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Jonathan Schwartz: What He Couldn't Say (on Patents, OpenOffice, and Bill Gates)
Tuesday, March 09 2010 @ 08:32 PM EST

I know we are all riveted on Utah today, but take a moment, please, because this is important. Jonathan Schwartz, formerly CEO of Sun, has a personal blog, What I Couldn't Say ..., where he has begun to tell us what he couldn't tell us before about events during his tenure there. He has a interesting tale to tell about Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer asking Sun to pay patent royalties to Microsoft on ... OpenOffice.

Here's the story:
As we sat down in our Menlo Park conference room, Bill skipped the small talk, and went straight to the point, “Microsoft owns the office productivity market, and our patents read all over OpenOffice.” OpenOffice is a free office productivity suite found on tens of millions of desktops worldwide. It’s a tremendous brand ambassador for its owner – it also limits the appeal of Microsoft Office to businesses and those forced to pirate it. Bill was delivering a slightly more sophisticated variant of the threat Steve had made, but he had a different solution in mind. “We’re happy to get you under license.” That was code for “We’ll go away if you pay us a royalty for every download” – the digital version of a protection racket.

Royalty bearing free software? Jumbo shrimp. (Oxymoron.)

But fearing this was on the agenda, we were prepared for the meeting. Microsoft is no stranger to imitating successful products, then leveraging their distribution power to eliminate a competitive threat – from tablet computing to search engines, their inspiration is often obvious (I’m trying to like Bing, I really am). So when they created their web application platform, .NET, it was obvious their designers had been staring at Java – which was exactly my retort.

“We’ve looked at .NET, and you’re trampling all over a huge number of Java patents. So what will you pay us for every copy of Windows?” Bill explained the software business was all about building variable revenue streams from a fixed engineering cost base, so royalties didn’t fit with their model… which is to say, it was a short meeting.

I understand the value of patents – offensively and, more importantly, for defensive purposes. Sun had a treasure trove of some of the internet’s most valuable patents – ranging from search to microelectronics – so no one in the technology industry could come after us without fearing an expensive counter assault. And there’s no defense like an obvious offense.

So, smoking gun, and thanks to Schwartz now we know for sure at least part of what Microsoft thinks it has in its anti-Linux patent arsenal.

Does this anecdote not clarify what was at stake in the Oracle-Sun deal? Think Microsoft might want those patents? Or at least get them into Microsoft-friendly hands? Without them, it can't be as bad as it wants to be, methinks.

Steve Jobs threatened to sue Sun over Project Looking Glass. Oh, how I loved that project, but here's what happened to it:

In 2003, after I unveiled a prototype Linux desktop called Project Looking Glass*, Steve called my office to let me know the graphical effects were “stepping all over Apple’s IP.” (IP = Intellectual Property = patents, trademarks and copyrights.) If we moved forward to commercialize it, “I’ll just sue you.”

My response was simple. “Steve, I was just watching your last presentation, and Keynote looks identical to Concurrence – do you own that IP?” Concurrence was a presentation product built by Lighthouse Design, a company I’d help to found and which Sun acquired in 1996. Lighthouse built applications for NeXTSTEP, the Unix based operating system whose core would become the foundation for all Mac products after Apple acquired NeXT in 1996. Steve had used Concurrence for years, and as Apple built their own presentation tool, it was obvious where they’d found inspiration. “And last I checked, MacOS is now built on Unix. I think Sun has a few OS patents, too.” Steve was silent.

And that was the last I heard on the topic. Although we ended up abandoning Looking Glass, Steve’s threat didn’t figure into our decision (the last thing enterprises wanted was a new desktop – in hindsight, exactly the wrong audience to poll (we should’ve been asking developers, not CIO’s)).

* To see a Looking Glass demo, click here - it starts at the ~2:00 minute mark.

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