Thursday, April 25, 2013

Is Microsoft Stealing Apple's Patents?

Over the years, we have watched Windows develop into what it is today.  Microsoft has added some really useful and nice features.  However, many of these features were already in the Macintosh OS X (or other operating systems) before they came out in Windows.  Of course, long-time readers of my blog know what I think of Windows.  Let's take a look:
  • Show a "dock" of applications in a bar on the bottom, with a mixture of shortcuts and running apps.  This first appeared in Windows with Vista, where you can "pin" apps to the task bar, circa 2007.  It was always a part of Mac OS X, first released around 2001.
  • Search feature on the Start menu first appeared also with Vista (2007), this allows you to type the name of the app to launch, and does a quick search on document file names as well.  Mac Spotlight first announced June 2004 and released in April 2005.  However, Spotlight is much more comprehensive than both the start menu, and the Windows search feature (really!?  12 steps to make it work kind of like the Mac!!??).  It is both rolled into one, and searches all forms of data on your system including e-mails, file contents, and more - in one, simple, global magnifying glass on your system bar.
  • Windows Store is now in Windows 8 (2012), where users can go to an app to buy more apps from both Microsoft and other developers.  Apple introduced the Mac App Store with OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard in January 2011 (almost 2 years earlier); Ubuntu Software Centre was introduced with Ubuntu back in 2008 or earlier.
  • Secure Installation - Secure software installation was introduced with Windows Vista (2007), where even though you were an administrator, you still had to accept software installation.  Problem is, the prompts are so frequent and annoying, and limited in scope only to software installations, that they are pretty much useless.  Mac has had secure system changes including installations since OS X introduction (2001), which more broadly cover securing the system from invalid changes, not just software installations.  With OS X 10.8 (Spring 2012), they now add the ability to restrict apps that are signed by Apple, for organizations who have obtained valid licenses to develop software, and passed the Apple App Store review for safety and security.
Just these few features show that Windows has been about last to adopt what the rest of the industry has already considered standard fare, while doing so in a haphazard and incomplete fashion.  But if you have followed Microsoft throughout its history, you would know it is not an innovator.  Products like SQL Server (its database engine) and Visual BASIC (and Visual Studio) were acquired through purchases of the innovating company who developed them, graphical features of Word, Excel, and others were ripped from competitors WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 at a time when WordPerfect and Lotus were not very litigious (and indeed software patents were not as prevalent as today).

Now, I would be the first to tell you that the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is completely overwhelmed and over its head when it comes to software technology.  They haven't the slightest clue of how to police the patents.  An NPR story that first aired in 2011, When Patents Attack, exposes in great depth the shortcomings of the USPTO, and particular "patent trolls" who make money off of hoarding patents and suing others.  Their research has shown that about 33% of USPTO software patents granted, actually conformed to the "uniqueness" requirement.  2/3 of the software patents issued were non unique, public knowledge, and thus not patentable.  But that is besides the point.

It seems that most people are fooled into thinking that Microsoft is a big innovator.  In fact, I might be wrong, but I can't think of a single innovation throughout their history - unless you count the innovation of digital and distribution rights, and the innovative ways in which they have sued their competition.  Or, the innovative way in which they avoided complying with the US Department of Justice suit in which they had to provide customers with an alternative to Internet Explorer.

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