Patent Opens Window To Software Confusion

By Michael W. Miller, Staff Reporter
The Wall Street Journal

April 24, 1989

The software industry is abuzz about a patent that might let a small California company stake a claim to a basic process in personal-computer programs.

The company is Quarterdeck Office Systems, an eight-year-old Santa Monica, Calif., firm. The patent, awarded last week, concerns a technique that lets two programs run simultaneously in separate "windows" on a personal computer. For example, a user can flip back and forth between a spreadsheet doing calculations in one window and a database sorting through file entries in another window.

Quarterdeck applied for the patent in 1984. Today the windows approach has become widely used in software from several companies, including some of the industry's powerhouses; Microsoft Corp., for instance, sells a popular package called Windows, and similar programs are available from International Business Machines Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., among others.

It's still not clear how broadly Quarterdeck's patent covers other companies' techniques. Intellectual-property law is murky in the software business, and Quarterdeck will only say it's studying other programs for possible infringement. Microsoft, for one, says it thinks it's in the clear, though it plans to analyze the patent further.

But some in the industry were stunned by the patent's potential impact. Software usually receives the much weaker protection of copyright law. The Quarterdeck patent "may shatter the computer industry," says Andrew Seybold, who writes a Santa Clara, Calif., newsletter that analyzes the PC industry. At the least, he predicts, "the immediate result of all this will be massive confusion."


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