind can and does provide equity of access for many consumers with a disability.

People with a Disability have been at the forefront of promoting the additional accessibility and or functionality offered to them on new Smartphones.   Many of the tech-reviews and related blogs have heralded one new accessibility measure after another and have created a healthy debate about the relative merits of the Apple OS and Android OS in terms of what they offer users with different abilities.

In particular, operating system additions such as VoiceOver on iPhone suddenly made some of the most desirable technology on the market accessible for people who have vision impairments.

We at Mada have observed a massive take up in Smartphones by the Blind and Visually Impaired Community in Qatar following the release of Voice Over in Arabic.  This has to be a good thing not just for People with Vision Impairments but also for Smartphone manufacturers.  The massive increase in uptake of these devices must surely include first time smartphone purchasers who have disabilities.

The last thing that People with a Disability need right now is their faith in technology manufacturers to be eroded further living in fear that the technology that makes Smartphones usable might be taken away.

The latest dispute between Apple and Samsung has been over arguments about patents that relate directly to Mobile Device Accessibility.  In the proceedings recently heard by a German court, Samsung argues that the VoiceOver screen access technology directly violated one of its patents pertaining to screen data. To summarize a very complex set or legal arguments, it appears that Samsung are in possession of a patent that allows mobile devices to read text aloud to their users with the press of a button.  The company further asserted that Apple’s VoiceOver solution designed to make the Apple iOS accessible for people with vision impairment infringed their patent.

In the past companies have argued about financial compensation in such cases, what made this particular spat so worrying was that Samsung appear to have sought a ruling that would effectively have prevented Apple from providing the VoiceOver functionality on their phones, thereby making the phones inaccessible for blind or visually impaired users and also making it more difficult for dyslexic users.

For those intrigues by the details of this case, patent consultant Florian Muller presents a detailed overview on his blog.

It has to be a worrying development that companies are ready to deny access to not only competitor technology, but by extension access to the information or knowledge society in an effort to score points and potentially gain a short term increase in market share.

Let us hope that the judiciary and courts across the world continue, as in this recent case, to see sense and to ensure that people with a disability do not become casualties in a Smartphone war that appears to care little about consumers.