Patents, Microsoft, and the Future

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.

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6 Responses

  1. “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.”

    That’s NOT open source. It’s just a royalty-free license for a specific purpose. Open source means you open up the code and allow its use to create derivative software for any purpose. That’s a BIG difference.


  2. Not to be contrary, but au contraire. I know that for a lot of people, anything from MS is by definition proprietary and closed, but in this case that’s not true. I did point out that this is an open source API, and I even put “open source” in quotes to highlight the API-ness. The API (not other MS apps themselves, but the API) is “open source,” in the very same sense that the Google Maps API is open source, leading to such breathless commentary as ZDNet’s “Google Maps API transforms the Web…We are getting a great demonstration right now of open source power, as applications using the Google Maps API begin to appear… It’s Google, using the open source process, that has blown the field apart. The code has only been out a few weeks but already we’re seeing several really great applications…Individuals were ready and able to use the API right away, and trust the results in ways even the BBC was reluctant to try. And remember, this is just the start. I guarantee that hundreds of programmers are now poring over the Google Map API documentation, thinking about applications that will drive both them, and Google, to new heights. All on the wings of open source.” (

    All that about an API!

    Now the Google Maps app itself – not the API – is not open source; it is proprietary, as everyone knows, and that’s fine. In fact, Google itself points out to the GMaps developer community that “You are permitted to use Google Maps on an Intranet, or in a desktop application only if you buy Google Maps for Enterprise. Prices start at $10,000 per year and it is only available in a few countries.” (

    Anyway, as Norm Hodne, the MS Windows accessibility lead says in the article I linked to in the post, “We decided to donate the API we developed to make it open source and allow the AIA to take and port it to any platform they wanted to, Windows, Linux or Mac, to get consistency and accessibility” (and pointed out that MS is already leveraging its alliance with Novell to get the UI Automation Spec over to the Linux platform). He says, “We think it’s important this technology gets out there and companies don’t see assistive technology as a competitive thing they have to control or do better than another company.” To me, that’s a refreshing attitude, and fits not only the spirit but the letter of the definition of “open source.” (


  3. […] like Novell, likes patents. But its loveraffair with patents has been reaching some worrisome peaks recently and it’s not hard to see why. Fact: According to the latest annual report on patents […]


  4. Thye open source definition is here:

    There are 10 requirements. Does the API in question meet these? If not, the it is NOT open source.

    1. Free Redistribution: the software can be freely given away or sold. (This was intended to expand sharing and use of the software on a legal basis.)
    2. Source Code: the source code must either be included or freely obtainable. (Without source code, making changes or modifications can be impossible.)
    3. Derived Works: redistribution of modifications must be allowed. (To allow legal sharing and to permit new features or repairs.)
    4. Integrity of The Author’s Source Code: licenses may require that modifications are redistributed only as patches.
    5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups: no one can be locked out.
    6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor: commercial users cannot be excluded.
    7. Distribution of License: The rights attached to the program must apply to all to whom the program is redistributed without the need for execution of an additional license by those parties.
    8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product: the program cannot be licensed only as part of a larger distribution.
    9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software: the license cannot insist that any other software it is distributed with must also be open source.
    10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral: no click-wrap licenses or other medium-specific ways of accepting the license must be required.


  5. […] get me wrong: I like IBM, it’s a solid company with great technologies and great people. I’ve written before about my admiration for their research, labs, and focus on […]


  6. […] fascinate me – reading them, counting them (as I watch others do each year), thinking about their implications.  They serve fundamentally as markers of the reach of […]


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