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SteveBallmerSweatingThe blogosphere is all a-twitter about yesterday’s East Texas court judgment, which previously awarded $290 Million to appropriately-named Canadian patent troll i4i (well, OK, not exactly a troll) and further granted them an injunction preventing Redmond from selling any more copies of Microsoft Word starting in 60 days.  Microsoft, which aggressively patents its own technologies (including a similar one just awarded based on its XML implementation), is occasionally on the dealing end of just this sort of blow to the little guy.

So I suppose it is no surprise that the in-crowd is gleeful about the judgment.  It has all of the requisite keywords to invoke the sort of self-satirizing knee-jerk rejectionism that we have come to expect from the cornball neopop blogosphere types that take the time to type these missives (I can be fairly accused of being one of them, too).

But isn’t it time to progress beyond our cliched fear of Microsoft?  The DoJ hurricane blew past their ranch years ago; the company’s dominance in Operating Systems is now respectably challenged by Apple’s OSX and various flavours of Linux (and, if only in vapour, by Google Android); and their web browser is being resoundingly thumped by an influx of not dissimilar offerings from Firefox, Apple, Google, and even Opera.  The Zune is an also-ran MP3 player next to the iPod, and Windows Mobile has become a running joke in the telecom industry while the iPhone has become the dominant player in a little under two years.  The next penny to drop for Microsoft may well be Enterprise apps, with Office and Exchange as the cornerstone.  If someone figures out Shared Calendaring, my friends, that latter jig may be up but soon.

So it’s probably fairer now to conceptualize Microsoft as the aged, embattled warhorse that it is; as bloated and sweaty as its present CEO; both of them a heart seizure waiting to happen.  With billions in the bank it’s hard to feel too sorry for them, but would we be cheering so loudly if the party on the losing end of this patent dispute was any other company?

In recent months the company has been sued by patent holders and licensors over a litany of fairly benign and long-implemented technologies from instant messaging to Windows Update to  its Product Activation System.  Each of these is a clear improvement without which Windows, an already unusable operating system, would be significantly worse.  And so in a worst-case scenario Microsoft is now hampered from delivering you a higher-quality, more innovative product not due to lack of imagination on the part of its engineers, but due to a wellspring of imagination emanating from patent attorneys and their litigious clients.

i4i isn’t strictly a patent troll, but they’re not the original inventors of the technology either.  They are also clearly using this patenet defensively, to prevent Microsoft from encroaching on their market.  This is really an obstacle for anyone who wants to do complex document workflow automation (and lots do).

We actually need for Microsoft to win some of these disputes.  We will all benefit.  Each sets a dangerous precedent that will affect all comers upstream of these cases, and a patent troll armed with a lucrative victory on something so obvious and derivative of open-standards as the ability to edit custom XML is dangerous to the web as a whole and will create a substantial speedbump to innovation.

So maybe just for a while keep your malicious joy in check when reviewing this case.  Microsoft is presently doing the web a favour acting as a breakwater for all of us.  I’ll hold my judgment until we see how they put their own patents in this arena to use (or disuse).

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