Microsoft sues Salesforce.com for patent infringement – but why?

Microsoft has filed a patent infringement actionagainst Salesforce.com.

The Register has posted more details. The filing[pdf] lists nine counts of alleged infringement:

1. Method for mapping between logical data and physical data

2. System and method for providing and displaying a web page having an embedded menu

3. Method and system for stacking toolbars in a computer display

4. Automated web site creation using template driven generation of active server page applications

5. Aggregation of system settings into objects

6. Timing and velocity control for displaying graphical information (2 counts)

7. Method and system for identifying and obtaining computer software from a remote computer

8. System and method for controlling access to data entities in a computer network

I make no comment on the legal validity of these claims. On the broader issue though, Microsoft says this:

Microsoft has been a leader and innovator in the software industry for decades and continues to invest billions of dollars each year in bringing great software products and services to market. We have a responsibility to our customers, partners, and shareholders to safeguard that investment, and therefore cannot stand idly by when others infringe our IP rights

My observation is that I have seen Salesforce.com shake up the industry by making its multi-tenant online application and platform work for its customers. Although there are some parallels, the Salesforce.com platform is more radical than Microsoft Azure and has more potential to reduce costs, because it is based on a single shared application, rather than being a hosted platform for custom applications. The differences are not absolute, because the Force.com platform also supports custom applications, and Microsoft also offers multi-tenanted applications, but if you look at the core propositions the distinction is valid.

Again, I have no idea what the legal outcome will be, but from a public relations perspective this does not look good for Microsoft. It raises the question: is Microsoft litigating because it cannot succeed in the market?

Small companies and patent trolls sue large companies because they have little to lose, and potentially a lot to gain. Large companies show more restraint. I have always assumed that there are thousands of plausible patent infringements among the largest technology companies, and that the industry would descend into a kind of litigation meltdown if all of them were pursued, to nobody’s benefit other than lawyers.

The question then: why is Microsoft going after Salesforce.com now?

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7 comments to Microsoft sues Salesforce.com for patent infringement – but why?

  • The greatest innovations from Microsoft in the past ten years involve new ways to leverage an existing monopoly to create new monopolies, while maximising money wrung from customers and partners. Despite this, to my knowledge they’re only profitable in 3 areas: MS Windows, MS Office, and Sharepoint. There scores (if not hundreds) of other initiatives are all bleeding in various ways. Microsoft sees this as a feature, allowing them to use this constellation of losing products like a hot air balloon carries sandbags. If their profits are looking a bit low in a given quarter, they cut a few off to level out their ascent. Luckily for them (and unluckily for their customers), Microsoft’s 3 earners are *enormously* profitable (90% profit margins vs. 10ish% for most businesses in *competitive* marketplaces), thanks to Microsoft’s ability to charge monopoly rents.

    It begs the questions of Microsoft customers: were you home sick that day in high school economics? How does it feel to voluntarily pour your money into someone else’s coffers?

  • Of course they’re going to start using patents – job #1 = maintain monopolies. They can’t maintain their monopolies any other way, because they’re starting to have really compelling competition despite proprietary lock-in creating HUGE barriers to entry. Microsoft are spiralling slowly (but, I suspect) spectacularly into the ground.

  • Frank Franz

    These are ridiculous patents and an extremely callous attempt by Microsoft to oust a competitor. If Microsoft is seriously trying to defend these so called patents, they should be suing the makers of every website that exists on the internet. I can think of ways that every one of these patents is violated by common web development practices:

    1. Method for mapping between logical data and physical data

    - Defining a class in an object-oriented programming language that loads information form a database and saves it to an instant of that class is a mapping. So is the graphical representation of a database table using a database design tool.

    2. System and method for providing and displaying a web page having an embedded menu

    - Every single website has menus on it. The menu is embedded in the web page because it is represented as HTML. Are you now going to sue browser makers and the W3C standards body for providing a system for displaying information that servers the purpose of a menu?

    3. Method and system for stacking toolbars in a computer display

    - Stacking is just a way of grouping information and controlling the layout of information and menus. This is done all the time using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript in web browsers to create menus, context menus, buttons that are grouped together to allow users to perform actions. Virtually every human computer interface provides a method and system for which toolbars to be created and displayed so that people can use the software.

    4. Automated web site creation using template driven generation of active server page applications

    - Is this an actual patent? Every single web development framework does this. Anything that takes data and converts it into HTML is a template. ASP.NET does this, so does PHP, Ruby on Rails, Cold Fusion, Django, JSP, and a million others that exist. If this patent is valid, no web site should ever be allowed to be built unless it is built with Microsoft technology.

