Did anyone catch Darryl Taft's piece in eWeek this week: "Real Software Slams Microsoft's Patent Effort"? Apparently, Real Software (not the RealPlayer folks) has a (very) VB-like cross-platform product called REALbasic, and thus objects to a Microsoft patent application for the IsNot keyword that originates from VB.
Paul Vick, whose name is on the patent application, and who is tech lead of the VB team, blogged about the patent application back in November. From reading the post, Paul seems pretty ambivalent about the efficacy of patenting IsNot, to say the least. In fact he feels the entire premise of software patents is harmful. He further argues that Microsoft, like other software companies (IBM key among them) routinely file for numerous patents, as a defensive measure. Typically the companies don't enforce the patents in a way harmful to other parties but, so the logic goes, need to protect themselves from someone else filing a patent that could be used harmfully against them. Effectively, this argument likens the reality of the software patent landscape to the nuclear "mutually assured destruction" regimen that practically defined the cold war. Hardly a comforting analogy.
I haven't made up my mind on this one. But I'll offer a few observations:
- It's very difficult, intellectually, to argue that IsNot is patentable when the != syntax is effectively in the public domain, and the <> notation is standard mathematical usage. I know IsNot is for objects rather than scalars, but come on...get real (sorry).
- Darryl Taft is one of the fairer reporters out there, with regards to Microsoft products, its strategy, and its role in the marketplace. So I'm concerned when even someone of his wisdom writes an article that comes off so inflammatory (and presents the dubious notion, albeit through attributed quotes, that Microsoft's patent is meant to stave off erosion of Visual Studio's market share in the face of competition from Linux IDEs). If Taft is saying stuff like this, Microsoft has a PR problem here and they need to address it.
- Microsoft takes a lot of heat for doing things that other vendors view as standard practice. Microsoft is very much in the spotlight, so they need to accept this and not gripe about it. Meanwhile, I hope people, when considering this issue, keep in mind that Microsoft cannot disenfranchise itself from diligent competition by abstaining from what all of their major competitors do. The question is, does trying to get a patent on a keyword like IsNot go beyond that kind of reasonable parity?
Something tells me we haven't heard the last of this topic.