In January 2019, Kosta Eleftheriou had every reason to believe Apple was about to make a deal, his lawsuit alleges. Apple’s head of keyboards loved his FlickType keyboard app for the Apple Watch, gushing over how few mistakes it made. “Apple should buy this from you,” the man exclaimed, saying it “could be a key feature for the watch.” He demoed it for the Apple Watch team on January 24th, where a senior engineer allegedly gushed too.
That evening, Eleftheriou received a message from Apple, but not the one he expected. In the course of one 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 will be removed from sale on the App Store at this time,” Apple wrote.
This Tuesday, Apple revealed its own swipe keyboard app alongside the new Apple Watch Series 7.
Eleftheriou had been Sherlocked.
He’s 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 famously copied a lot of features from the third-party Watson app over to its Sherlock desktop search tool 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 deserve the functionality for free — and not just because Apple’s making users pay for a new Watch to get it. When Apple blocked his app two years ago and continued to tussle with him over updates, the company made an enemy of Eleftheriou. He’s become one of Apple’s most vocal critics, developing a reputation as a scam hunter. He continually and effectively points out that Apple is terrible at keeping out frauds which bilk ordinary users out of outrageous sums of money.
In March, he filed a lawsuit against the company over his app, alleging that the company continued to reject and hold up his Apple Watch keyboard for months in an attempt to force him to sell it to Apple for cheap. “Evidently, Apple thought Plaintiff would simply give up and sell its application to Apple at a discount,” the complaint reads.
Here’s the part where you might be thinking: “Wait, didn’t Apple ban every keyboard app for the Apple Watch back in 2019?” or “Didn’t Eleftheriou just tweet that rejection message and say ‘see you in court’ a couple days ago?”
The timeline’s a little confusing, it’s true.
Yes, Eleftheriou filed his suit nearly six full months before the Apple Watch Series 7 announcement. It’s not clear what impact the Sherlocking might have on the suit, and he won’t say. His lawyers are advising him against saying too much to journalists.
But no, Apple didn’t actually reject every Apple Watch keyboard app in 2019 — Eleftheriou believes his app was singled out for this treatment. Shift Keyboard had already arrived in February 2019, and even partner apps that included Eleftheriou’s keyboard tech (the complaint names Nano for Reddit, Chirp for Twitter and Lens for Instagram) allegedly made it through.
Apple tells The Verge it changed its mind over time. Originally, the company didn’t think it was appropriate for a keyboard to take up the entirety of the Apple Watch’s small screen, but decided differently in 2019 after it saw the potential and says it’s encouraged Apple Watch keyboards ever since. The company basically admits that removing Eleftheriou’s app was a mistake, and claims it quickly corrected the issue.
But Eleftheriou disputes that last point, saying it took a year of appeals and resubmissions to get his keyboard back onto the store. “From [January 2019] on, I was simultaneously discussing a FlickType acquisition with them, while also being rejected,” he tells me. And Apple initially made it look like those appeals failed, too. “The App Review Board evaluated your app and determined that the original rejection feedback is valid. Please note that all appeal results are final,” reads Eleftheriou from a message he received in May 2019.
In the complaint, he alleges it wasn’t until January 2020, a year after the surprise takedown, that his Apple Watch keyboard extension was approved. When FlickType for Apple Watch did finally arrive, it became the number one paid app in the entire store, pulled in $130,000 in its first month, he claims, and was named one of Apple’s top paid apps of 2020. That’s what he’s using as grounds that he’s been financially harmed in the lawsuit.
Not that he’s necessarily too worried about finances right now. “The FlickType income, yeah, I do expect it to eventually disappear given that the functionality will now be built-in,” he says, casually. “I don’t have a day job, but yeah 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 roughly five years ago. (Microsoft bought keyboard app SwiftKey for roughly $250 million just months earlier.)
Eleftheriou says FlickType has “mostly been a hobby,” but his other hobby — hunting down scam apps and calling out the App Store’s failings — stems from this whole situation, too. He was fed up watching competing apps thrive, including scams, after his own had been blocked by App Review.
And last month, Eleftheriou publicly gave up on his popular iPhone keyboard extension for the blind after one too many rejections, due to what he describes as the latest misunderstanding by Apple’s App Review team of how his app (and the company’s own VoiceOver screen reader technology) are supposed to work.
It's with a heavy heart today that we're announcing the discontinuation of our award-winning iPhone keyboard for blind users.— FlickType Watch Keyboard (@FlickType) August 16, 2021
Apple has thrown us obstacle after obstacle for years while we try to provide an app to improve people's lives, and we can no longer endure their abuse. pic.twitter.com/cH1HCQzeP1
“Our rejection history already spans more than FOURTY [sic] pages filled with repeated, unwarranted, & unreasonable rejections that serve to frustrate & delay rather than benefit end-users. And dealing with App Review isn’t just time-consuming. It’s also very emotionally draining,” he wrote at the time.
Apple effectively tells me this, too, was a mistake on its part. The company says it now realizes the keyboard does in fact comply with its guidelines, has explained that to Eleftheriou several times, and has repeatedly encouraged him to submit the app again. Apple would prefer that he doesn’t take it away.
But Eleftheriou says he’s had enough. Here’s the statement he sent me:
I will be delighted to bring back the accessible FlickType Keyboard for iPhone when Apple finally fixes their broken 3rd-party keyboard APIs on iOS and allows developers to fairly compete with Apple’s own keyboard. They must also ensure that every single reviewer has basic VoiceOver training - we keep getting rejections due to reviewers not knowing or even understanding how to use VoiceOver.
I’ve already poured thousands of hours developing my app, working around countless keyboard API issues and dealing with app review, so I’m really looking forward to Apple’s improvements and will promptly re-submit the FlickType VoiceOver keyboard when sufficient progress has been made in these areas.
As a separate note, I’m also calling on Apple to allow developers to access their own rejection history. Apple currently hides this from developers and even refuses to provide it upon request. It’s unacceptable that Apple will send us rejection messages that disappear shortly after, with no way to access them ever again.
He’s particularly annoyed with how Apple’s own keyboard has an unfair advantage since it doesn’t need to use its own APIs, and how those APIs are lacking 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 on the store. He submitted a new version that removes the extension, one that’s currently pending with Apple’s App Review.
For now, Eleftheriou is going to take his keyboard and go home.