iA Writer Pro’s Patent Debacle

Last week, Oliver Reichenstein from iA — makers of iA Writer, a popular, lovely Mac app for writing Markdown text — made some comments on Twitter implying that he would go after other text editors for copying the signature “Syntax Control” feature in the new Pro edition of the app.

In retrospect, I can’t understand what Oliver Reichenstein et al were thinking by blowing all manner of patent-related smoke w/r/t Syntax Control. The nature of the tech in question, and the weakness of the patent filing itself, leads me to question how well iA understand how patents even work. A provisional patent application is not a patent filing, which is absolutely not a patent. Only the last one is actually enforceable. What they said/did was sort of like laying fresh milk, eggs, and sugar on the table and expecting us all to ooh and ahh over the soufflé they planned to make.

To me, the specific words Reichenstein used in his vaguely threatening tweets were reminiscent of the ones Steve Jobs used when introducing the first iPhone and its then-revolutionary multi-touch technology: “boy, have we patented it!” Not to mention all the statements Apple, Jobs, and Tim Cook have made over the years about Google and what Apple perceives as stolen ideas in Android. Reichenstein’s passionate, somewhat folksy threats in defense of Syntax Control sound a lot like the way Apple has defended iPhone and iOS, but there are a couple of key differences:

First, with the possible exception of that very first statement at Macworld, Apple’s threats weren’t speculative — they were in reaction to competitors actually trying to copy the iPhone and iPad, and successfully copying the Mac before that. iA’s closest precedent for being so worried about copycats was being one of the first “distraction-less” iPad text editors, but even that is pretty silly. WriteRoom beat them to market on the Mac by a few years, and that doesn’t count modal text editors like Vim or Emacs that beat them by decades. Any claim they think they might have to a text-editing environment that fills a whole computer screen is ridiculous, and also implies a lack of understanding of how patents and prior art work.

Second, when Apple makes patent threats, those threats are backed up by the company having a shit ton of lawyers. A company at Apple’s scale may have dozens or even hundreds of in-house patent lawyers, and/or employ multiple huge outside law firms that specialize in getting, defending, and enforcing patents. Apple has these lawyers because patent law is arcane and complicated, in the U.S. it’s handled in the federal court system, and both of these make it very expensive to deal with. I don’t know how many lawyers iA has, but it’s probably not as many as Apple (or any large company) has. It’s probably not even as many as a typical zero-employee patent troll has. Not only were iA’s provisional “patents” not real patents, but iA seems unlikely to ever have the legal or financial resources to effectively defend those patents if they were ever granted.

It’s not about the patents

Working now for a large company like Adobe — and now having a patent pending myself for some work that isn’t yet in a shipping product — I’m not as secure in my beliefs about the patent system as I used to be. There are clearly software and business-method patents that should never have been granted, and there are clearly bad actors who’ve abused the system to terrorize and extort money from small businesses in a way that should be abhorrent to anyone. On the other hand, patents are how Eli Whitney was able to prosper from his development of the cotton gin. When they cover a genuine innovation, the point of patents isn’t to lock up technology, it’s to codify it and make it possible to share without sacrificing ownership. The world is a lot more complicated now, and it’s possible that there is no way to modernize the patent system without creating tons of new problems. I’m just saying: I don’t feel ready to say it should be abolished, or that anyone who files for a patent is evil.

I’m also saying that, in this case, the patents are beside the point. They’re a MacGuffin. Given the weakness of the patent claims, I don’t think it’s worth considering whether iA could ever truly become a patent troll. They couldn’t, and would have made poor fools of themselves trying. First by losing customers and reputation from this mess, then by wasting time and money on defending their IP instead of making good products for their loyal customers.

This story reminds me of startup CEOs and other tech folks who think they’ll find success by emulating Steve Jobs, and that the part of him to emulate to to behave terribly toward other people. Yes, Steve Jobs passionately believed in Apple’s right to profit from their innovations, and threatened “thermonuclear war” against Google and Android when he thought those innovations had been copied. But they had been copied, and he had the ammunition to fight that war. His statements were bold, but consistent with reality, and therefore it wasn’t foolish for him to put his own reputation behind those statements. Besides, he was Steve Jobs.

iA’s patent “threats” were never realistic, and their “innovations” are, well, weak. When the iPhone and multi-touch were unveiled in 2007, I immediately knew how they would change my daily life. At best Syntax Control seems kinda cool, but I have no idea what I would use it for. That’s not to say it’s a bad feature, it’s just not as groundbreaking and important as multi-touch, which is only a bad thing given how much iA has staked their reputation on it being the greatest change to editing text on computers since the keyboard.

The customer is always the hero

This is less about patents than about PR, and a company making themselves the heroes of their story at the expense of their customers and peers. Nobody cares about whether iA can patent Syntax Control or not. That feature being a Writer Pro exclusive is nice; a patent is just one means of ensuring and implementing exclusivity. But exclusivity is really hard to truly enforce, and really, who cares? What matters is what the app can do, and whether it does it better than other apps. That’s the story worth telling.

iA dropped that in favor of a story about themselves, and how hard it was to do their job. Nobody ever wants to hear about how hard something was, until after they’ve been dazzled by how easy you made it look. (And really, even then, it’s better to be the guy who can make the impossible seem effortless than the guy who works really hard for something that doesn’t seem that difficult.)

For me, iA’s sin here wasn’t that they used the evil p-word. It’s that the story of their product isn’t about me, the user. The fact that it was all for nothing — and that the company bet their name on a patent system they may not even understand — leaves me doubting not only their commitment to serving my writing needs, but also their competence at running a software company.