Federal future cloudy for Microsoft Word

Court ruling throws purchasing plans in doubt

Federal officials are wondering whether a recent injunction against Microsoft will force them to rethink their software purchase plans and are unsure how much they can count on the popular word processing software to be available in the months and years ahead.

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Court ruling puts brakes on sales of Microsoft Word

It’s certain that current users of Word will be unaffected. The injunction, which will bar Microsoft from selling Word 2003, Word 2007 and future versions of the program, takes effect in mid-October, though a pending appeal by Microsoft will probably push that out by a year or more.

A federal judge in the U.S. District of East Texas ruled Aug. 11 in favor of a Canadian firm, i4i Ltd., which alleged that Microsoft had infringed its patent concerning custom XML.

The court ruling also ordered Microsoft to pay about $290 million in damages to i4i.

“It’s not our intention for this to have a retroactive implementation,” said Louden Owen, i4i chairman. “Current users can continue with the program, and we will be compensated for any damages that have occurred to date from the court award.”

The time set by the judge for Word sales to stop should give users a substantial period to find an alternative supplier of the technology “which, hopefully, will be us,” Owen said.

Microsoft spokesman Kevin Kutz assured federal customers that they can continue to purchase the products through the end of the fiscal year, fulfilling any end-of-year buying strategies they had. However, he didn’t speculate about what might happen after that.

"The suit is not about file formats, and the verdict has no implications for Open XML,” Kutz added. “It is about the way Microsoft Word handles certain kinds of code. In addition, the particular Custom XML functionality at issue is not used by most customers."

The suit charged that Microsoft violated the Canadian company’s patent for technology used to read .XML and .DOCM files containing custom XML, which is a way for organizations to design their own XML templates and forms. Specifically, the judgment orders Microsoft to stop selling Word products "that have the capability of opening a .XML, .DOCX, or .DOCM file ('an XML file') containing custom XML."

That feature was first included in Word 2003 and has been standard in all versions since.

Agency procurement practices mean the injunction is unlikely to affect agencies for some time, even if Microsoft loses its appeal, said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at FedSources.

“Agencies might wait two or three years to refresh technologies, and those that need current versions of Word and Microsoft Office probably already have them,” he said. “So I don’t think there’ll be a lot of ripple effect at the agency level.”

Also, said Jeremy Grant, vice president and chief development officer at Acquisition Solutions Inc., most federal agencies don’t do the kind of spot deals that could be affected by the court case.

“Most have multiyear enterprise license deals for products like this," he said.

The patent battle could have implications further down the road, however, as agencies consider what their future purchases should be. As Bjorklund said, some agencies still use Word rival WordPerfect, which is as yet unaffected by i4i’s patent claims. And others such as the Defense Department have been looking at open-source challengers to Microsoft, such as Sun's OpenOffice suite, available for free.

i4i said it has looked at OpenOffice and found it doesn’t infringe on its patents.

“The federal government is by no means a complete Microsoft house and, in some instances, I can see agencies looking at the court case and seeing it as the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Bjorklund said. “They’ll either delay purchase of Word, or just decide to go to something else.”

However, that could also depend on how Microsoft handles the technical makeup of Word. The company declined to comment, but there’s been plenty of comment on the Web and elsewhere about potential workarounds, including suggestions that Microsoft simply strip the custom XML feature from future versions of Word and Microsoft Office.

If that happens, i4i said it will be ready.

“We have explained [to federal agencies] ways of moving from Microsoft Word to an i4i implementation of custom XML,” said Michael Vuple, i4i’s founder. “If agencies want custom XML, we are prepared, and we are working on a way for them to use our technology.”

The company hasn’t been actively marketing that approach to government so far because it didn’t want to take advantage of the current “unfortunate situation,” he said. But with agencies likely to be asking the question, he said i4i will probably have to take a more proactive stance in the future.

