Windows 8’s Halloween surprise: Metro patent lawsuit

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
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
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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