Fact: According to the latest annual report on patents released this month, the number of patents awarded in 2007 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was down a full 9.5 percent from 2006′s all-time high. In addition, some 80 percent of the companies on the list of top recipients (including IBM, repeating for its 14th straight year at the top of the list) received fewer patents than they had the year before. Only one American company in the top 25 earned more patents in 2007 than it had the year before: Microsoft.
Analysis: One of my minor hobbies is reading patents, for example in the field of information retrieval, and I got the bug as an undergrad from my idol Thomas Jefferson, founder of both my alma mater and the U.S. Patent Office and the first patent examiner himself. Patents are a great indicator of the future – the future of an idea, a technology, a company, a nation. I enjoyed a great visit to IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center last year, and was enthralled by one design element in the hallways: the wallpaper in the tech demo area was actually small-type listings, floor to ceiling, of the previous year’s patents. Amazing! And plenty of fun to read. But in 2007 IBM Corp. received 3,148 patents, down more than 500 grants from the previous year. By contrast, as Network World reported “Microsoft charged into the top 10 with 1,637 patents [and] ranked No. 6 on the annual list after failing to crack the top 10 the previous two years,” with an increase of nearly 12 percent in its patents from the year before.
The full annual report on U.S. patents, by IFI Patent Intelligence, indicates some trends:
Overall, it’s fair to say that 80 percent of the top 35 organizations were down versus the previous year…. Looking at the top 25 list, U.S. companies hold 7 spots, less than a third of the positions, while Japan leads with 13; Germany with 2; South Korea with 2; and Finland with 1. Semiconductors (4,187 patents in 2007); Active Solid State Devices (3,855) and Telecommunications (2,783) lead the individual patent class categories, but others are showing strength including Static Information Storage & Retrieval; Drugs and Biotechnology; Chemistry; and Radiant Energy.
And now CNET is reporting that Microsoft could be moving even higher this year, having filed 500 patents with the US Patent and Trademark Office in just the last sixty days (“Microsoft Clocks Up 500 Patents in 2 Months“).
Present vs. Future: I care a lot about the new products Microsoft is rolling out now; the company is on a roll, including the really visible advances in consumer tech with Microsoft Auto, Zune, Surface, Windows Vista, Windows Live, Microsoft Mediaroom, Windows Mobile, Windows Media Center, Windows Home Server, Office 2007, and Office Live Workspace.
But those aren’t why I just joined up with Microsoft, not really. As the kind of guy who would read the patent list on a wall, I joined Microsoft because of its nearly $8 billion in research and development this year, on top of $7 billion last year – an investment curve that could achieve significant advances (for example in HCI or HPC or manycore) benefiting not only consumer markets but the enterprise market as well, including government customers. My group is working strategically with Microsoft Research to explore accelerated government adoption routes for promising technologies from R&D.
And on the good-guy front, not only did Microsoft join rivals Oracle, Adobe, and Novell last month in forming the Accessibility Interoperability Alliance, a new industry association focused on promoting accessibility and “assistive technology,” now Microsoft has announced a significant concrete step to boost it: granting royalty-free license to any Microsoft patents necessary to use required portions of the AIA’s User Interface Automation Specification still in development. Yes – that’s Microsoft, making its API “open source” and allowing the AIA to port it to any platform (Windows, Linux, Mac), to promote accessibility.
Note: I’m also a fan of the Peer-to-Patent Project, introducing community peer review of patents, a welcome set of eyes in addition to the backlogged USPTO examiners. Check it out here, and also their own neat tribute to Thomas Jefferson.
Filed under: Microsoft, R&D, Society, Technology Tagged: | accessibility, Adobe, HCI, HPC, IBM, manycore, Mediaroom, Microsoft, Microsoft Office, Microsoft Research, Novell, open source, Oracle, patents, peer review, R&D, Thomas Jefferson, USPTO, UVA, Watson Research Center, Windows, Windows Mobile, Zune