No Free Lunch: Microsoft Fumbles the Patent Ball

Microsoft has coupled royalty-free licensing with its Office XML schema patent filings, but the move may turn out to be very expensive indeed.

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