Expand Beyond, which makes tools for remotely managing databases, has been awarded a broad patent for technology used to monitor and manage computer systems from a wireless device, the company announced Friday.
Expand Beyond isn't saying yet how it plans to use the patent, awarded last month by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It could potentially use it to seek licensing fees from other vendors. Such a patent could also make a small, privately held company like Expand Beyond a more attractive target for acquisition, one patent attorney said.
The patent describes "a system, a method and an apparatus ... for the wireless monitoring and management of computer systems, networks, software systems or databases on a portable and/or handheld device which may monitor, update, and fix the system from any location and at any time."
It also describes methods for formatting and displaying information gathered on the screen of a PDA (personal digital assistant) or other mobile device. The patent includes 46 approved claims, making it "one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching patents awarded in the mobile business software industry to date," the company said in a statement.
Expand Beyond is best known for its PocketDBA products, which allow database administrators (DBAs) to keep tabs on their servers while they are out and about. The company also offers software for developing mobile applications.
Expand Beyond touted the patent as proof of its leadership in its field. It began developing PocketDBA in 1999, at a time when the Palm VII was the only PDA on the market with wireless capabilities, and long before Research in Motion's popular Blackberry arrived.
Since then, the market for such devices has ballooned, making Expand Beyond's patent a valuable asset, according to Ari Kaplan, the company's founder and chief executive.
"What I'm excited about is that (the patent) is not just for databases; it encompasses everything from databases and applications to servers and networks, anything you want to monitor and manage from a wireless device," he said.
The U.S. patent office has been criticized in recent years for being too quick to issue broad patents, which can encourage litigation or make it difficult for other vendors to enter related markets. Expand Beyond should be judged by how it eventually makes use of its patent, said Charlie Garry, an industry analyst at Meta Group.
A former DBA himself, Garry isn't convinced that demand will be strong for tools like PocketDBA. "I haven't had a single inquiry from a client saying 'I really want to learn more about this wireless monitoring thing,'" he said. Most laptops these days include built-in Wi-Fi, he noted.
The U.S. patent office would have conducted a thorough search for any "prior art" that could potentially be used to invalidate the patent, Kaplan said. When it comes to software, however, the patent office tends to search primarily among technologies that have already been awarded patents, said Steven Frank, a partner with the patent and intellectual property group of Boston's Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault. "It's hard to know what's out there until someone has come forward," he said.
Patents can be used to secure licensing fees in two primary ways, Frank said. A patent holder can sell its technology to a company trying to break into a particular market, or it can find companies that offer a similar technology already and demand licensing fees from them, through the courts if necessary.
A broad patent can also help simply to raise the profile of a smaller company, or help it to secure a close partnership with a bigger vendor. If the patent seems valuable enough, it can also make a company an attractive candidate for acquisition, Frank said.
Expand Beyond is considering all of its options, Kaplan said. Microsoft, IBM or Hewlett-Packard, which offer system management tools, potentially might be interested in licensing Expand Beyond's technology to save time developing their own, he said. Sybase, which offers mobile applications software, could be another potential licensee, he said.
Kaplan declined to say if Expand Beyond is in any acquisition talks.
As a private company, Expand Beyond is not required to disclose its sales figures, and Kaplan also would not say whether the company is profitable. Its customers include publisher The McGraw-Hill Companies and US gas and electric provider Cinergy.
At the same time, Expand Beyond recently found itself with a new and much larger competitor. Oracle released a version of Enterprise Manager, its database management tools, that offers similar remote, wireless management capabilities to those of PocketDBA.
Expand Beyond's patent, number 6,772,169, can be viewed by searching at http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/srchnum.htm