What's in a Word?

David Tan

If you haven't been following it, Microsoft has spent the last few months entangled in a lawsuit involving one of its cornerstone desktop applications, Microsoft Word. The original verdict in the case came down back in May. Since then, Microsoft has been trying to appeal the decision and thus avoid an injunction on its sales of the product. As of this week, Microsoft has lost its appeal. So the question is, what does this mean for Word and for Office going forward?

The original decision in May awarded a Toronto-based company called i4i $200 Million in damages after the jury determined that Microsoft had infringed on a patent. In August, pending the outcome of the appeal, the court placed an injunction on sales of the product. At the heart of the lawsuit is Microsoft's use of technology for opening XML files that contain custom XML.

If you've never worked directly with XML (and chances are you haven't and you won't), it is basically a way of taking unstructured data and putting some structure to it.  So if you had a series of unrelated documents in completely different formats, and used XML tags to define the contents and denote things like the title or the body, you could very easily get those documents into an identical format. XML has long been used in the database world as a simple way to work with large amounts of data and easily communicate between disparate systems. One of the big changes in Office 2007 (and thus Word) involved the applications working directly with XML documents-that's the primary reason the document format changed so much, and why the file names now end with .docx instead of .doc, and why you have trouble opening a Word file in 2007 format if you only have Word 2003.

I4i actually has a long history of working with and around Word. It shipped an Office plug-in for XML as far back as 2000. Its claim is that it has specific algorithms for reading and writing custom XML, and that Microsoft used them in designing Word 2007. Apparently the jury and appeals court agree.

So what does this mean for Word? Technically, the injunction on the sales of the product goes into effect Jan. 11, 2010. Microsoft has re-engineered the software, and all copies sold on or after that date will have the feature removed. The lawsuit and the injunction do not affect copies sold prior to that date, so you don't have to stop using Word or worry about getting a subpoena in the mail. Furthermore, Word 2010 (slated for release sometime early next year) is being designed completely without the infringing technology. So in the long run, this will turn out to be a small blip on the radar (if you consider $200 million small) for Microsoft.

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