Love it or hate it, Windows 8 was released last week. The biggest change Microsoft has ever made to the Windows operating system, it marks a colossal shift in how Microsoft is doing business, banking on the new OS, a fleet of Window 8 and RT powered tablets, and doubling down on access-from-anywhere cloud access via SkyDrive. Naturally as it occurs with every OS, it didn't come without its criticism as well as its praise from the general public. There's a bit of a learning curve on using the live tile interface as opposed to the start button driven Windows XP and 7 UI's a lot of users are used to, and though some users love that it turns your computer into a big phone, others complain that it just doesn't work as well. And while these user reactions to Windows 8 spanned the range of pure praise to pure criticism, there's no one I've spoken to that hated it enough to actually sit down, call their lawyer and file suit.
But of course there's always going to be exceptions to everything. In this case it's a small technology company called SurfCast up in Maine, who have just filed a patent infringement suit against the Redmond tech giants. They filed the complaint in Maine on Tuesday, leaving the amount of damages they're suing for left undisclosed. Now over the years a lot of tech companies have done some, shall we say, questionable things with regards to borrowing ideas from their contemporaries. So what was it about Windows 8 that drew the ire of SurfCast?
The issue is live tiles, the core of the new interface for the Windows 8 family of products. SurfCast is claiming that tiles were their invention based on a patent that they have, and they want damages for it. Immediately upon reading the headlines my nostrils tweaked, kind of sideways like and my face contorted to something... unnatural. It was a smell I've smelled before. It smelled like patent troll.
So I checked them out. You can see their website here. I know, right? Exactly what you'd expect from someone who invented live tiles - great flow, an intuitive user experience, and scores of content. All of that is totally there. EXCEPT IT'S THE EXACT OPPOSITE. It looks like something I could have cobbled together in FrontPage back in high school in the 90's. Scratch that, even stuff I did as a kid was better. My point is that even just looking at the website, there's nothing high tech happening here. The website's main headline is "SurfCast designs Operating System technology and has four issued patents with additional applications pending." There is nothing on the site pointing to any products - hardware, software or the combination of the two - that SurfCast has ever actually created themselves. A convenient "Patents" section tells the user what they're really all about. This furthered my theory on their trollish behavior.
Anyway I digress. SurfCast's complaint is on the grounds of patent 6,724,403, entitled “system and method for simultaneous display of multiple information sources.” The patent describes a graphical interface arranging "a variety of information sources into a grid of tiles," with each tile refreshing content independent of each other. The patent was issued to SurfCast in 2004 by the USPTO, and sure, on its face I can see how it sounds familiar to the Microsoft's Windows 8 UI. But Microsoft does have its own patent, 7,933,632 awarded in 2011, entitled "Tile space user interface for mobile devices." Both Microsoft and SurfCast reference some of the same patents in their application, but the USPTO determined that Microsoft's was different enough from SurfCast's to give it to them. Actually drawing on SurfCast's patent as prior art is part of the ammo they're trying to use to extract some cash from the house that Gates built.
Now here's my main problem with all of this. SurfCast has held this patent and a couple of others in 2004, but they're asking only for damages - money for every supposed infringing product, including Windows Phone 7, Windows 8 and Windows RT. If they had any means or any intent to manufacture or develop any interface using this technology, oh I don't know, anytime in the last 8 years, then why wouldn't they go for an injunction to sell instead of or in addition to just money? We saw this exact type of situation unfold in the number of legal skirmishes between Apple and Samsung. SurfCast clearly didn't have anything they could have sold since 2004, meaning that, in my non-professional opinion, any claim of "harm and injury" on these grounds is ridiculous.
If the claim held any water, where was the lawsuit when Windows Phone 7 came out? The Windows 8 Developer Preview last year? The Consumer Preview this year? They waited until the very month that Microsoft released Windows 8, RT, and the Surface hardware. Sorry SurfCast, Technical Fowl just ain't buying what you're sellin'. Every shred of evidence tells me that this is nothing more than a troll out for some easy green.
Microsoft's statement to Wired and Ars Technica on the topic was simple: “We are confident we will prove to the court that these claims are without merit and that Microsoft has created a unique user experience.”
Translation: "We are going to mop the floor with these chumps."