About the Authors

Brian Robinson is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Thu, Aug 20, 2009 Derick Centeno NYC

Open source software functions on the principle that safety exists when all or many eyes are on the code. This is not unlike regular oversight by regulating bodies over various government functions with the exception that the oversight never ends because the oversight is not dependent upon limited funding. This process appears counter-intuitive until one thinks it through. This doesn't mean that a project like Openoffice.org or Abiword is free of problems, it does mean however that a SysAdmin or group of Federal or other government official SysAdmins can apply such projects to their own uses theoretically with better assurance of what that code is actually doing - this cannot be said of any proprietary code from Microsoft or anyone else. Also because a project like Abiword and others are open source, an agency can choose a variety of open source licenses to build upon the open source application of their choice or create a variant for their own unique use within their organization within a context of a variety of various licenses useful to that government agency. Please review those options here: http://www.opensource.org/licenses/ In addition, applications or subutilities built within an open source application can be a very smart way to control cost and liberate that agency from slow updates. An interesting observation exists that many open source projects have a higher update and self-correction process than commercial applications. Whether this will hold true within a government agency implementing an open source product depends upon how well that agency utilizes it's resources. It is a mistake to be biased for or against open source or commercial applications on principle. An insightful policy utilizing and improving what is available is the best option.

Wed, Aug 19, 2009

Yes more proof of the stupidity of the US patent system. How any company can be awarded a patent that allows for embedding of custom XML in an XML file is absurd. Why have an open standard if proprietary patents can be applied to selective parts of it. The best thing that can come out of this is a complete abandonment of the software patent system - which is unnecessary anyway as copyright laws provide the requisite protection. At some point IBM may decide to call in one of their patents that allow operating system interrupts to occur or data to be stored on a hard disk and then where will we be. Let some European common sense apply

Wed, Aug 19, 2009

The words "custom XML" do not equate to patent infringement. There are thousands of implementations of custom XML out there. The first key is whether or not Microsoft actually infringed on a patent. That is not always an easy thing to determine, particularly by a judge who has studied law and not software development. Assuming a consortium of software developers can agree that the handling of custom XML indeed infringes on a patent, you have to prove Microsoft deliberately and willfully used it. This judge has already decided those two things happened, but they are extremely difficult to prove. Hundreds of cases have been overturned in higher courts. Most of these opinions come from one man's judgment about Microsoft and are overturned after a more objective and unemotional view of the facts. My opinion is the ruling will be overturned by a higher court based on an objective view of the evidence.

However, if the ruling stands, one, two or all three of the following will happen. First, Microsoft will negotiate with i4i and will come to a licensing agreement and users won't be affected. Keep in mind this little Canadian company had no marketing venue to even approach the scope this affords. This settlement will be like 20 years profits delivered overnight by selling to Tom, Dick and Harry. By getting into a Microsoft product, they will become famous, have delivered millions of copies, etc. They will not want to lose their "fame" by botching a settlement. Remember similar things happened to ZIP and GIF formats. If the company makes a money grab now, everyone will dump their format and the company won't be able to find customers. No one will deal with them. They need a good negotiator and they can parlay this into fame and wealth. Second, Microsoft will redesign how XML is handled in their product and issue a "patch" for both versions of Office. Users will have to upgrade their copies, but there will be no impact on users or their products - the most notable side effect would be file sizes would get a little larger or smaller due to the change in format. Worst case scenario, some customers might have their particular application or document become less readable and they will have to reformat to get the new "patch" to work properly. Remember, this doesn't change what XML is, just how it's handled. No customer would lose their XML, it simply wouldn't be formatted the same in the document. It would be a relatively simple fix. Third, Microsoft will develop an "add-on" that will be just for i4i products. They will turn off XML in Word, but if you need the functionality, you get the i4i add-on and it will handle your documents like before. The add-on will either be licensed through i4i and Microsoft will pay royalties, or they will reinvenmt the i4i process so that it doesn't infringe on the patent but gives the same results. There is no such thing as "one way" to do something with software. There are always multiple ways to achieve a result.

Wed, Aug 19, 2009 Elias Aarnio Finland

Once again here we can see a comment from someone who does not understand computer security at all. Opening the source to the public is a way to _increase_ data security. Why is this? Simply because the opposite strategy commonly called "security by obscurity" does not work. Quite the opposite: the holes in the system remain unknown to the sysadmins themselves and exploitation and stealing data can go on for ages.

Wed, Aug 19, 2009

Open Source Code is a bad idea for the government due to security reasons. Cybersecurity is a top issue I cannot see why we would open up a code to all the hackers that already infiltrate the system.

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