On Christmas, Microsoft filed for yet another one of those crazy patents that seems so obvious you have to wonder why they bother to apply. Aren't patents supposed to be for nonobvious inventions?As far as I can tell, this patent defines a model for charging customers for their usage of computer software and hardware based on what they actually use. Hasn't every angle of this scheme already been covered in one form or another? Selling computers based on resource usage is hardly a new idea; the massive timeshare systems of the 1960s and 1970s did this before small computers even existed. Amazon brought this model into the 21st century with its EC2 and S3 services. What about the hardware? The phone companies already give away hardware in return for a pricey monthly contract that recoups the hardware cost over time.
After my recent blog entry about patents, one reader e-mail pointed out that Microsoft has applied for thousands of patents in the past decade. Although Microsoft hasn't been shy in applying for patents, I don't see the company as a patent troll. A patent troll doesn't obtain patents in order to use them in products; it obtains patents in order to make money by suing any company that it sees as an infringer.
Microsoft hasn't (yet) used patents as a weapon against competitors, or as a source of dirty revenue obtained by suing companies that infringe on Microsoft patents. It's just the opposite; Microsoft has often been the victim of patent infringement suits brought by companies that often don't seem to have any business other than suing people for patent infringement. The best example of this is the Eolas patent, which made it cumbersome to use Internet Explorer plug-ins in a Web page.
Given their nightmarish experience with the Eolas situation, Microsoft seems to be creating a large patent portfolio primarily as a defensive measure. This isn't unusual for large companies; others such as IBM, Intel, and Xerox also have large patent portfolios. Often they will cross-license each other's patents. For example, Microsoft has patent licensing agreements with Nikon, Epson, LG Electronics, and many others.
Since the U.S. Patent Office seems willing to approve the most obvious and trivial ideas at this point, the only thing I can figure is that Microsoft is throwing everything at the system in hopes that if some obvious thing is foolishly granted a patent, Microsoft will have that patent. If that's the case, I sympathize with Microsoft's plight, but it's not the solution. Let's hope that the real problem -- stupid patents -- can be fixed.