What Microsoft's Patent FUD Reveals About Its R&D

Microsoft is currently engaging in some incredible rewriting of history. Here's Horacio Gutiérrez, deputy general counsel at the company, trying to defend Microsoft's evolution into a patent troll that is unable to make a smartphone that anyone...


Microsoft is currently engaging in some incredible rewriting of history. Here's Horacio Gutiérrez, deputy general counsel at the company, trying to defend Microsoft's evolution into a patent troll that is unable to make a smartphone that anyone wants, and thus seeks to tax those who can:

Every time there are these technologies that are really disruptive, there are patent cases. People who lived in that particular time would look and say, "What a mess, we certainly must live in the worst time from an (intellectual property) perspective. The system is broken and something has to be done to fix it."

Is that so, Horacio? What, you mean like when microcomputers came along – they were pretty disruptive, I'd say. And so you reckon we saw lots of patent cases, with subsequent licensing? Well, no actually, here's what someone you may have heard of says of that time:

If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today's ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today. I feel certain that some large company will patent some obvious thing related to interface, object orientation, algorithm, application extension or other crucial technique. If we assume this company has no need of any of our patents then the have a 17-year right to take as much of our profits as they want. The solution to this is patent exchanges with large companies and patenting as much as we can.

As Bill Gates explained in that 1991 memo, in the early days of computing, nobody took out patents. That not only meant that the whole subject advanced rapidly, but that startup companies like Microsoft could come along and grow rich. And as that memo indicates, Gates intended to change that world by "patenting as much as we can": the rot starts here.

Guti̩rrez is attempting to justify Microsoft's actions by normalising them. Sadly, he's not challenged on that (for understandable reasons Рnot many journalists were around when all this stuff happened), but the interviewer does ask a crucial question:

Q: So what are Microsoft's key innovations? Can you give us a sense of one or two of the critical features in Android that Microsoft argues it invented?

Now, this was a chance for Gutiérrez to reel off innovation after innovation where Android has clearly "stolen" ideas from Microsoft. Here's what he says:

There are a number of technologies that have to do with really critical features that make smart phones what they are today. For example, the ability to synchronize the content that you have in your phone with the information in the server of your company or in your computer at home.

That's it, Horacio? That's really the best you've got? Synchronising content with a server – Google stole that idea from Microsoft...? But wait, there's more:

But then there are all these other features that just make the phone much more efficient, things that are embedded deeply in the operating system. Microsoft has invested for decades more money than anyone else in research and development directed toward the efficiency of operating systems. These devices have moved from having a rudimentary phone system to being a full-fledged computer, with a sophisticated, modern operating system.

It's striking that Guti̩rrez can't actually name anything specific Рwhich for such allegedly massive breakthroughs is curious. And it's positively hilarious that the company that produced a succession of dogs like Windows Millennium Edition and Windows Vista can claim that its technology turned a phone system into a "sophisticated, modern operating system".

But what's really interesting is his invocation of Microsoft's investment in research and development, and the huge sums the company has invested in this area – as if that gave Microsoft the right to demand money from everyone.

Microsoft does indeed spend billions on R&D – here are the figures from its latest company report:

During fiscal years 2011, 2010, and 2009, research and development expense was $9.0 billion, $8.7 billion, and $9.0 billion, respectively. These amounts represented 13%, 14%, and 15%, respectively, of revenue in each of those years. We plan to continue to make significant investments in a broad range of research and product development efforts.

I also think that much of the research being done in the Microsoft Research arm (the only part that's public) is highly interesting. But what I doubt is that anything much has come out of the labs that has any bearing on Microsoft's attempt to levy a tax on companies using Android, and so most of that expenditure is irrelevant to Gutiérrez's argument.

Here, for example, is Microsoft Research official page entitled "Bringing Innovations to Life" offers these "examples of the contributions Microsoft Research has made to the company’s products and services":

Windows 7. The latest version of Microsoft's flagship operating system incorporates a number of "under the hood" technologies from Microsoft Research that contribute to the product's improved performance, reliability and usability. These include enhancements to handwriting recognition, graphics performance, networking and security. Additionally, the product development team made use of a number of Microsoft Research technologies to write and test code efficiently and more thoroughly identify potential security issues.

Since Microsoft Research was created nearly 20 years ago, the fact that its still sorting problems with Windows' stability and security is hardly the best advertisement for its efficiency. And again, for an outfit that has made such earth-shattering contributions to the state of the art according to Gutiérrez, there's a distinct lack of specificity here that a cynic might find suspicious.

Maps. The traffic functionality in Microsoft's Bing Maps uses a Microsoft Research technology called ClearFlow, which employs statistical methods to infer surface-street speeds by considering real-time speeds on highways, the properties of surface streets, and detailed geometric relationships between them. Additionally, MapCruncher technology enables users to build interactive mashups of different maps by establishing correspondences between key features in user-provided maps with their equivalents on Bing Maps.

Well, yes, that sounds jolly clever, but are surface-street speeds in maps something people use much, or care about?

Maps. Search and online services. Microsoft Research contributes advances that make the company's search engine and online services more efficient, responsive, and useful. This includes new algorithms that vastly improve the relevance of search results; opinion-mining technology that crawls the Internet to detect, summarize, and present user reviews in a structured way; fast and space-efficient algorithms that cluster users and documents into buckets to provide personalized recommendations for MSN users; querycategorization technology that helps content creators research the keywords users type on Bing Search; and the cashback strategy, a new business model that lowers prices for products users buy through Bing Search and creates new revenue opportunities for merchants.

Ah, yes, Bing...So how's that going against Google, then? Or may be Google stole all of Bing's ideas in the same way that Android stole all of Windows Mobile's? And did it really require a massive R&D arm staffed with hundreds of PhDs to come up with "a new business model that lowers prices for products users buy through Bing Search and creates new revenue opportunities for merchants"?

Photosynth. Microsoft Photosynth automatically reconstructs a three-dimensional space from a collection of photos of a place or object. Built on groundbreaking research conducted in collaboration with the University of Washington, this technology helps people share the places and things they love with the cinematic quality of a movie, the control of a video game, and the detail of the real world.

Now Photosynth, I have to concede, is a very cool piece of technology – if you've never seen it, I'd strongly recommend you take a look at some of the amazing images on its site were it not for the fact that it wants to install Microsoft Silverlight...

There is, however, another teensy-weensy problem with Photosynth, which is that Microsoft didn't actually come up with the original technology:

Photosynth is based on Photo Tourism, a research project by University of Washington graduate student Noah Snavely. Shortly after Microsoft's acquisition of Seadragon in early 2006, that team began work on Photosynth, under the direction of Seadragon founder Blaise Aguera y Arcas.

So there we have it: the official page listing Microsoft Research's contributions to the company's product line is rather Рwhat's the word? - jejune. It's certainly far from the powerhouse that Guti̩rrez is trying to suggest. And the fact that he can't name any concrete technology breakthroughs Рunless you include that "synchronising content with a server", of course Рsuggests the situation is pretty much the same throughout the company.

And that's no surprise: as I've analysed elsewhere, Microsoft's current round of patent licensing deals is essentially based on bluff and bullying. It's far cheaper to smile for the cameras and pay what may well be some nominal licensing fee than to stand up for principles and go through the very real pain and drain of resources represented by court cases.

As a result, the appearance is being created that there is a problem with Android, and that it infringes on Microsoft's patents. But nothing of the kind has been established: this is simply the history of the future that Microsoft is seeking to re-write to go along with its re-workings of the past.

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