So it appears that Microsoft will have to shit or get off the pot on the i4i issue. I threw down some remarks on this a few months ago.
Here is the latest word. Basically, MS has lost their appeal, and Microsoft Office (and Word especially) will not be sold after January 11, 2010.
Who here thinks it’ll come to that? No one? Good. I don’t either. I think MS will either pay up or will write some update to break the functionality. Or so they’ll say, and so the code written to satisfy the language of the inevitable settlement.
What i4i created is something that I saw a lot working for Modern Age Books/Books24x7. There were companies approaching us back then with packages similar to what i4i offers. Basically, their S4 package consists of a storage method (their proprietary storage format I suspect) and “a set of Word macros that allow the use of MS-Word as the composition engine.” I pulled that from here, by the way.
Reading their press release brings back a lot of memories. The price point would have been ludicrous to us. Never would have bought it. Books24x7 ended up designing something of its own. I don’t know what they use now, but back then it was all home-grown. I wrote some of it, in fact. It was brutish but it worked, and that’s what mattered. All it cost them was my salary and I was definitely not paid developer money. Not complaining, it was one of the best experiences of my life.
Anyway, what they describe really isn’t that hard to write. I don’t know what approach they used in the writing of their Word macros, but I know what approach I and Mike Henkle used when conceiving our application and what I used when I wrote and maintained it. Not that hard, and not specifically patentable. But then I’m not a lawyer. I’m a problem solver.
So Microsoft either reverse-engineered or pilfered the DLL code from i4i and doesn’t want to pay for it. Used to be they’d simply buy up the company in question, absorb the assets and fire everyone they didn’t want. i4i sues, like they all do, and won, but suddenly Microsoft doesn’t want to pay up. The recession has made the mightiest company of the 1990s into cheap pricks.
Certainly Word’s DOC format appears to be exactly the sort of separated format and data that the i4i patent describes. I looked at a DOC saved in Word 97-2000 format in a hex editor and saw pretty much that. The file header, followed by a block of unformatted text, including carriage returns, line feeds and form (page) feeds. After that block all the metadata, including formatting, footnote placement, etc., all rendered in a proprietary way.
Sounds like the i4i description to me.
Now I am all for Microsoft getting nailed for stealing software written by smaller companies. By the same token I am all for any big company getting nailed for it. But I think what we’re seeing here is what companies of Microsoft’s size usually do when faced with innovation by a smaller company. They didn’t steal the code, they set up a team of developers who went at the concept and wrote their own iteration of the idea.
That’s how Microsoft made all their major innovations happen–except DOS of course. That was flat-out thievery.
The real question in my mind is, who thought up the data storage method used in the DOC format first? At first glance it appears to be what i4i describes, but did they think of it first or are they trying to claim prior art on something vague, like the idea of separating data from metadata? i4i’s patent dates from 1999, their press releases from 1997. Word 97 was when the DOC format made a major change. Certainly the addition of Visual Basic as the macro language and the adoption of the Document Object Model made it much more usable than Word 95 was, at least for my purposes at the time.
Something tells me that the truth of the i4i issue lies somewhere in there. Meanwhile the stars lined up for the little company with the interesting dead-end product, and has left a software giant in a pickle. Whether it will remain that way remains to be seen.