The patent fight that could disrupt the Internet

At first blush, the awarding of a $521 million of Microsoft's money to plug-in patent holder Eolas Technologies looks like one of those "score one for the little guys" victories.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive on

At first blush, the awarding of a $521 million of Microsoft's money to plug-in patent holder Eolas Technologies looks like one of those "score one for the little guys" victories.

Indeed, Eolas has accomplished in court what few others, including the federal government on several occasions. Now that the verdict is in, one question remains: is Microsoft the real loser?

Answer? No. Instead, you, me and everyone else that uses the Internet.

The $521 million dollars that Microsoft has been ordered to pay is pocket change compared to the potential impact on those who use and build the Web.

Although it is unclear what injunctive relief may be ordered beyond the monetary damages, it appears as though Microsoft may be left with no choice but to disable the plug-in architecture that so many Web users depend on for experiencing dynamically driven content via technologies like Adobe's Acrobat (for PDF files), Apple's QuickTime, Macromedia's Flash, RealNetworks' Real Player, and Sun's Java Virtual Machine.

Web users as well as the many content authors who may have to retroactively reprogram their interactive content should be outraged. Not to mention Apple, Macromedia, Real, Sun and other vendors of technologies that depend on the presence of the plug-in architecture. .

I purposely left out one plug-in-Microsoft Windows Media Player. Although Microsoft vigorously defended itself and has vowed to appeal the ruling, the verdict is more like a dream come true the Microsoft purists. Never in Bill Gates' or Steve Ballmer's wildest dreams could Microsoft have hatched such a dastardly plan where a tiny company successfully sues for patent infringement and, as a result, Microsoft has to turn off access to its competitors' technologies for almost every user of the Web (since most use Internet Explorer). At the very least, to keep Web-based content that was designed for the Windows Media Player from being interrupted, Microsoft could hardwire the Windows Media Player into Internet Explorer.

Imagine that the world's dominant Web browser supporting nothing but Microsoft technologies. After several governments, hundreds of lawyers, and still more trustbusters worked for nearly a decade to put an end to Microsoft's monopolistic behavior and predation, a federal court in Chicago hands a cornerstone of the Web experience to Microsoft on a silver platter.

Microsoft would never in a million years admit that it's actually savoring such an outcome. I didn't bother asking. To most observers the company's response so far appears to absolve it from plotting something truly evil, like taking advantage of the situation.

After the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) learned of the ruling and scrambled together a meeting of the affected (and afflicted) parties, Microsoft was quick to communicate its options and has so far been open to suggestions on technical workarounds.

For example, Microsoft supposedly proposed inserting a simple dialog box inserted between the selection and the launch of a Java applet or an ActiveX control to work around the patent's definition of an "automated interactive experience."

According to the W3C's summary of the meeting, which was held in Macromedia's offices in San Francisco, "Microsoft presented several options that it has under consideration, and benefited from constructive discussion of these options. In addition, the meeting participants strongly supported clear communication on this matter, including establishing a developer Web site and mailing list to coordinate approaches for changes to Web sites and software, and providing early releases of software and documentation."

Those present at the meeting say that it was clear from Microsoft's presentation that the company had a fix that was set for delivery via Microsoft's Windows Update service. The fix would disable support for plug-ins in all existing installations of Internet Explorer. Conspiracy theorists will no doubt find it curious as to why Microsoft was so well prepared with an already-engineered technical response.

Of course, in a strange twist of irony, Windows Update itself works through a plug-in. By disabling plug-ins, an update delivered through Windows Update would disable Windows Update as well--a condition that Windows users would find unacceptable since that service is the primary vehicle for delivering the security updates that keep their systems shielded from threats like MSBlast.

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