Microsoft has been granted a U.S. patent on using short, long or double clicks on the same button to launch different applications—though only on “limited resource computing devices” such as PDAs or mobile phones.
Now, U.S. companies that use such a variety of clicks on one button to launch separate software functions will have to change their products, pay licensing fees to Microsoft or give Microsoft access to their intellectual property in return.
U.S. patent No. 6,727,830, awarded April 27, was built on an abandoned 1999 application and filed in 2002.
It relates to a “time-based hardware button for application launch,” specifically assigning additional functions to application buttons when, for example, they are held down for longer than usual or clicked multiple times.
The examples used in the patent relate to Microsofts handheld computers, but the company says the patent could extend to devices such as mobile phones and pagers.
The patent describes ways that application buttons on a “limited-resource computing device” such as a PDA can be used in different ways to trigger various effects.
For example, pressing a button for a short period of time could launch an application in its default view, while pressing the same button for a second could launch an alternative function, such as bringing up a particular document within the application.
“Yet a third application function can be launched for a multipress [e.g., double-click] of an application button,” the patent says.
One of the patents specifications is for a voice-recorder application: The device begins recording when the button is pressed and stops recording when the button is released.
The patent could be applied to a wide range of devices and systems, Microsoft says in the document: “The invention can be incorporated in other limited-resource devices and systems, for example, mobile devices such as pagers and telephones.”
And the invention isnt necessarily restricted to the added functions specifically described in the patent.
“While the preferred embodiment of the invention has been illustrated and described, it will be appreciated that various changes can be made therein without departing from the spirit and scope of the invention,” Microsoft states in the document.
The patent doesnt seem to apply to double-clicking a PC mouse, but could affect a wide range of other devices, a legal expert said. “This could have some impact beyond just PDAs,” said Mark Watts, IT partner at London-based law firm Bristows.
He noted that the processing power of handheld devices such as PDAs and smart phones is approaching that of laptop computers, while some PC devices now use dedicated application buttons.
On the other hand, if Microsoft uses too broad an interpretation, the company risks having its claim invalidated by prior art—the argument that such functionality was used in previous inventions.
“I can think of simple devices that have had that kind of functionality for a long time, like digital watches,” Watts said.
Companies do not always have to prove the validity of their claim in order to collect licensing revenues, however, particularly when their target is a small company.
“If you embark on a strategy to get licensing revenues, all you need is an arguable patent,” Watts said. “A lot of companies might prefer paying for a license thats in a gray area over the alternatives of trying to invalidate the patent or risking infringement proceedings, which are extremely expensive.”
Many in the tech industry argue that the U.S. Patent Offices lax standards for awarding patents has led to systematic abuse, with patents awarded for obvious technologies such as one-click shopping, paying with credit cards online, pop-up windows and even hyperlinks.
Companies routinely stockpile patents in order to gain licensing fees from competitors and to protect themselves from other such stockpiles, a situation that critics say harms innovation.
Cisco Systems Inc., Intel Corp., eBay Inc., Symantec Corp., Chiron Corp., Genentech Inc. and Microsoft formed a working group in April, not yet named, to cooperate with regulators and legislators on patent reform.
Microsoft has been hit by high-profile patent cases. Chicago-based Eolas Technologies Inc. last year won a $521 million jury verdict against Microsoft over the infringement of a Web browser patent, leading to a court appeal and an outcry from the Webs major standards body, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
The W3C helped persuade the patent office in November to order a re-examination of the patents validity. In an initial finding in February, a patent office examiner agreed that substantial “prior art” existed to reject the patents claims—though Eolas recently refuted this finding.
Such patent actions are becoming an increasingly common part of the high-tech business landscape, though they ordinarily end in cross-licensing agreements rather than lawsuits.
Last month, the Patent Office published an application by Apple for a method of rendering translucent-appearing windows, technology that appears similar to features Microsoft has been previewing for its next major Windows release.
Industry observers said the patent is likely to be used as leverage for cross-licensing rather than to attack Microsoft.
Microsoft was not immediately available for comment.