    5. Aggregation of system settings into objects

    - System settings are just information that controls how an application is configured. System settings are used in most software applications, to control preferences, file locations, and anything else that matters to the application and how it functions. Aggregating it is just a natural way of representing the settings to someone who wants to configure those settings or even how you end up storing it, whether that be in a configuration file or in a database. Objects are a representation of information that has been loaded into computer memory and can be referenced in programmatic methods in programming languages. If this is a serious patent, no one should ever be able to load anything into computer memory unless the application was created using Microsoft technology.

    6. Timing and velocity control for displaying graphical information (2 counts)

    Timing and velocity controls are everywhere. Search engines let you type in a term and show you suggested search terms. The timing of the display of the matches is done so that you have to pause a bit before the matches are shown. Another example is when you hover your mouse over images and alternate text appears if you wait a bit without moving your mouse off of the image. These are just ways to make using the interfaces more intuitive, the logic is extremely simple. Salesforce is not the only company to ever do this, and if Microsoft is serious about this they’d better be willing to sue every single company that has ever made software that does anything based on timing information to help users use the software a little easier.

    7. Method and system for identifying and obtaining computer software from a remote computer

    Almost every software application these days can check if it is the most recent version or if there is a new version available to install. Windows Update on Microsoft’s operating sstem does this, and installs patches and updates for software applications. Firefox, Opera, and Chrome web browsers all do this and check for new versions and allow you to download and install the newer version. Mac OS X does this all the time to provide system updates and new versions of ITunes. Microsoft, why aren’t you also suing every company that makes web browsers and Apple as well?

    8. System and method for controlling access to data entities in a computer network

    Controlling access to data on a computer network is done on every computer that allows remote login, every corporate network that has multiple servers and only allows certain people to access the remote data with a user name and password, and any website that makes you enter a user name and password before accessing the information in that website. Ever heard of Facebook? Are you going to sue them too now because I need to be someone’s friend before I can see their personal information that they’ve restricted to only be viewed by their friends?

    In closing, Microsoft, you are reaching, perhaps desperate, and showing a level of immaturity that makes me question your companies reputation. I hope your filing is dismissed with prejudice, that these patents are deemed invalid, and that you instead focus your efforts on producing a superior product that customers choose to use rather than strong-arming your way to market dominance.

  • Chui Tey

    Windows will no longer see the kind of growth it used to. Much of MS’s initial advantages has been squandered. The SmartPhone, the tablet PC. Pile on top of this a battle of platforms like one it has never seen before, MS is hoping to check the growth of future behemoths who don’t have the benefit of a patent pool.

  • Andrew

    Salesforce did not fit our company and they would not allow us to leave even though it was not a good fit. They keep saying you got a contract and such and say there is nothing they can do except have you pay out the contract. Do not work with them! Plus if you want your data they charge for it! Stay away! Here was the rep we had that is doing his best to not help at all. Was nice in the beginning but now we see what he really is!

    [redacted]

  • My question goes to Frank Franz’s comment, I’m not a programmer but Franks detailed response makes so much sense, how will this asinine lawsuit play out? If the technology reasons for the lawsuit are bogus, won’t this get thrown out of court right from the get-go? I’ve always admired MS products (sorry, I have), but if this suit progress I will seriously consider MS alternatives wherever possible.

  • Matt Evans

    I think Frank’s analysis is interesting but the patent infingements I suspect may be more speciffic than as been summarised in this post.

    All of the above summaries are common practice in computing and none of them (that I’m aware of) derrive from Microsoft’s internal patented products in any way more than following implementations of such concepts as OOPL, MVC paterns and the like of which executions (the code it’self) of which are only copyrightable and not patentable, ex. yoru site using middleware, html and CSS is copyrightable but not necessarily patentable, so I think it is wise to assume that the points MS are focusing on are very secific code blocks or design patterns using this technology that they have been developed by them in a very speciffic way.

    Example: SF runs on Java to a greater or lesser extent. I’ve developed with force.com for a year now and one does see things such as the use of ViewState, which one could argue is an MS invention as it is a central (and quite annoying) part of the ASP dotNet architecture.

    However, even in the above example it is highly duifficult to prove ViewState does something other than track a session in a hidden field; something that has been common practice amoungst web programming for years. ASP dotNet just packages that defacto method of using hidden fields into the programming environment as a standard method, but is that patentable?…. We’ll see.

    The use of a speciffic device or code format that could be shown to be proprietary may result in a successfull case but the terms as presented on this post however should hypotheticaly be laughed out of court.