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Microsoft revs its patent machine

Company is prolific filer of patent applications, including those for exotic technologies such as a washable keyboard and software that responds to your emotions.

Microsoft, which once was only a modest customer of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, has been one of its biggest customers in recent years.

In just the past two months, more than 500 applications from the Redmond, Wash., software maker have been published. (That's actually a reflection of how active the company was in mid-2006, since patent applications aren't generally published until 18 months after their filing).

But it's one particular filing that has been grabbing headlines in recent days. That patent covers a means by which a computer that can use factors such as a person's heart rate, blood pressure, and facial expression to take action. The Times newspaper of London posted a story this week noting the "Big Brother" implications such a technology could have, such as notifying an employer if a worker appears stressed or is not being productive.

However, I'm hearing that this patent is more aimed at building a more useful and relevant help system into software than it is at offering a snooping tool for bosses. Of course, you never can tell where a technology will lead, and the patent could cover either or both applications.

Microsoft, which typically does not comment on individual applications, did offer a bit of comment, in the form of a statement from Horacio Gutierrez, Microsoft's vice president of intellectual property and licensing.

"This particular patent application, in general, describes an innovation aimed at improving activity-monitoring systems and uses the monitoring of user heart rate as an example of the kind of physical state that could be monitored to detect when users need assistance with their activities, and to offer assistance by putting them in touch with other users who may be able to help," Gutierrez said. "It is important to keep in mind that with most organizations in the business of innovation, some of our patent applications reflect inventions that are currently present in our products, and other applications represent innovations being developed for potential future use."

Trolling through filings can offer a glimpse of where a company is headed, but as with Apple's closely watched patent filings, seeing something in a patent application is far from a guarantee of what will eventually ship.

Microsoft's patent push is stimulated by a number of factors. One is competition and trying to make sure that Microsoft's rivals don't get access to key innovations. However, the company also began a broad intellectual-property licensing push several years ago, under which it licenses technology to many companies big and small. The company has signed a slew of patent cross-licensing deals since then, the most recent being Tuesday's deal with Japan's JVC.

A number of Microsoft's recently published patent applications cover search and advertising, areas in which Microsoft is investing a lot as it tries to play catch-up with Google. There are so many of these, I'll save them for a separate post, but recent filings cover things such as creating a spot market for video ads, and creating marketing that uses a combination of video and banner advertisements.

Among the other patent filings are hardware designs such as a washable keyboard and a washable mouse. There are other washable designs on the market, including both keyboards and mice.

Another patent covers so-called managed copy, which takes something like a video file or DVD, and uses digital rights management (DRM) to enable people make a copy that can be used on their various digital devices but does not allow unlimited duplication.