I was reading through IEEE's recent patent portfolio survey and was surprised to see that Microsoft was ranked No. 1 in terms of the overall quality, and more importantly, scientific value of its patent portfolio. The company that gave us Clippy is also sitting on a small mountain of innovation.
The question, of course, is how to turn raw innovation into saleable products. In this area Microsoft may be too dependent on last decade's products to truly focus on the next decade. Yes, Microsoft has churned out the Zune, Xbox, and other new products. But I suspect its dominance in operating systems and office productivity suites keeps it from truly pushing the envelope with new products, because everything has to fit within yesterday's conception of how computing should work.
In short, could Microsoft be its own worst enemy?
Here are the rankings:
But it's not solely about the number of patents (IBM leads that list, as the The Patent Board Survey shows). It's also about the utility and scientific strength of patents, which puts Microsoft in first place, according to The Patent Board:
"Second-place Microsoft is clearly on the rise with the highest Science Strength score, which rates the degree to which its patent portfolio is linked to core science," said (The Patent Board). "In addition, Microsoft posted double-digit growth in nearly every category that we analyze, including Industry Impact, Technology Strength, Science Strength, and Research Intensity. From a quantitative perspective, Microsoft had 94 percent growth in the number of IT patents filed, versus only 30 percent growth for IBM and 16 percent growth from third-ranked Hewlett-Packard."
In other words, Microsoft's patents are about more than Clippy.
Of course, customers don't buy patents. They buy products that solve their computing problems. In this, Microsoft needs to continue to improve (see above). I suspect that a more open approach to development and distribution would enable Microsoft to maintain the quality of its patent portfolio while ensuring that it be more relevant to the community into which it wishes to sell its products. Open source won't "fix" Microsoft but it could help.