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Apple accused of unfairly banishing Watch keyboard app for the visually impaired from its software souk

FlickType claims it's being squeezed to force an acquisition

A tiny startup that develops virtual keyboards for the visually impaired has accused Apple of unfair competition and negligence by booting its software out of the App Store.

Kosta and Ashley Eleftheriou, the couple behind FlickType – an application that allows Apple Watch users to easily type by swiping across the screen – claimed Apple refused to publish their software while it continued to host and promote their competitors in the souk.

It all started going downhill after Apple expressed an interest in acquiring FlickType’s technology, according to the couple's lawsuit [PDF] filed in a California superior court in Santa Clara.

In 2018, the couple, operating as a business named KPAW, submitted FlickType to Apple to review and it was accepted into the App Store. The software was aimed at iPhone users, and the Eleftherious soon made it compatible with the Apple Watch. A year later, it caught the attention of Randy Marsden, the manager of Apple’s Text Input Special Projects team, we're told. In a meeting, Marsden said FlickType “could be a key feature for the Watch," and later said “Apple should buy this from you” and that he hoped the deal “[was] not going to be too expensive,” it is claimed.

But after Marsden floated FlickType to his bosses, the pair’s app was kicked out of the App Store, and subsequent updates rejected, it is said. “Upon re-evaluation, we found that your app is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines ... Specifically, the app is a keyboard for Apple Watch. For this reason, your app will be removed from sale on the App Store at this time,” the couple said they were told by Cupertino.

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The Eleftherious argued the move was unfair since similar apps, such as the Shift Keyboard, which allows Apple Watch users to use an alternative on-screen keyboard, was approved. “After Apple failed to acquire [KPAW's] application for Apple’s own exploitation, Plaintiff struggled to bring its revolutionary texting technology to market on Apple’s App Store because Apple threw up roadblock after roadblock that made no sense," the lawsuit states. "Evidently, Apple thought Plaintiff would simply give up and sell its application to Apple at a discount. Instead, Plaintiff drove on."

The couple also claimed that while Apple suppressed FlickType’s software, the Silicon Valley giant unfairly boosted its rivals. Copycat apps rose up the ranks of the App Store after they allegedly submitted fake reviews to game the system. FlickType’s creators said they complained, and Apple turned a blind eye.

“Apple’s wrongful rejections had already cost Plaintiff over a year of revenue,” the lawsuit states. Fed up, the pair decided to sue the iPhone maker, and wants it to pay unspecified damages to recoup its losses. Apple will have 30 days to respond once the case is processed and the complaint is served.

The backlash against Apple's strict App Store rules is growing. The tech giant primarily faces an anti-competitive lawsuit from Epic, and is under investigation for potentially violating antitrust laws in the UK. The US state of Arizona is considering legislation to prevent Apple from taking a cut from in-app purchases.

Apple was not immediately available for comment. ®

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