The main thing to keep in mind as you read otherwise alarming headlines about a Texas court's ruling that Microsoft must stop selling Word, at least in its current form, is this: It's silly and will be overturned on appeal.
Alexander Wolfe at InformationWeek actually put in the work this weekend to report that Microsoft itself holds more than half of the 300-plus U.S. patents with XML in the title. And of course, the patent in question doesn't even use the phrase XML (it does refer to SGML, the common ancestor of mark-up languages, including HTML and the handy little XML vocabulary RSS, which may well be how you found this blog post.)
Veteran tech journalist Michael Vizard has started a discussion over in our Knowledge Network asking whether the patent system is, as Wolfe puts it, insane.
I would answer that by saying, technically, it's just stupid.
The patent, in case you haven't read it yet, asserts:
A system and method for the separate manipulation of the architecture and content of a document, particularly for data representation and transformations. A map of metacodes found in the document is produced and provided and stored separately from the document. The map indicates the location and addresses of metacodes in the document. The system allows multiple views of the same content, the ability to work solely on structure and solely on content, storage efficiency of multiple versions and efficiency of operation.
I am not a developer, but that sounds like a functional definition of XML to me. You put a bunch of tags in a file, and another file (a map) tells a data job or application how to use content to which those tags are assigned. XML, "extensible" as it may be, does have a hierarchy, so why you'd need to externally store the location of tags, as opposed to simply their external definitions, eludes me. But then again, I'm not a developer -- I just bug them as part of my job.
I can also assure you that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of applications devoted to building and editing XML maps (one of them is called Microsoft Excel). We bought one from a company called Altova ourselves as a way to rip the crap that Microsoft jammed into Word docs under the guise of Open Office XML so that somewhat open code can make sense of the stuff. (I assure you, if anybody ever had a grievance with Redmond over document formats, it's me.)
How do you get 300-plus patents out of this?
Is the patent system obviously way too generous in handing this stuff out? Yes.
But I'd be more inclined to call it insane if some judge up the line, who actually bothers to read up on the germane tech before shuffling a suit on down the appellate line, is not certain to knock this goofy ruling down. As is, it's just stupid, wasteful, and keeps the price of your tech a little bit higher.