Last week Judge Vaughn Walker threw out a number of the issues in the long-standing suit between Apple and Microsoft. I don’t feel that this is as important a decision as at least one article in the Wall Street Journal implied. That article used misleading and inaccurate phrases like "Windows is obtaining dominance in the computer market at the expense of Apple’s Macintosh" and "the surprise ruling all but dashes Apple’s chances." Let’s look more closely at what really happened.
This case is at its base a contract dispute, but it is important because it may be used as legal precedent in future cases involving look and feel. Apple claims that Microsoft infringed on Apple’s visual interface with all the versions of Windows despite a license Apple granted to Microsoft early on for Windows 1.0. So at issue are 59 visual interface elements in Windows 3.0 (and presumably 3.1, although I haven’t had a good look at it yet). Of those 59 visual elements, Judge Walker ruled that Apple failed to show that 26 had changed from their original use in Windows 1.0, at which point they were covered by that original license agreement. Of the remaining 33 visual elements, 10 were in dispute in Windows 2.03, and the judge ruled that Apple did not have exclusive rights to those 10 visual elements either.
Throwing out those 36 visual elements still leaves 23 items in dispute, 23 items which include primarily visual elements used in the Windows File Manager and Program Manager (an inane separation of functions if I’ve ever seen one – but that’s beside the point). Also still in question are the more sweeping uses of proportional fonts and color, although I’ll be curious to see how Apple claims that they have a sole right to proportional fonts and color in graphical interfaces. Perhaps most important is the overall question of what’s called "substantial similarity," which seems to mean: "Was Microsoft specifically trying to copy the Mac interface for Windows without explicitly licensing from Apple?" Those disputes are still to come and may be addressed in May.
What surprises me primarily is not that this part of the ruling went in favor of Microsoft, but that all the analysts have been saying that they thought Apple would win the suit. I don’t know enough about the issue legally to comment on that, although I did find it interesting that Microsoft’s stock, which had dropped precipitously when Windows 3.1 shipped, rose quickly after this ruling (although I noticed that it dropped precipitously again today – proof that logic plays no part in the stock market). On the one hand, I don’t think that Apple or anyone else should own the rights to basic elements of a graphical interface. On the other hand, if Microsoft is at fault for breaking a contract, they should pay for it and not get off scot free because the judge doesn’t want to set legal precedent for owning visual displays. Actually, my overall reaction to this suit is complete and utter disgust. Both companies are spending millions of dollars (I’ve heard numbers like an estimated $50 million each) to argue about which one is a copycat. Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if both Apple and Microsoft put some of that money where their respective mouths are – namely all that talk about the customer being the first priority? For starters, Microsoft could stop charging the ludicrous $129 for upgrades, or they could even dump a little money into 800 numbers for their tech support.
(Adapted from the Dave Barry Calendar of the Day: If you have any questions whatsoever about Windows 3.1, you should call the special Windows Assistance Hotline Telephone Number and listen to the busy signal until you feel you have a better understanding of the situation.)
Apple could give all the LaserWriter IIf and IIg owners memory upgrades like Apple UK did so that those printers could actually be useful. Or perhaps Apple could stop cutting corners on the low cost Macs. I’m sure there’s lots of things we could think of for Apple to do with the money it would save from eliminating childish lawsuits.
Wall Street Journal — 14-Apr-92