Windows 8’s Halloween surprise: Metro patent lawsuit

Windows 8’s Halloween surprise: Metro patent lawsuit

Summary: On Halloween, you can depend on trick-or–treaters to ring your doorbell. With an equal amount of predictability, Microsoft’s major new operating system release, Windows 8, is hit by a patent lawsuit. Boo! But don’t make the mistake of assuming this is just a patent troll trying to grub some candy

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Patent 6724403
Does that look like am early sketch of Windows 8's Metro interface to you? If it does, you'd rule against Microsoft in its newest patent lawsuit.

"Boo!" Microsoft has just been sued by a heretofore little-known operating system technology firm, SurfCast for its use of tiles in Windows 8's Microsoft Design Language interface, a.k.a. Metro.

SurfCast, based out of Portland, Maine, claims to have been the first to design the interface concept referred to as “Tiles:”

Tiles can be thought of as dynamically updating icons. A Tile is different from an icon because it can be both selectable and live – containing refreshed content that provides a real-time or near-real-time view of the underlying information. Tiles can provide dynamic bookmarking – an at-a-glance view of the current status of the program, file, or content associated with it. Tiles enable people to have all their content, applications, and resources, regardless of whether on their mobile device, tablet, computer, or in their Cloud – visualized persistently – dynamically updating.

I bet that sounds familiar. That text could be a description of the Metro interface. As Ovid Santoro, CEO of SurfCast wrote, "We developed the concept of Tiles in the 1990s, which was ahead of its time. Microsoft’s Live Tiles are the centerpiece of Microsoft’s new Operating Systems and are covered by our patent."

SurfCast, which currently has no products, does have four patents: 6,724,4037,028,2647,376,907 and 7,987,431. All of these cover a "System and method for simultaneous display of multiple information sources."

In particular, Surfcast claims that Microsoft violated its 2004 '403 patent by making, using, selling, and offering to sell devices and software products covered by the ’403 patent, including operating systems for personal computers, phones, tablet devices, and other hardware, mobile devices with the Windows Phone 7 Operating System (“the Windows Phone 7 Products”), the Microsoft Surface with the Windows RT Operating System, the Microsoft Windows RT, Microsoft Windows 8, Microsoft Windows 8 Pro, and Microsoft Windows 8 Enterprise Operating System for personal computers, and personal computers implementing the Microsoft Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, and Windows 8 Enterprise Operating System … throughout the United States."

Microsoft has its own, but much newer patent, dating from April 2011, 7,933,632, which covers the “tile space user interface for mobile devices, which  provides "a snapshot of the current state of content available through the mobile device without requiring any interaction by the user."

Some have already cried that SurfCast's claims are being made by a patent troll, but a closer look shows that this may be a rush to judgment. Patent trolls typically are businesses that collect patents for the sole purpose of suing companies when the ideas represented in the patents are turned into products. SurfCast, however, dates back to 1998. By 2001 it was advertising that its "patent pending user interface technology enables the simultaneous display and management of multiple data streams. It delivers faster and easier paths to content, creating a new class of application that defines the broadband experience.”. In short, while the company may never had made money from its patents in a product, it does seem to have been sincerely trying to turn them into a viable and profitable product.

In addition, one of the '403 patent creators and SurfCast's co-founder, Santoro, is now the company's CEO. Usually, patent trolls have little, if anything, to do with a patent's actual inventer.

The merit of the legal protection is another matter. I’m not sure whether a patent should have been granted in the first place for such an obvious idea as displaying data on multiple windows on a display. In my view, the patent never should have been granted. That said, this does not appear to me to be a simple case of a patent troll trying to cash in on another company's success.

Microsoft's reaction? A Microsoft spokesperson said, "We are confident we will prove to the court that these claims are without merit, and that Microsoft has created a unique user experience."

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Topics: Windows, Legal, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Patents, Smartphones, Tablets, PCs

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60 comments
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  • Live by the sword, die by the sword

    First i4i, now SurfCast. This won't be as simple as dropping the word 'Metro' from Windows 8.

    Given how Microsoft has gone after Android and Chrome OS device manufacturers for protection money, very successfully, I might add, I have great trouble either rooting for Microsoft or feeling sorry for them.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • No original thinking in your post

      Is there?
      Shame we have so much dead space in these discussions.
      martin_js
      • martin_js their dosen't seem to be any original thinking in your post eithe

        Shame we have so much dead space in these discussions.
        Over and Out
        • Enough Said

          Enough Said
          martin_js
    • "I have great trouble either rooting for MSFT or feeling sorry for them"

      Quite honestly, nobody here really cares what your feelings are, or even thinks you have any.
      ackacka
    • It dosnt matter. Its kindergarten simple. Its not inventive.

      Its just a simple idea, any idiot could have thought of, and many idiots likely have. Its an idea thats not without merit, but many idiot simple ideas are not bad, in fact many are quite good. Apple has made a lot of their living by using simple non inventive intuitive ideas that any idiot could have thought of but its an idiot simple idea that has merit because in its simplicity it works and has merit.

      The IT world is full of idiot simple ideas that are sometimes adopted, and sometimes not. Some have more merit, some have less, little or even none. Live tiles are a very simple idea and anyone with a fairly simple knowledge of how the internet and computers work has probably thought of something somewhat like live tiles before. Its hardly a tricky thought.

