Microsoft patents portable applications

The US patent office has granted Microsoft a patent for running applications on flash devices.

On Tuesday, Microsoft was awarded a U.S. patent for "portable applications." The description of this innovative technology? Running an executable file from a flash device.

More specifically, portable applications are defined like this, according to the abstract in the  patent documents.

"A portable storage device includes an interface and one or more flash memories. The one or more flash memories store one or more executable files that can be executed by a host computer to which the device is coupled without altering any environment settings on the host computer even though the one or more executable files include instructions to access environment settings. Additionally, the application is bound to the portable storage device during an activation process."

Does this, or does this not, sound an awful lot like running an application from a thumb drive instead of loading it onto your computer and running it from there?

A Microsoft spokesperson offers this clarification: "The patent relates to portable applications that can be executed from a portable memory device (such as a USB flash drive) without impacting the configuration of the computer.   The patent is not directed solely to running an application from a flash drive but to running an application from the flash drive without altering the configuration of the computer."

The patent document, originally filed as a patent application on December 15, 2004, goes on to explain why this technology is unique. It explains that computer users only have a couple of options when traveling and wanting to access their applications. They can take a computer with them. They can break open their computers and take the hard drive with them. (I kid you not, the patent application actually says that.) It explains:

"Such a solution can also be problematic because it requires a significant amount of effort to open and disconnect the hard drive from their computer as well as install the hard drive in another computer, leaves their computer without the hard drive and thus typically unusable, raises compatibility issues ..."

It discusses how users can copy programs to a DVD and travel with them, too.

The patent document clearly notes that Microsoft is not claiming rights to the act of copying data onto a USB device:

"a USB device allows a user to transfer data from one computer to the USB device, then plug the USB device into another computer and access the data on the USB device. Such USB devices, however, solve only part of the problem because they are commonly used only for storing data. If the computer that the user is using does not have the proper program, then the data is typically not accessible to the user in a useful form."

But if a device includes flash as a memory technology, and can run an application on an attached computer solely from the flash drive, that's what Microsoft says it invented. Am I missing something or haven't computer users been able to run applications via portable media since the 5 1/4-inch floppy drive? The Iomega?

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, here are the pictures from the Patent filing that describe the technology. I especially love the last one as the illustration of the "portable device" looks a lot like a netbook. The modem is a reminder that this patent application was first submitted just prior to 2005. But what could the USPTO possibly be thinking in granting it this week?

According to lawyers I recently talked to, if this patent really is as crazy as it appears to be (to me), it might not have teeth.

If a company gets sued for patent infringement, that company has the right to ask the patent office to re-examin the patent. And, according to the law professor, only about a quarter of re-examined patents make it past a second round with all of their claims in tact.

Microsoft Portable Application patent

Source: United States Patent and Trademark Office Patent Number: US007712086

Microsoft Portable Application patent

Source: United States Patent and Trademark Office Patent Number: US007712086

Microsoft Portable Application patent

Source: United States Patent and Trademark Office Patent Number: US007712086

Microsoft Portable Application patent

Source: United States Patent and Trademark Office Patent Number: US007712086

Microsoft Portable Application patent

Source: United States Patent and Trademark Office Patent Number: US007712086  

For the record, the Microsoft spokesperson also suggested I run the actual claim ... this is the technology/process over which Microsoft has rights to collect royalties. I find the above pictures to say it all, but if you prefer words, here they are.

"1. A portable storage device comprising: an interface; and one or more storage elements, coupled to a host computer through the interface, that store one or more applications that can be executed by the host computer, with the host computer identifying and installing device driver information specific to one or more storage elements on the host computer such that the host computer detects a presence of the one ormore storage elements while not maintaining information specific to the applications in a system information store of the host computer by having the applications queried regarding functionality of each of the applications through an operating system of the host computer, the one or more storage elements comprising: a private store to maintain environment settings associated with the applications and to receive requests to access environment settings of the applications of the one or more storage elements without altering environment settings of the host computer, and in response to the requests, accessing the environment settings in the private store rather than the environment settings on the host computer, wherein the private store I sconfigured with a separate private local profile for each of the applications; and an auto run module that is accessed by the host computer to present a user interface identifying applications that can be run by executing corresponding executable files in the one or more storage elements, wherein the auto run module is configured with information necessary to execute each of the applications of the one or more storage elements, wherein each application requires activation upon being executed by the host computer for a first time, wherein activation binds the application uniquely to the portable storage device through use of an identifier identifying the portable storage device so the application can only be executed from the bound portable storage device, wherein activation comprises writing activation information to the portable storage device, and wherein activation allows execution of each application for each time after the first time by the host computer or by another computer to which the portable storage device is coupled."

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