Sun fended off Apple, Microsoft IP lawsuit threats

Steve Jobs personally threatened to sue Sun Microsystems, Jonathan Schwartz says. Sun warded off that and a Microsoft threat with its own patent portfolio.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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3 min read

Revealing a bit of previously hush-hush history that's relevant today, Sun Microsystems' former chief executive says that Apple CEO Steve Jobs threatened to sue Sun for infringing on its intellectual property in 2003 for a user interface design.

Jonathan Schwartz, former Sun CEO
Jonathan Schwartz, former Sun CEO Stephen Shankland/CNET

And that's not all: Microsoft's Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer also tried to get Sun to license Microsoft Office patents for use in OpenOffice, a move that would have made open-source distribution of the competing product impossible, Jonathan Schwartz said in a blog post Tuesday.

The anecdotes will be of interest at handset maker HTC, which Apple sued last week for patent infringement. HTC, though, is a newer and smaller company that some believe lack the intellectual property arsenal possessed by companies such as Sun.

Jobs delivered his threat to Sun personally, Schwartz said, calling his office to say the graphics in Sun's operating system 3D interface, Project Looking Glass, were "stepping all over Apple's IP," and that if Sun commercialized it, "I'll just sue you."

The meeting with Microsoft followed the same pattern.

"As we sat down in our Menlo Park conference room, Bill skipped the small talk, and went straight to the point, 'Microsoft owns the office productivity market, and our patents read all over OpenOffice,'" Schwartz wrote. "Bill was delivering a slightly more sophisticated variant of the threat Steve had made, but he had a different solution in mind. 'We're happy to get you under license.' That was code for 'We'll go away if you pay us a royalty for every download'--the digital version of a protection racket."

In both cases, Sun countered with its own patent portfolio.

With Apple, Schwartz raised the similarities between Apple's Keynote presentation software and Concurrence, software from Schwartz's start-up Lighthouse Design, which Sun acquired. And he pointed to Sun's operating system patents, relevant given its Unix history and the fact that Apple's Mac OS X uses Unix technology. "Steve was silent," Schwartz said.

With Microsoft, Sun's rebuttal involved Microsoft's .Net programming foundation and Sun's earlier Java. "Microsoft is no stranger to imitating successful products, then leveraging their distribution power to eliminate a competitive threat...So when they created their Web application platform, .Net, it was obvious their designers had been staring at Java--which was exactly my retort. 'We've looked at .Net, and you're trampling all over a huge number of Java patents. So what will you pay us for every copy of Windows?'" Schwartz said. "It was a short meeting."

Microsoft did make some headway, though, in its effort to capitalize on open-source software and its own intellectual property. It alleged in 2007 that Linux and other open-source software projects violate 235 Microsoft patents, and it has signed several patent agreements with companies for related technology.

Schwartz agrees with those who see Apple's suit against HTC as something of a proxy war against Google, whose Android operating system is used in several HTC phones, most notably the higher-end Nexus One. "I feel for Google--Steve Jobs threatened to sue me, too," Schwartz said in the opening line of his blog post.

Schwartz's company was able to defend itself, and indeed ultimately Sun used its patent portfolio to extract a lot of money from Microsoft. "I understand the value of patents--offensively and, more importantly, for defensive purposes. Sun had a treasure trove of some of the internet's most valuable patents--ranging from search to microelectronics--so no one in the technology industry could come after us without fearing an expensive counter assault. And there's no defense like an obvious offense."

HTC may be a little guy, but he suggested Apple's attack may backfire.

"For a technology company, going on offense with software patents seems like an act of desperation, relying on the courts instead of the marketplace," Schwartz said. "I wonder who will be first to claim Apple's iPad is stepping on their IP?"