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Rush to judgment: the Quarterdeck patent.

What's the industry consensus about the likely impact of Quarterdeck's nowly-awarded patent for multitasking windowing technology?

A lot of people seem to believe Quarterdeck's patent threatens virtually every multitasking environment that's currently available, especially Windows and OS/2. The Quarterdeck patent could "shatter the industry," analyst Andy Seybold predicted. "Patent Opens Window to Software Confusion," proclaimed The Wall Street Journal. "Patent Rattles Windows," warned computer Systems News. "with [this] patent," infoworld suggested, "Quarterdeck could conceivably wield considerable power in the industry, demanding licensing fees or forcing competitors to remove their products from the market."

Do you agree?

No. Bear in mind that the actual text of the patent wasn't available until after most of the key publications had gone to press, so their reports (and the opinions of the analysts they quoted) were based on little more than a Quarterdeck press release and interviews with Gary Hecker, Quarterdeck's patent attorney.

In fact, the actual text of the patent supports a much more limited interpretation. Quarterdeck doesn't pretend to own any of the fundamental windowing concepts pioneered by Xerox, AT&T, and others. What the patent does claim is a proprietary method for creating multiple "pseudo-screens" that let unmodified, off-the-shelf programs write to multitasking windows instead of to the whole screen. That's a technically ingenious approach, but it's not the way most of the important PC-based windowing environments approach multitasking. To run properly in these environments, applications typically need some degree of customization; unmodified or "ill-behaved" programs can't share the

screen (though they may work in a full-screen window).

If the patent is so narrow, why won't Quarterdeck save developers a lot of anxiety by announcing which environments it believes infringe (or don't infringe) its patent?

We raised this question with Gary Hecker, who told us Quarterdeck is "still exploring its legal options" and doesn't want to tip its hand before entering into licensing negotiations with possible infringers.

However, Quarterdeck president Terry Myers was willing to give us much firmer assurances. When we asked her if Quarterdeck planned to challenge Windows, OS/2, or Apple's MultiFinder, her answer was a flat "No." As for other windowing and multitasking environments (including IBM's Topview, DRI's Concurrent DOS, Software Link's PC-Mos, and the various Unix-based windowing environments), Meyer admitted that she and Gary Pope, the author of the Quarterdeck patent, aren't prepared to launch a legal blitzkrieg. "We're a small company with only six developers," she told us. "When we bothered to look at other products, we couldn't believe how slow they were, so we never paid a lot of attention to how they worked."

In other words, the Quarterdeck patent in a non-issue?

Not quite. Even if the patent itself has little impact, its lengthy history underscores a major problem with the whole patent process. Quarterdeck filed its patent application back in 1984, and (to minimize legal challenges) didn't publicize its claims. During that five-year period, however, dozens of other companies were independently exploring related multitasking technologies, blissfully unaware that the patent application process had already turned this area into a minefield: One accidental infringement of an unknown patent, and a company's whole investment could have blown up.

Clearly, something is wrong here. we believe strongly in intellectual property rights--but not at the expense of basic fair play. If it's really going to take the Patent Office five years of secret research to award software patents that put other companies' good-faith development efforts at risk, then the system is absurd and ultimately causes more harm than good.
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:multitasking windowing technology patent
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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