PC era finally dawns at the patent office

This month, 100 patent and trademark examiners will get Pentium
PCs with which they can search documents and images at their own desktops.


It's a big step in the Patent and Trademark Office's longstanding attempt to create an
efficient electronic search environment. By the end of the year, about 700 examiners will
work at 133-MHz Pentium PCs with at least 64M of RAM and 21-inch monitors, all running
Microsoft Windows NT.


The remaining examiners will have the NT workstations by 1997, said Linda Burek,
director of the PTO's Administration and Management Systems Division. She said the agency
has not decided how it will buy the computers, or from whom.


At present, most of the 2,179 examiners rifle through papers, sift through books and
search different databases for information on existing patents. Sometimes a search sends
them to a different building, Burek said.


Those who can do on-line searches at their desks cannot get a clear enough image of a
proposed design. They must go to 1980s-era, dual-display workstations that show text on
one screen and images on the other.


All that will end when they have new desktop computers running Microsoft Word for
Windows, backed up by Unix servers running Wang Laboratories' OpenImage software under
Hewlett-Packard HP-UX. The workers can view files and images on the same screen.


"This is the first time any of the prototype ideas we've had is going out to the
field in a production kind of environment," Burek said. "Our examiners are going
to see how it works and what needs improving."


Systems integrator PRC Inc. of McLean, Va., the agency's longtime automation
contractor, helped to develop the prototypes. But PRC's role in the delivery and
installation of PCs for examiners has not been established, she said.


If the trial is successful, PTO will move to Windows NT on all desktop workstations,
Burek said. The agency expects to upgrade its current network with high-speed,
asynchronous transfer mode switching devices and 100-megabit/sec Ethernet connections from
workstations to servers.


PTO also will move away from its custom-built trademark search software to commercial
search products.


The agency has had a rough time eliminating paper from its work processes. Plagued by
procurement problems with the Automated Patent System design, PTO also had to deal with
such infrastructure snags as old wiring as it struggled to move from a closed architecture
to a more open one.


"We're growing at an incredible rate," Burek said. "We expect to have
2,400 examiners by year's end. Patent applications have been increasing steadily."


To ease the search burden for foreign patents, most examiners will get Internet access
by the end of the year. Now only 1,200 users have Internet access. That number will rise
to 6,000 by September, said James Napper, PTO's senior computer specialist.


The agency is fine-tuning an electronic filing system that will put patent applications
on line and enable examiners to research U.S. and foreign patents without leaving their
desks or touching a piece of paper.


"It's all coming along," Burek said.


The current 5 terabytes of patent and trademark image data is expected to grow to 15
terabytes by the close of the century. Last year, PTO granted 114,241 patents and
registered 75,372 trademarks. Administrative system transactions averaged about 5 million
a month, according to a PTO report.


"We're in three modes right now," Napper said. "We're moving from Novell
[NetWare] into a more open environment with TCP/IP and are converting over to Windows NT.
The HP [server] environment will replace the old technology, and I'd say that one to two
years down the road we will be a 95 percent NT shop, with some Unix still there."


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