January 26, 2004 3:56 PM PST

Microsoft: XML patent moves are no big deal

Recent patent applications filed by Microsoft are routine moves and don't reflect a change in the company's position on Extensible Markup Language, according to a spokesman for the software maker.

As previously reported, Microsoft has filed applications for numerous XML-related patents in the United States, Europe and New Zealand. The patents deal with the way its Office software processes XML, the fast-growing standard for exchanging data among disparate computing systems.

XML-based capabilities have been one of the main selling points for Office 2003, the recently released version of Microsoft's market-leading productivity package. By saving documents as XML files, Office allows back-end computing systems, such as corporate databases, to retrieve and reuse data from those documents. XML support also allows Office to become a client for viewing and manipulating data from Web services and from complex enterprise applications such as customer relationship management (CRM) software.

Analysts said some of the proposed patents could prevent competing applications from opening XML files created in Office. "This is a direct challenge to software vendors who want to interoperate with Word through XML," according to Rob Helm, of research firm Directions on Microsoft. "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."

Microsoft spokesman Mark Martin said the company couldn't comment on how the patents, if granted, might be applied or licensed. But he said such applications are standard moves for the company to protect its innovations and don't affect its commitment to openly sharing the XML schemas used by Office.

"While the XML standard itself is royalty-free, nothing precludes a company from seeking patent protection for a specific software implementation that incorporates elements of XML," Martin said. "The presence of this patent application...does nothing to change the commitment Microsoft made this past November when it announced the available of a royalty-free licensing program for our Office 2003 XML reference schemas."

Martin added that numerous technology companies have sought XML-related patents. A search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows hundreds of applications for patents related to the processing of XML code. "This is an industry-standard means of differentiation followed by other major companies," Martin said.


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