In response to Apple’s lawsuit against HTC, Jonathan Schwartz, former CEO of Sun Microsystems, has written a very intriguing blog post providing an insight into how major companies like Apple and Microsoft treat patents. He recounts two occasions on which Apple and Microsoft threatened to sue Sun – and how Sun retorted.
“I feel for Google – Steve Jobs threatened to sue me, too.” That’s the telling start of Schwartz’ blog post. He recalls how after Sun unveiled its Project Looking Glass 3D interface, Apple threatened to sue Sun. “Steve called my office to let me know the graphical effects were “stepping all over Apple’s IP”,” Schwartz recounts, “If we moved forward to commercialize it, “I’ll just sue you”.”
Schwartz’ retort to Steve Jobs’ threat was clear and concise.
My response was simple. â€œSteve, I was just watching your last presentation, and Keynote looks identical to Concurrence â€“ do you own that IP?â€ Concurrence was a presentation product built by Lighthouse Design, a company I’d help to found and which Sun acquired in 1996. Lighthouse built applications for NeXTSTEP, the Unix based operating system whose core would become the foundation for all Mac products after Apple acquired NeXT in 1996. Steve had used Concurrence for years, and as Apple built their own presentation tool, it was obvious where they’d found inspiration. â€œAnd last I checked, MacOS is now built on Unix. I think Sun has a few OS patents, too.â€ Steve was silent.
Schwartz says they never heard anything from Steve again on this topic. Sun eventually abandoned Project Looking Glass, but he claims that had nothing to do with the legal threats; enterprise customers simply weren’t waiting for a new desktop.
Microsoft tried to do something similar to Sun. Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer came to meet with Scott McNealy (Sun’s then CEO); Greg Papadopoulos (Sun’s CTO) and Schwartz were present as well. The meeting was about Sun’s OpenOffice, and how OpenOffice infringed upon patents owned by Microsoft. Gates was clear. “Microsoft owns the office productivity market, and our patents read all over OpenOffice,” Gates said, “We’re happy to get you under license.” Something clearly incompatible with the idea of Free and open source.
Schwartz more or less anticipated Gates’ words, and retorted Gates in the same way he retorted Jobs. “We’ve looked at .NET, and you’re trampling all over a huge number of Java patents,” Schwartz told Gates, “So what will you pay us for every copy of Windows?” Schwartz states the meeting didn’t last long.
According to Schwartz, using patents offensively is a clear sign of desperation, and such threats or even lawsuits generally have the opposite effect: they fuel the growth of the product or company getting sued. “Having watched this movie play out many times, suing a competitor typically makes them more relevant, not less,” Schwartz explains, “Developers I know aren’t getting less interested in Google’s Android platform, they’re getting more interested – Apple’s actions are enhancing that interest.”
As soon as Google puts its money where its mouth is, i.e., they sue Apple, the interest in Android will only grow even further.
…until a nutcase comes on the scene. Sooner or later there will always be someone who thinks they can “win” the war and starts lobbing patents around. For MAD to work everyone has to be afraid of losing. If Google decides to come out swinging…