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September 17, 2003

Microsoft v. Eolas-A New Twist?

Well it looks like the mainstream media is picking up steam and “getting it” more regarding the Eolas v Microsoft debacle. Much of the press appears to be taking a more paranoid or conspiratorial spin on the news. I will admit I am not a big Microsoft fan, but I think this time the conspiracy theories–while tempting to buy into, especially considering MS history miss the target.

Mike at Techdirt pointed out a ZDNet article in which David Berlind hypothesizes that Microsoft lost the case on purpose:

“Never in Bill Gates’ or Steve Ballmer’s wildest dreams could Microsoft have hatched such a dastardly plan where a tiny company successfully sues for patent infringement and, as a result, Microsoft has to turn off access to its competitors’ technologies for almost every user of the Web (since most use Internet Explorer). At the very least, to keep Web-based content that was designed for the Windows Media Player from being interrupted, Microsoft could hardwire the Windows Media Player into Internet Explorer.

“Imagine that. The world’s dominant Web browser supporting nothing but Microsoft technologies. After several governments, hundreds of lawyers, and still more trustbusters worked for nearly a decade to put an end to Microsoft’s monopolistic behavior and predation, a federal court in Chicago hands a cornerstone of the Web experience to Microsoft on a silver platter.”

Like I said, very tempting to buy into, especially if you are in any way anti-Microsoft. Even Microsoft knows that this is a no-win proposition. Microsoft could easily build windows media player right into the browser, but at this point it too is a plug-in, and it wouldn’t solve the problem. Windows update services are a browser–server based ActiveX system too. Then there is the active-desktop system… where does the “browser” end and the desktop or operating system begin. Currently for IE almost all rich media is handled by plug-ins, e.g. Flash, Quicktime, PDF, Director, Authorware, RealOne, Windows Media, ActiveX, Java. Go to a site like MSN, Weather Channel, CNN or ESPN and integrated plug-in based rich media accounts for up to half of the content, especially for broadband audiences. Much of this content could not be delivered exclusively through Windows Media, even if it was built into the browser. Oh, and let’s not forget that Windows Media is currently the subject of another patent infringement lawsuit, one that is not going Microsoft’s way either.

Sure, Microsoft could license the technology from all those companies to be able to integrate those plug-ins directly in IE, but that would be a nightmare not just in keeping the software updates in synch. Memory and code bloat issues would also tend to rule out that option, all assuming of course that all of those companies would be willing to license the technology in the first place. It could be argued that Microsoft would replace PDF with embedded word documents, but that’s another plug-in via ActiveX right now… don’t even think about adding Word’s bloat to the browser! The fact is that Microsoft relies on plug-ins and ActiveX plug-ins for much of the functionality in IE and for significant functionality behind Longhorn which takes browser and web services integration to a whole new level in the operating system. If Microsoft did lose intentionally, then the way I see it they are taking a monumental gamble.

Whether or not Microsoft is taking such a gamble, I have no idea– but right now Windows media is not an answer for them, neither is Longhorn. What I do know is that this is going to present a big mess for everyone involved–except Eolas. Users are going to be confused, frustrated and angry. Some will blame Microsoft, some will blame web developers and some might blame Eolas. Most will not change to a non-MS browser just because IE quits working like they want and expect it to. Even if we could get everyone to use another browser we still have no way of knowing whether or not Eolas will pursue the other browsers after their victory against MS. Web developers are going to be pulling their hair out trying to navigate the new restriction while trying to continue to provide some semblance of the rich web users and corporations have come to expect. Those corporations are going to have to spend an inordinate amount of time and money to re-design what should be perfectly functional websites. Plug-in makers such as Macromedia, Adobe, RealOne and Apple will lose big. As far as I can see right now the only winner in this is Eolas. The best hope for the rest of us is to hope that someone can conclusively show prior art that will invalidate the patent itself.

I’ve said it before, and I firmly believe it: Software patents do not promote progress in science and art of the field. Mathematical methods, schemes and rules for mental activity, methods of doing business and programs for computers are not patentable inventions.

For my previous rants on this:
Microsoft lobbies for repeal of patents for software!
Microsoft vs Eolas Patent Update

Posted by Eric at September 17, 2003 03:55 PM | TrackBack
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