Weblogs, prior art, and virtual machines

US PTO Ray Ozzie recently posted what may prove to be the single most influential weblog item ever written: Saving the Browser. As you probably already know, Ray makes a compelling argument that the 1993-era Lotus Notes should have been considered prior art for the Eolas patent filed in 1994 and issued in 1998. Ray's extraordinary essay might conceivably save Microsoft ten times what it invested in Groove, should the argument prove decisive in an appeal of the recent ruling in favor of Eolas. Of more interest to those who weep only crocodile tears for Microsoft in this case, it might prevent a bunch of other applecarts from being upset: Flash, Mozilla, Safari.

It's fun to imagine that a single weblog posting could turn out to be worth a half-billion dollars. But Ray's essay fascinates me for other reasons too. First, it shows how weblogs could help accelerate the flow of information through the patent system. The workings of that system are revealed in another remarkable patent-related essay posted this week: Tim Bray's Software Patents from the Inside. Curious about how the examiners working on his own patent application do their background research, Tim learned from his lawyer that:

...examiners are insanely overworked and under huge pressure to get through the maximum number of claims every day, and (at least in this first-cut situation) may take an approach as simple as digging up other patents in the space and running through them with the PDF search function and a thesaurus. [ongoing]
Although Tim was in the end surprised by the quality of the review his application finally received, the critical bottleneck is clearly awareness of relevant material. The weblog network is, above all, an amplifier of such awareness. Using it I rely less on my own capacity to search for and to absorb raw material, and more on a network of people, the results of whose searching, reading, and analysis are made available to me. Whatever you think of software-related patents -- and Tim's views on the subject are complex -- I've got to think that weblog technology can help to improve the patent process.

Ray's essay also shows poignantly how an innovator can be blindsided by a competing technology that's less advanced in many ways, but tuned for ubiquity and accessibility:

In 1993 or thereabouts, we saw the emergence of TCP/IP, HTML, HTTP, Mosaic and the Web. From our perspective, all of these were simplistic emulations of a tiny subset of what we'd been doing in Notes for years. TCP/IP instead of Netbeui or IPX/SPX, HTML instead of CD [Compound Document] records, HTTP instead of the Notes client/server protocols, httpd instead of a Notes server. And we were many years ahead in other ways: embedded compound objects, security, composition of documents as opposed to just 'browsing' them, and a sophisticated development environment. I am quite embarassed to say that we frankly didn't 'get' what was so innovative about this newfangled 'Web' thing, given the capabilities of what had already been built. [Ray Ozzie: Saving the Browser]
It's easy for everyone to see now that the Web had to trump Notes, along the crucial axes of ubiquity and accessibility. Ray blushes to admit that he and his team didn't see that coming a decade ago, but the reason why not is instructive for all of us. Innovation is an act of willful imagination. What you dream up can indeed change the world. But the world keeps changing too, in ways that can require you to refocus your dream. Not an easy thing to do.

A final interesting aspect of Ray's posting is his use of VMWare to reconstitute the 1993-era software environment: DOS 6.22, Windows for Workgroups 3.11, Excel 5.0, Notes 3.0. If I had to cop to a technology that I underestimated a decade ago, it'd be virtualization. It's still true, today, that most of the software I use is compiled for real CPUs and runs on real systems. But I can now foresee a time when such resources will be more often virtualized than not. Managed environments like the JVM and the CLR are slowly but I think inexorably advancing. System emulation -- whether it's Linux on the mainframe, or x86 on the Mac, or x86 on x86 -- is becoming less exotic and more routine.

There's been a lot of second-guessing about Ray's decision not to port Groove from Windows. At the rate things are going, I wonder when that might become a non-issue. Not soon enough, alas, for the Virtual PC-equipped 800MHz TiBook I'm typing on at the moment.

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2003/09/17.html#a798