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Bruce Perens: Microsoft Patent Suit 'A Big Duh Factor'

An Attack on Linux?

  • March 9, 2009
  • By Bruce Perens
About the Author: Bruce Perens is the creator of the Open Source Definition, the manifesto of Open Source and the criterion for Open Source software licensing. Perens represented Open Source at the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society, at the request of the United Nations Development Program.

Microsoft has brought a lawsuit against car navigation system manufacturer TomTom. The products in question incorporate Linux, and at least one of the seven patents involved concerns a Linux kernel implementation rather than TomTom's own software. Is this Microsoft's first direct salvo against Linux?

There are other striking features of this suit: the technologies claimed in the 8 patents involved are so old and obvious that it's fair to say they have a high "Duh!" factor. There's an anti-trust angle to this suit that could blow up in Microsoft's face. And there's a high probability that some or all of the patents involved are invalid, due to recent court decisions.

Is this a serious suit, or an effort to stir up fear, uncertainty, and doubt about Linux at a critical time, when government and industry is taking up Open Source in a big way? TomTom has shallow pockets, relative to Microsoft, pockets that have already been drained by other lawsuits. Will TomTom have to settle and license regardless of the validity of Microsoft's patent claims, rather than drop $10 or $20 million in defending themselves?

Let's take a close look at what's happening.

The Lawsuit and Patents

Microsoft's complaint mentions 8 patents:

  • 5,579,517 Common name space for long and short filenames.
  • 5,758,352 Common name space for long and short filenames (again).
  • 6,175,789 Vehicle computer system with open platform architecture.
  • 6,202,008 Vehicle computer system with wireless internet connectivity
  • 6,256,642 Method and system for file system management using a flash-erasable, programmable, read-only memory.
  • 6,704,032 Methods and arrangements for interacting with controllable objects within a graphical user interface environment using various input mechanisms.
  • 7,054,745 Method and system for generating driving directions.
  • 7,117,286 Portable computing device-integrated appliance.

You might like to look at these patent filings and form your own opinion. Although their language can be opaque, it doesn't obscure the fact that there isn't much there.

A Monopoly on FAT

The first two patents are related to the FAT filesystem, which is the way that Microsoft stores files on disk. You might remember its eight-character file-names and three-character extensions, all capital letters, if you remember eight-track tapes and leisure suits.

For Windows 95, Microsoft implemented longer filenames that understood the difference between capital and lower-case letters, and that's the topic of these two patents. The "innovation" Microsoft claims is the use of a table to reference the long file names to the short ones, so that software that was written to use short names would still work, sort of. It just got funny mangled 8-character names. Like this:

Long Name Short Name
ALongFilename.txt ALONG%#.TXT
Microsoft's Amazing Patented File Name Table Innovation.

Now, why would anyone want to pay Microsoft for the right to use this lackluster technology? After all, there were better filesystems before MS-DOS came along, and there are much better ones today. It's not because of the technology, but because of Microsoft's dominance of the computer business.

FAT was the filesystem provided by Microsoft systems, and thus it was on nearly all floppy disks. Apple implemented FAT to be compatible with Microsoft. Later on, all USB sticks and SD cards had to use it if they were to work with Windows. So, most removable storage came preformatted with FAT out of the box. Others implemented FAT to be compatible with Microsoft, and it became the de facto "standard" for removable media. But a standard with embedded patents, for which Microsoft is now demanding royalties.

So, it's not the technology. Microsoft's market force as an effective monopoly in desktop computing made FAT ubiquitous, and Microsoft is able to muscle other businesses into paying a patent royalty for FAT despite its lack of innovation, only because FAT is what Microsoft chose to put in its own systems.

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