Microsoft has applied for patents that could prevent competing applications from processing documents created with the latest version of the software giant's Office program.
The company filed patent applications in New Zealand and the European Union that cover word processing documents stored in the XML (Extensible Markup Language) format. The proposed patent would cover methods for an application other than the original word processor to access data in the document. The U.S. Patent Office had no record of a similar application.
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Microsoft applies for patents that could prevent competing applications from reading documents created with the latest version of Office.
XML capabilities have been one of the main selling points for Office 2003. The patents could create a barrier for competing software, such as future versions of OpenOffice and StarOffice, from working with Microsoft's XML format.
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The inventors cited in the European application have filed identical U.S. and European applications covering other XML-related topics. Those applications
, however, appear to relate to how a word processor parses XML code rather than how that code is shared with other applications.
Microsoft representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
XML-based capabilities have been one of the main selling points for Office 2003, the new version of the market-leading software package. By saving documents as XML files, the new Office will allow back-end computing systems such as corporate databases to retrieve and reuse data from documents. XML support also allows Office to become a client for viewing and manipulating data from Web services and complex enterprise applications, such as customer relationship management software.
The proposed patents apparently seek to protect methods other applications could use to interpret the XML dialect, or schema, Office uses to describe and organize information in documents. Microsoft recently agreed to publish those schemas and is looking at opening other chunks of Office code.
Despite those moves toward openness, the patents could create a barrier to competing software, said Rob Helm, an analyst for research firm Directions on Microsoft.
"This is a direct challenge to software vendors who want to interoperate with Word through XML," he said. "For example, if Corel wanted to improve WordPerfect's support of Word by adopting its XML format...for import/export, they'd probably have to license this patent."
The patents likely wouldn't immediately affect the open-source software package OpenOffice, which uses different XML techniques to describe a document, Helm said. But they could prevent future versions of OpenOffice and StarOffice, its proprietary sibling, from working with Microsoft's XML format.
Analyst Matt Rosoff, also with Directions on Microsoft, said the proposed patents fit with recent moves by Microsoft--such as the licensing of FAT (file allocation table) systems and ClearType font technology--to be more aggressive in licensing its intellectual property.
"In the last few months, we're sort of seeing more emphasis from Microsoft on turning its patents into a revenue source," Rosoff said.
Microsoft isn't the only technology company facing a difficult balancing act between making money and supporting open standards such as XML, Rosoff added.
"Microsoft has always played an interesting game when it comes to standards," he said. "They're going to support them as necessary to get technology broadly adopted. But at the same time, they're an (intellectual property) company. That's the case with any big business."
Sam Hiser, who handles marketing for OpenOffice.org, doubted the application would go far given the wide array of precedents for applications sharing XML data.
"I think it's going to be a non-issue, legally. I just don't think the patent will be accepted," he said. "This is Microsoft doing its aggressive best to protect its interests."