The ramifications of the $521 million verdict against Microsoft Corp. in a Web browser-technology patent-infringement case could extend far beyond the Redmond, Wash., software makers bottom line and features within its Internet Explorer browser.
The attorney for Eolas Technologies Inc., the company that (along with the University of California) sued Microsoft, says the technology is so core to the operation of the Web that all browser developers need to be on guard.
But analysts say that the major vendors making or redistributing Web browsers have the most to worry about, not open-source Web browsers such as Mozilla.
“Anybody in the browser field that studies the technology will see that its a very fundamental and basic patent to the World Wide Web,” said Martin R. Lueck of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi LLP, of Minneapolis. “Each browser manufacturer needs to look at what theyre doing and if theyre operating within the scope of the claims.”
Eolas, of Chicago, claimed that Microsoft infringed on its patent for technology that allows interactive applications such as “plug-ins” and “applets” to be embedded in Web pages, a move that Eolas says helped Microsoft gain market share from Netscape Navigator. Microsoft has disputed the claims and has promised to appeal verdict handed down by a federal jury earlier this month.
While the technology may be central to almost all browsers, open-source Web browsers are an unlikely target, since that their development is often based on loosely connected volunteers and make little, if any, money, said Michael Gartenberg, research director at Jupiter Research, in New York.
“Who are you going to sue in the open-source community, and if you do sue, who are you going to get money from?” he asked. “One reason (Eolas) went after Microsoft is because Microsoft had deep enough pockets to make a suit interesting.”
Lueck, who declined to comment on whether Eolas plans any further patent-infringement lawsuits, agrees that Microsoft was the most logical target since Internet Explorer so dominates the market.
“Eolas is a small company, and it has been taking on the worlds largest software company, and thats been enough of a task the last four years,” Lueck said.
Eolas, which filed its suit against Microsoft in 1999, is a one-man company—former University of California researcher Michael Doyle, who co-developed the technology in the patent.
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Web browser developers and other vendors were mum for now on the impact of the verdict on their development efforts. Apple Computer Inc., whose Safari Web browser is based on the KHTML open-source engine, declined to discuss the lawsuit, and Hewlett-Packard Co., which distributes the Mozilla browser in its HP-UX operating system, didnt return multiple requests for comment.
Opera Software, which has both a free and paid version of its competitor to Internet Explorer, said it was looking into the lawsuit.
Mitchell Baker, president of The Mozilla Foundation, said in a statement: “We are looking into the Eolas issue but havent come to any conclusion yet.”
One reason for the silence and uncertainty is Microsofts promised appeal of the case. The appeal itself is likely to take another 18 months, Lueck said. Gartenberg said that will stall any immediate effect, such as changes in planned Web browser development.
“A lot of folks are waiting with bated breath to find out if the verdict is upheld or not before theyll change anything,” he said.