Thursday, December 22, 2005
The Truth Behind Visto's Lawsuit Against Microsoft
Many press reports and blogs in the last week have implied errors in their coverage of Visto's legal action, including the notion that Visto is suing Microsoft for patent infringement using the intellectual property that Visto had licensed the day before from RIM antagonist NTP. Though I haven't been involved in Visto for many years, I do know that Microsoft is actually infringing Visto's own, original patents--I know this because at least one of those patents has my name on it.
In late 1995, I attended a Network World trade show where rows of net-connected PC's had been set up for use. These PC's were running on the same large TCP/IP network as my PC client at Bessemer as well our Exchange server, and yet there was no way for me to access my corporate email and calendar. As I thought about the problem, pondering the range of computing devices that would ultimately participate in reading and writing email/PIM data, I concluded that we'd eventually need virtual desktops to synthesize and synchronize the workspaces instantiated in each device.
So I recruited the assistance of Daniel Mendez, a technologist I knew from the Harvard Computer Science Department (and now a board member of Kepler's), as well as a team of developers recruited mostly from Sun (starting with Chris Zuleeg, now at eBay). We searched exhaustively but unsuccessfully for known commercial technologies to solve this problem. So we specified and crafted our own solution that anticipated the widespread use of disparate fixed and mobile devices, and addressed many challenges, such as synchronizing through corporate firewalls. In mid 1996, with funding from Bessemer, we incorporated Visto (called RoamPage back then) to develop and sell the technology as a service (first reviewed here in 1997). 13 of us had worked in a single room (plus a smelly toilet closet) behind a flower shop in Mountain View to develop this service--our only assets were 17 computers and a very well used futon. But in the coming months we filed broad patent applications that were subsequently granted.
It took years (frankly, more than I expected) for the wireless platforms to develop the processing, storage and bandwidth Visto needed to extend the virtual desktop to mobile users, but finally (after $150 million+ of venture capital) Visto leads a robust market for device-agnostic synchronization of email/PIM workspaces.
But now that the market is finally maturing, Microsoft is doing what is does so well--bringing products to market based on other companies' technology. Microsoft does indeed have a good track record of enhancing established products--I certainly prefer Word over Wordstar, Excel over Visicalc, and Access over dbaseIV. And if Microsoft can improve upon mobile PIM synchronization, I'll be the first to subscribe, but they can't expect to infringe upon issued patents without attracting lawsuits.
That's why Visto licensed NTP's patents--to respect others' intellectual property. NTP's patents are not cited in Visto's lawsuit. NTP, in turn, invested in Visto because of Visto's growth and intellectual property--not, as some have reported, to financially prop up a licensee. Believe me, prior to the NTP deal Visto was already very, very well funded (as one must be to keep step with Microsoft's lawyers).
I expect 100 comments on this post decrying the evils of patent litigation, but I am here to bear witness that these patents were not crafted by a bunch of attorneys in order to pick deep, corporate pockets. These patents were written by programmers who were engaged in building a viable, commercial platform, and genuinely wished to protect the invention.
As an informed insider, there's one last thing I can tell you about this lawsuit: Visto is going to win.
Posted by David Cowan at 12:07 AM