Google has been awarded US patent #8,239,662 for "a system for providing an operating system over a network to a local device."
The patent describes the system architecture and goes on to make 3 independent and 15 dependent claims for protection, but how unique are those claims? There have been several "thin client" products and Oracle marketed their Network Computer. Furthermore, is downloading a program that is an operating system conceptually different than downloading a program that is a Web browser or word processor -- where exactly do you draw the line between an operating system and an application program?
I spoke with intellectual property attorney Thomas Ewing of Avancept LLC about those 18 claims and he pointed out that "the number of claims a patent has is only very loosely correlated with its inventiveness." He added that while multiple claims are common in the US, they are less so in other nations and that to infringe upon a dependent claim, one must also infringe upon its corresponding independent claim.
He noted that the patent examiners initially questioned the novelty of several claims in Google's application and it took two rounds of rejection and appeal to finally get the patent, but characterized this as a "fairly typical back and forth with the patent office." He also noted that the patent examiner cited references to prior art in 1 issued patent and 6 published applications (listed below).
Ewing said that to infringe a claim literally, someone would have to do everything listed in the claim. I would think that engineers working on a competing product could find work-arounds that would differentiate their work from Google's. “There is a possibility for arguing infringement under what’s known as ‘the doctrine of equivalents,’” he said, adding that such arguments are often difficult to win.
Ewing also mentioned that it is unusual for someone as senior as David C. Drummond, Google's Senior Vice President, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer to sign the power of attorney for a patent application. He acknowledged that that may be standard procedure at Google, but, if is not, it may give us an indication of their commitment to the Chromebook.
With their Motorola acquisition, the Chromebook, Google TV, Nexus tablet and the quickly withdrawn Nexus Q, it looks like Google will end up a hardware manufacturer, heeding Alan Kay's advice that "People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware." They may also have noticed Apple's profit margins.
If you would like to really geek out on this patent, you can see all of the accompanying documentation by requesting information on patent number 8,239,662 at the Patent Office portal. I did so, and was impressed (and depressed) by the effort needed to secure the patent -- there are records of 46 transactions, 69 documents on file, 63 adjustments (some minor) made during the application process and contact information for 82 attorneys and agents (though only two attorneys actually filed the documents in the case).
Whether it is eventually upheld or not, this patent gives Google and its lawyers a weapon to use in the sad court fights that are so characteristic of today's computing scene.
Prior art referenced by the patent examiner:
- 7,343,560 - Method and system for generating dynamic images - owned by Novell
- 20030126242 - Network boot system and method using remotely-stored, client-specific boot images created from shared, base snapshot image - owned by Compaq/HP
- 20040153694 - Reliability of diskless network-bootable computers using non-volatile memory cache - owned by Microsoft
- 20050091349 - Automatically configuring a computer - owned by SAP
- 20060010314 - Methods and systems for running multiple operating systems in a single mobile device - owned by Intellectual Ventures
- 20060047946 - Distributed operating system management - owned by MaxSP Corp.
- 20090083404 - Software Deployment In Large-Scale Networked Systems - owned by Microsoft