No Free Lunch: Microsoft Fumbles the Patent Ball

By Steve Gillmor  |  Posted 2004-01-30

No Free Lunch: Microsoft Fumbles the Patent Ball

Microsofts decision to drop the other shoe on Office 2003s XML schemas may come back to haunt it. News reports of patent filings with New Zealand and the European Union triggered fears that third-party vendors would be prevented from accessing Office documents without licensing the new formats.

According to a reply from Mark Martin of Microsofts PR firm to San Jose Mercury News columnist (and smarter younger brother) Dan Gillmor, "Microsoft filed for a patent in New Zealand (#525484) and that patent application covers a software innovation that relies in part on XML."

And later, "The presence of this patent application in New Zealand does nothing to change the commitment Microsoft made this past November when it announced the [availability] of a royalty-free licensing program for our Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas." A November 2003 press release dryly notes, "The initiative came about after fruitful discussions with the Danish Government."

Its no coincidence that Microsoft announced the "opening" of the Office Schema licenses at a time when the software giant is under pressure to settle the six-year antitrust probe by the European Union. And just as with its DRM licensing, just because its free now doesnt mean it will continue to be down the road once market share reaches a dominant position.

But getting to 90 percent share or greater —as Microsoft did with Windows, Office and Internet Explorer—will not be as easy this time. Oddly, Redmond seems blinded to the reality of the new Web operating system, where technologies such as RSS are pushing the marketplace toward small XML fragments called micro-content and away from bulky Word documents.

Part of the problem is of Microsofts own making. The companys reluctance to cannibalize the Office file formats has slowed down Outlooks move to an XML underpinning. For years now, Outlooks XML object model has trailed other Office apps. Luckily for Redmond, office suite competitors such as Lotus and Novell imploded at the same time. Even now, Suns OpenOffice has cloned the Microsoft hairball rather than producing micro-content objects that could be stitched together to create the same kind of rich compound documents.

Next page: Living in the Micro-Content World

Living in the Micro

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In a micro-content world, business documents are broken down into their constituent elements: notification, transaction, context, priority and lifetime. IM traffic, Weblog posts, breaking news, appointments, alerts and good old e-mail comprise a dominant percentage of micro-content traffic. Managing the real-time flow of information becomes Job One, followed closely by archiving and publishing snapshots of the data as "documents."

The traditional productivity applications become rendering engines for various end-stage documents. Word produces spell-checked, formatted pages; Excel produces reports, charts and graphs; PowerPoint produces presentations. In its current incarnation, Outlook renders messages. FrontPage—well, FrontPage is being sunsetted by Weblog-authoring tools.

To be sure, Microsoft can take comfort in its strategy of waiting for the competition to do the R&D and then swooping in when the market is primed. Micro-content authoring tools are in their infancy, held back by the lack of resources in mom-and-pop RSS aggregator shops. But the patent filings are giving companies such as Apple and Sun time to seed their platforms with common services that can be bootstrapped by small ISVs.

With e-mail attacks becoming the norm, Microsoft shops must devote more and more cycles to combating the enterprise effects of network slowdowns; unreliable communications; and loss of strategic data to uncaptured channels such as IM, voice and Hotmail back channels.

Thats why social software spaces and link cosmos engines such as Technorati are becoming mission-critical repositories for maintaining secure communications. As RSS information routers reach the critical mass of persistent, searchable storage, feed-tunable preferences, embedded browser rendering, and attention data mining, the motivation to store data in licensed document silos will flatline.

Remember: Microsoft is competing in the micro-content space with the one non-renewable resource: time. Nowhere in the real-time space does it have dominant market share—not in IM, not in RSS, not in search. If it places its chips on Word, its competing not just against micro-content, but against its own installed base.

There are some signs that Gates gets it: hiring Wiki inventor Ward Cunningham, incorporating some OneNote technology into the next Mac Office release and even floating a rumor that he will start an internal blog. But Longhorn still reminds me of the Las Vegas skyline, where objects appear a lot closer than they really are.

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