      If this goes anywhere, the patenting system truly has gone mad and we should all start patenting things like breathing and drinking milk by way of pouring it in ones mouth.

      If SJVN thinks this crap has any merit at all he truly is a lost soul who has sold his integrity to the moron police in exchange for free reign to talk like a moron without being locked up in a loony bin.

      Here is a perfect chance for him to say "as much as I loathe Windows and every fiber of its construction, this claim is idiotic".

      Lets see if he has even a scrap of credibility left.
      Cayble
      • You hit the nail on the head

        @Cayble - EXACTLY. I've been developing software for 30+ years. I've used many of the design elements that I later see being fought over in patent battles. Never in my wildest dreams would I thought of patenting them because I know that many, many other developers have thought of them and have used them time and again.

        This whole thing is patently ridiculous - Monty Python couldn't come up with anything more ridiculous!
        mars@...
  • The picture is insufficient evidence

    I don't know if the patent is actually valid. Unfortunately, I severely doubt the lawsuit will change MS' position as to the holiness of software patents (even though they've probably lost more money from them than they've gained).

    The only question is whether or not MS's loyal partisans will take accusations by lawyers not working for MS as proof of guilt.

    Had to change a word to get around the profanity filter. The synonym, however, doesn't really fit very well.
    John L. Ries
    • I'm with you

      Fortunately I'm not into patent law and I can't say if it's valid or not. Considering MS cited the prior art from the SurfCast patent in their own application I'd say it's pretty good evidence that they have already reviewed the existing patents and believe they will win in litigation. Of course that doesn't mean jack once it gets to the courtroom, but I have a feeling they were not only expecting this but have a fairly solid case prepared.

      MS has been quite vocal about software patents needing reform. Considering they haven't been they play by the same rules as everyone else. Also, MS has leveraged the technology behind how ActiveSync works, not the idea of syncing email, as the basis for at least that litigation. Additionally they used the FAT32 file system in their litigation, something they designed and built.

      As for if SurfCast is a patent troll, I suppose that depends on your definition. To me it's a company that buys or creates patents like they have. It's easy to have an idea on what something could look like, implementing it as a full blown product is far more difficult. It would be like Apple patenting the iPhone design, never releasing one, and then suing someone over using a rectangular phone with grids of icons. It sounds silly even typing that.

      Patent troll or not though, this is the world we live in. And while MS invested the time and money to implement the system outlined they may have to pay someone because of a picture of how something like that might work without the other company actually doing it. Sadly it will take more and more frivilous patent suits, and for the Microsofts of the world to lose, before there is any real chance of software patent reform.
      LiquidLearner
      • Patent Reform Provision 1:

        A company can no longer patent shapes. (ex. squares, rounded rectangles, etc)
        SamsungFTW
      • MS made it clear...

        ...that they consider software patents to be sacrosanct. They want to discourage patent trolling, but not make it harder for "successful companies" like themselves to protect their marketshare.
        John L. Ries
        • Sure, Right. Got it

          MS bad, the rest of the world good.
          William Farrel
          • Was there something specific...

            ...you wanted to critique, or are you just being a loyal partisan?
            John L. Ries
      • re: I'm with you

        > MS has been quite vocal about software patents needing reform.

        Yeah if "first to file" is reform. MS' idea of reform is the system should have no surprises like prior art.
        none none
      • Re: they have already reviewed the existing patents

        If they knew about the existing patent, then any infringement becomes wilful infringement, and the damages award is tripled.
        ldo17
        • Ya. We in the law know. We also know its crap.

          This is the nuttiest thing I have ever seen. Sheer garbage.
          Cayble
  • Couple of clarification

    1. SurfCast was describing this as an interface for websites in 2009. Their stated goal with the new interface was "to get the most out of broadband's speed."
    2. They didn't even start using the word "Tiles" until sometime in 2011.

    For a better indepth look, I suggest http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/10/patent-troll-claims-it-invented-the-windows-8-and-windows-phone-tiles/.
    RonCri
    • "They didn't even start using the word "Tiles" until sometime in 2011

      The word 'tiles' (and phrase 'display device') appear multiple times in U.S. patent no. 6,724,403 which was granted in 2004:

      http://www.patents.com/us-6724403.html
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • From your link:

        >>>Accordingly, the present invention provides an easy to use graphical interface that facilitates the organization and management of multiple data sources corresponding to a user's needs and interests. The present invention comprises a grid of tiles that resides on the user's computer desktop. The grid of tiles provides a uniform, graphical environment in which a user can access, operate, and/or control multiple data sources on electronic devices. The graphical environment is uniform with respect to the source of accessed information and can manage multiple streams of content, entirely of the user's choice. For example, the invention presents video clips, e-mail messages, television shows, Internet sites, application programs, data files and folders, live video streams, music, radio shows, and any other form of analog signal, digital data or electronically stored information, to the user uniformly and simultaneously, regardless of whether the information is stored locally or available via modem, T1 line, infrared, or any other form of communication. The user's impression of the interface is also independent of the type of electronic device upon which it is implemented.
        Mr.SV
        • ...

          Don't you think this work completely different then Microsoft Live Tiles?:
          http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=%252Fnetahtml%252FPTO%252Fsrchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=7,933,632.PN.&OS=PN/7,933,632&RS=PN/7,933,632
          Mr.SV