Microsoft is trying to stop open formats with the accumulation of patents. In New Zealand, Microsoft have lodged the following patent applications:I have railed on the abuse of patents in the past, and had hoped after the debacle with ActiveX components in IE that Microsoft legal would have learned its lessons. However, with this announcement that appears not to be the case.
Patent Number: 525857
Markup language and object model for vector graphics
Patent Number: 535067
Markup language data structure
The applications are in the examination stage. If they're approved we have three months in which to lodge objections. For more information contact the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand (IPONZ):
info (at) iponz.govt.nz
hearings (at) iponz.govt.nz
Microsoft is also out to stop Open Office, as can be seen with this NZ patent application:
Patent Number: 525484
Patent Title: Word-processing document stored in a single XML file that may be manipulated by applications that understand XML
Let's get this straight. Microsoft was an initial signatory to the W3C SVG working group, where one of the requirements in joining the group was a discovery process indicating that the signatories would disclose any previous patented technologies that may in some way invalidate the claims by the W3C on the technology as a Royalty Free standard. Microsoft was one of two players (and I suspect was a bigger one) in the August 2001 debacle within the W3C that attempted to introduce (unsuccessfully) RAND (Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory) patents into the W3C structure, specifically to cover SVG, patents that would have introduced a license fee into the open standard itself.
Microsoft dropped out of most W3C efforts and started the WS-* standards group, which has to date produced one interesting security related specification and a great deal of otherwise useless crap. It did this in great part not to expedite the W3C standards process (any legitimate standard can take years to reach fruition, something they well know) but to avoid having to contribute to the open standards community and risk losing what they perceive of as valuable intellectual property to their competitors.
As far as the vector standard goes, Microsoft doesn't have much of a leg to stand-on. Adobe has a markup language and object model for vector graphics. It's called Postscript. While not XML, it predates ANY effort by Microsoft by decades, and from personal experience Postscript was in fact being used as an object language as long ago as 1983 (through the agency of Wolfram, the makers of Mathematica). Moreover, even in the realm of vector graphics languages, Adobe had a precursor to XML called PGML (Precision Graphics Markup Language) that predated Microsoft's only legitimate claim on an XML based vector language - VML (Vector Markup Language). Currently, while still available via a download, VML is largely considered now a historical oddity, and has all but disappeared from the Internet.
Microsoft also had another claimant to the vector markup language process to muddy things up - the ill-fated Chromeffects. It was an XML-based initiative to provide a 2D and 3D graphical and multimedia framework into Windows, way back Sound familiar? Can you say XAML, boys and girls? I knew you could. Chromeffects was too ambitious for its time, working far too slowly for anything even remotely resembling a real-time desktop system. Ironically, this may have been the reason for pushing Avalon to 2007, nearly a decade later. It was shelved in November, 1998.
Now here's where things get interesting. One of the requirements of the W3C's Recommendation process is that there must be two working implementations of a given Candidate Recommendation before it can be recognized as a full Recommendation. It's a fairly rigorous standard, and one of the things that it insures is that no one company can submit their technology into the W3C without at least one competitor having a chance at also being able to compete in the marketplace. It's one of those little subtlety things that has kept my admiration for the W3C very high, even when they do stumble.
Chromeffects never worked; it was withdrawn before reaching more than a very preliminary beta. Most patents require a minimum requirement of a demonstrable prototype, to insure that something that the inventor claims should work really does.
I'll not get into issues of fairness or unfairness here - patents in 2004 are intrinsically unfair, as they are typically used by corporations as a way of stifling competitors by unravelling the support skeins that others build their technology on. Even if the patent claims are disproved, the legal resources required to disprove the claim can significantly weaken competitors. My personal take is that patents on IP should be abolished, but that's not going to happen in the current culture of oligarchic fascism.
Open Office Targeted
The claim against Open Office.org (OOo) represents yet another attempt by Microsoft to eliminate by legal means what has proven to be a remarkably embarassing opponent otherwise. The use of the "single XML document" strategy in the OOo patent attack shows that Microsoft realizes it's case is extraordinarily weak there as well, perhaps weaker than it is for vector graphics.
Open Office made use of XML in a very innovative way - using XML as the way that information was stored for office applications, chief among them word processing. They chose to go with an array of five XML documents for efficiency - by breaking what could have easily been a single document into five they could maintain several smaller DOMs simultaneously for handling different aspects of an application. I've used OOo XML as the foundation of my own publishing efforts more than once, and the division makes a great deal of sense. They were also innovative in putting this XML together as a bundled package in a gzip format, another widely recognized open standard, making it possible to send related content without the need to encode binary information in XML, something that is both expensive and most cases unnecessary.
Microsoft has been criticized for years about not making their format user-accessible XML, especially after OOo beat them to the punch, and they would still probably not have done so had not Open Office begun to eat significantly into their sales of MS Office. They did have XML encoded within Office for metadata beginning in 2000, but even there it should be noted that this information was fiendishly difficult for users to extract and utilize - it was a marketing point with very little substance, and the company was roundly criticized for marketing their XML support in this manner when in fact they had nothing useful.
Open Office is a nightmare for Microsoft. It has improved dramatically in recent years, to the extent that it has begun to pull ahead of Microsoft in several key areas of development. It has forced Microsoft to drop the price point on their most profitable product several times, and they can't really win against a product that is available for free. The extensible nature of Open Office, while still too complex, is making it more appealing to those wishing to create specialized builds, while its lack of a commercial application has made it the darling of many a national or state government body with constrained resources and high needs. It has even made inroads in the one area where Microsoft thought it never would - the large-volume enterprise customers that Microsoft thought they had locked up after pushing Word Perfect down a hole.
Given all that, a legal attack via patent was pretty much inevitable, but it is also pretty baseless. Using the argument of single document XML belies the point that for XML, the distinction between one document and five interrelated documents is spurious - you can turn five into one by enclosing all of the documents into a single node in an XML tree. Given that XML is, itself, an open standard patented by the W3C, Microsoft's attempts to claim any kind of legal foundation there is laughable.
The fact that Microsoft is choosing to pursue this in the country of New Zealand is also telling. Microsoft knows that it can't secure these patents in the United States, but if they can get an international patent they can effectively claim that it supercedes the US patent. I would like to think that the New Zealand patent office is able to smell this pile of dung for what it is, but perhaps Microsoft hopes that New Zealanders are technically unsophisticated. I rather doubt they are ... they've been burned by the promises of large corporations bringing "better"-run governments via privatization only to have the CEOs of the same corporations rob them blind, runing what had been a model democracy in the process.
Still, such patents can cause havoc, especially given the resources that a Microsoft can bring to bear once it has such a piece of paper in hand. I will be contacting the New Zealand patent office to offer my comments and would recommend to all my readers that you do the same. Microsoft has the resources to build world-class software applications, but there is a certain innate laziness that the company has in choosing to use legal means to stifle competition; these suits reflect badly upon it, and lay to rest any "outreach" efforts that Microsoft may be attempting to make into the Open Source community. Perhaps if they had to actually compete, Microsoft might finally end up making software that was simultaneously secure, stable and usable.
Metaphorical Web Publishing