i4i Lawsuit Means Nothing To Most Office Users

The Web is buzzing over Microsoft's defeat in a major patent lawsuit involving its Office software. How will this affect your business? With very few exceptions, it won't.

Matthew McKenzie, Contributor

December 23, 2009

5 Min Read

The Web is buzzing over Microsoft's defeat in a major patent lawsuit involving its Office software. How will this affect your business? With very few exceptions, it won't.Yesterday, a federal appeals court ruled against Microsoft in a lawsuit filed by Canadian firm i4i. Last summer, a lower court declared that Microsoft's use of Custom XML technology in its Office 2007 and Word 2007 software violated an i4i patent. Microsoft must now pay a $290 million judgment and remove the offending technology from the two products.

This is a high-profile story; hundreds of IT news sites and bloggers are now pondering just What It All Means for millions of Microsoft Office users. Unfortunately, some of them are either missing important details or simply getting the story wrong. Let's shine some light on this topic by answering a few key questions:

1. Will the court ruling force Microsoft to quit supporting its XML-based Office file formats?

This is the most important single question, and most of the news coverage that I see is getting it right: The court ruling has nothing to do with the core Office 2007 file formats, which are based on an ISO standard called Office Open XML (OOXML).

(We'll set aside the question of whether OOXML is a real standard, given the uproar surrounding Microsoft's efforts to "shape" the OOXML standardization process.)

The patent lawsuit deals with a specific type of XML-based functionality built into Word 2007. Custom XML gives companies the ability to extend OOXML with customized XML tags and attributes, using the Word interface to edit and process these custom tags. In theory, this is a useful feature for companies that need an automated process to handle documents that contain large quantities of structured data.

2. And in practice?

In practice, Custom XML is a classic example of an Office "feature" that almost nobody uses. As XML guru Tim Bray has pointed out, the process of creating and working with this custom code is complex and often very expensive. Most companies that need this sort of functionality can adopt any number of pre-existing XML-based tag sets.

3. How can you be so sure that Custom XML support is no big deal?

I'm prepared (at least in this case) to take Microsoft's word for it: The dispute is over an invention related to customizing extensible markup language, or XML, a way of encoding data to exchange information among programs. Microsoft has called it an obscure functionality. Microsoft said it has been working on the change since the trial judge first ordered a halt in August and has put the wheels in motion to remove this little-used feature from our products. Maybe Microsoft is just whistling past the graveyard here. But if there is any hard evidence that removing Custom XML will have a noticeable impact on users, I haven't seen it.

4. At least a few companies must rely upon Custom XML. What happens to them?

They continue to do business as usual. Microsoft doesn't have to recall existing copies of Word and Office that include the functionality; in fact, the company is free to continue supporting current users that implement Custom XML. There won't be any crippleware updates, or demands that companies trade in offending copies of Office, or any other nonsense.

5. I read that Microsoft will have to pull copies of Office and Word off store shelves to comply with the court verdict. Is this right?

The company will have to stop selling copies of Office 2007 and Word 2007 that include Custom XML functionality. This is a non-issue for a couple of reasons:

- According to Microsoft, it started work last August to remove Custom XML support from Office and Word. In October, Microsoft pushed out an Office patch to OEMs that allow them to disable Custom XML functionality, ensuring that systems sold with Office pre-installed after the January deadline will comply with the ruling.

- The current Office 2010 and Word 2010 beta releases never included Custom XML support in the first place.

As recently as yesterday, some pundits were predicting that removing the offending code would be a "tedious and time-consuming" process. In fact, all of the heavy lifting was done months ago.

6. What about other software that uses XML-based document formats, like OpenOffice.org?

The lawsuit has nothing to do with OpenOffice.org or the open-source (and XML-based) Open Document Format. Executives at i4i have stated this repeatedly, and the facts of the case back up their assertions. Stories that fret over the legal implications for ODF or OpenOffice are, at best, misguided -- and at worst guilty of spreading FUD.

7. But I just read on (some guy's blog) that this is The End for XML!

And I just read that Martin Bormann is living in a trailer park in Florida. Isn't the Internet fun?

8. Is this another case of some patent troll gaming the court system to make millions of dollars?

I don't think it's fair to describe i4i as a "patent troll," since the company makes actual products for real customers. According to i4i executives, the company actually negotiated with Microsoft to license its technology; the negotiations fell through, and then Custom XML support mysteriously appeared in Office 2007.

I'm no fan of software patents. But if Microsoft really pulled such a cheap stunt, then I think i4i deserves every penny of that $290 million as a matter of principle.

9. Will Microsoft finally realize that the very concept of software patents is nuts and support reform efforts?

Let's wait and see how some real, live patent trolls make out in this lawsuit. Or this one. Sooner or later, these parasites will inflict enough pain to make companies like Microsoft see the light. The problem is that "later" might be the same thing as "too late."

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