Get A Grip: Microsoft Word Isn't Going Anywhere

Here is what yesterday's Microsoft Office legal "bombshell" means to your small business: nada. Zip. Zilch. Nothing to see here, move along.

Matthew McKenzie, Contributor

August 12, 2009

3 Min Read

Here is what yesterday's Microsoft Office legal "bombshell" means to your small business: nada. Zip. Zilch. Nothing to see here, move along.InformationWeek has today's story about a federal judge who wants to take a sharp knife to Microsoft's fattest cash cow: A Judge on Tuesday ordered Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) to stop selling its popular Word document creation application in the United States in 60 days, after finding that the software contains technology that violates a patent held by a third party.

Microsoft Office, which includes Word, accounted for more than $3 billion in worldwide sales in Microsoft's most recent fiscal year and is used by literally millions of businesses and consumers for everyday tasks like word processing and making spreadsheets and presentations.

The contested software patent involves Microsoft's use of custom XML to create structured document templates in Word 2003 and 2007.

If you're in a hurry, here is what you need to know: Microsoft Office isn't going anywhere. Not tomorrow, not in two months. Anyone who suggests otherwise needs to get a grip.

Microsoft still holds the initiative here. It can prevent the injunction (PDF link) from taking effect in three ways: Paying a court-ordered $290 million settlement; winning a reprieve as part of an appeal; or implementing a technical workaround in Word.

Microsoft could pay the settlement out of petty cash if it wanted. That won't happen. The company has already decided to fight this tooth and nail, and there is no reason for it to back down at this point.

The second option is a very safe bet. As others have pointed out, the federal court that tried this case is notorious as a magnet for patent trolls seeking a quick payoff. The plaintiff in this case may or may not fit that description, but it certainly knew where to file its lawsuit.

So, when Microsoft appeals, cooler heads are likely to prevail. A higher court will lift the injunction while the company pursues its appeal.

Don't overlook the third option, either. This case does not involve all documents using Microsoft's Office Open XML file formats. Instead, it deals specifically with a feature of interest mostly to large enterprises that use custom XML syntax as part of a large-scale document management workflow.

It's an important distinction, because it means that Microsoft could implement a workaround that strips custom XML support without making Word any less functional for the vast majority of its users. Microsoft will do this only if it must, but if it happens, most Office users will never even notice.

Removing Custom XML support from Word, incidentally, would suit the plaintiff just fine. It's in the business of helping enterprises create precisely these types of custom document templates.

The peanut gallery is already screaming that Microsoft -- a company practiced in the art of dodgy patent claims -- is simply getting what it deserved. It's a vaguely satisfying notion, but the question remains: Will this case put Microsoft on the patent-reform bandwagon or simply egg on its own bad behavior?

It would be nice to hear Microsoft announce that enough is enough and support an overhaul of the U.S. patent process. We have known for years now that this system is badly broken, yet the federal courts are still jammed with high-tech gold diggers trying to portray themselves as the defenders of innovation.

As long as companies are free to patent software in the United States, this idiocy will continue to plague us. Unfortunately it is more likely that this incident -- like others before it -- will blow over too quickly to drive home that lesson.

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