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5/18/2007
12:50 PM
John Soat
John Soat
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IT Confidential: What If Microsoft Went Door To Door To Enforce Its Patents?

How would you feel if Steve Ballmer rang your doorbell and starting asking about the software that you used? It's not so far away from what Microsoft is trying to do with its latest patent claims.

I RECENTLY ACQUIRED AN APPLE iMAC. I ordered a pretty tricked-out system, but one of the things I passed on was Apple's productivity software, iWork. Instead, I thought I would try an open source alternative, NeoOffice, a version of the OpenOffice suite developed by Sun, specifically customized for the Apple platform.

So imagine my consternation when I read about Microsoft's claim to own patents related to the OpenOffice technology (see story, p. 29). I was torn. Should I download the open source software, with the possibility that Microsoft might tie it up in court? Or should I wait until the patent issue was resolved? I sat down on the couch to watch the Cleveland Cavaliers play the New Jersey Nets in the NBA playoffs, and mulled my options.

About halfway through the game, I made up my mind to download the open source software despite Microsoft's implicit threats. I went into my home office, cranked up the iMac, and surfed my way to the NeoOffice site. Almost as soon as the software had finished downloading, the doorbell rang. I left my computer to answer the door. Standing on my porch, much to my surprise, were Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Brad Smith, the company's general counsel. Ballmer was holding a tablet PC.

"Is your name John Soat?" asked Ballmer.

"What are you doing here?"

"We're from Microsoft," he said. "Do you mind if we come in for a minute?" They pushed past me into the foyer.

"You recently purchased an Apple iMac?" said Ballmer. "And you just finished installing the NeoOffice productivity suite, is that correct?"

"I'd ask how you came by all this information, but I don't really want to know."

Ballmer made some notations on his tablet PC.

"Are you aware that Microsoft holds 45 patents related to the technology that's used in NeoOffice?" Ballmer said.

"I read that somewhere."

"If I were you," said Smith, "I'd think twice about using that software."

"Are you going to sue me if I do?"

"I can't comment on that," said Ballmer, "other than to say it's not Microsoft's intent to litigate this issue."

"Then you're not going to sue me?"

"I can't comment on that," he said. "Do you mind if we look around?"

I followed the two as they made a quick inventory of my house. Ballmer took notes on his tablet PC. We ended up back in the foyer.

"Do you use that HDTV often?" asked Ballmer.

"My wife seems to enjoy it."

"And the DVD player?"

"Not so much now that we have DVR."

Ballmer made a note of that.

"These are sophisticated technology advancements," Ballmer said. "Microsoft has no desire to interfere with that process, or with the consumer public's benefit from it."

"Are you saying Microsoft has patents on all this technology and intends to enforce them?"

"I can't comment on that."

"You haven't said anything about my iMac."

"We're working on that," Ballmer said. "Now, as for the Jeep Liberty in your driveway ... "

I woke up with a start. I'd fallen asleep on the couch. The Cavaliers were losing to the Nets. I thought I might wait a while before installing that open source software, just to be safe.

Lesson learned: Don't mess with Microsoft! Send your hard-earned life lessons, or an industry tip, to jsoat@cmp.com or phone 516-562-5326.

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