The Internet: Unplugged

On TV, MTV's "Unplugged" showcases musicians' chops. It does this by having them play live in front of a studio audience, without their normal tools: electric guitars, synthesizers and effects.

Ecommerce sites may find themselves forced to work on their chops as a result of a recent court case. In August, Microsoft lost a patent-infringement case over its support for browser plug-ins. The case has the potential to change the way companies build and deploy web applications.

A little-known company, Eolas, along with the University of California, sued Microsoft, arguing that Microsoft put patented Web browser technology into Internet Explorer. In August, a jury decided against Microsoft and awarded the plaintiffs over US $500 million.

In the early 1990's, researchers at the University of California tested methods for deploying interactive applications via the Web. The technology was patented in 1998, US Patent 5,838,906. Eolas has exclusive rights to use the patent, and pays the University for products it makes under the patent, and for licenses it grants to use the technology.

Microsoft's response

Microsoft is appealing the decision. But it is also exploring its options for removing the technology in question.

According to Microsoft's press release, "We do plan to appeal this decision and we are confident the facts and the law will support our position....We believe the evidence will ultimately show that there was no infringement of any kind, and that the accused feature in our browser technology was developed by our own engineers based on pre-existing Microsoft technology."

Microsoft has also discussed modifying Internet Explorer in response to the ruling. Microsoft raised this issue with the W3C, the Web's guiding body.

Because of the nature the patent and the popularity of Internet Explorer, the consequences of this lawsuit could be far-ranging. If Microsoft licenses the technology, it could create additional hurdles for open-source browsers. If Microsoft removes the infringing technology, it could break web applications.

Steven Bratt, COO of the W3C, writes "W3C believes that it is important for the Web community to begin now to consider and contribute to the range of technical options available." In August, the W3C invited members and key software interests to attend an ad hoc meeting to discuss the potential near-term changes that may be implemented in browsers, authoring tools and Web sites.

The W3C is responding to these events in other ways:

* It has created a mailing list for public discussion of the subject.
* It is developing a FAQ to discuss the issue.
* It has initiated consideration of longer term, standards-based solutions.

Microsoft has changed Internet Explorer in response to lawsuits in the past. If it does this again, ecommerce sites everywhere may learn have to perform "unplugged".

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