Microsoft Sues Over a Feature Windows Phone 7 Lacks

Microsoft today sued Barnes and Noble, claiming that Android (s goog)-powered Nook devices infringe on Microsoft patents. The complains also names Nook manufacturers Foxconn and Inventec, and reveals that HTC signed a licensing deal with Microsoft (s msft) to avoid a similar lawsuit even as year-long discussions with Barnes and Noble (s bks) broke down.

Let me state upfront that any company has the right (an obligation, really) to protect its patented ideas. However, after reading the Microsoft blog post with examples of the alleged patent infringement at the heart of its case against Barnes and Noble, you’d think that Microsoft built the leading mobile user interface and should be the king of all things mobile. The reality is that Windows Mobile hasn’t been able to compete with iOS (s aapl) nor Android. While fresh and fun to use, Windows Phone 7 isn’t yet gaining much market share. Here are some the examples direct from Microsoft to illustrate both the patent infringement claims; perhaps you see some of the absurdity that I notice:

  • Give people easy ways to navigate their device apps via a separate control window with tabs.
  • Enable display of a webpage’s content before the background image is received, allowing users to interact with the page faster.
  • Allow apps to superimpose download status on top of the downloading content.
  • Permit users to easily select text in a document and adjust that selection.
  • Provide users the ability to annotate text without changing the underlying document.

Again, if Microsoft holds patents for such mobile device interactions, it has an obligation to defend its patent rights. However, by some token, the situation reminds of me a line in the first Austin Powers movie where Dr. Evil says his father “would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark.” In looking through the examples Microsoft chose to share, it appears to me that many are standard user interface actions seen on any number of connected devices. In fact can’t remember the last time I used any browser that didn’t violate the second bullet because the browsers I use all show text on a website while background images load.

My fourth point is perhaps the most ironic, since most of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 devices that shipped prior to this month can’t yet select text and do anything with it. Once Microsoft pushes out an update, which is already late due to testing and carrier issues, then the handsets can select and paste text. Newer phones shipping now, such as the HTC Arrive, have this feature, but it’s still ironic. I realize that the bullet point in question likely applies more to e-book content than anything else, but some could interpret it to apply to any document text on a mobile device, such as a Microsoft Office document on a Windows Phone 7 handset.

The situation makes Microsoft look like it can’t compete in the mobile space, partially because its been slow to implement, even when it has good ideas. Instead of coming across like a competitive technological powerhouse, the company appears more like a sore loser at the moment. Perhaps it would appear less so if had simply filed action in court and left it at that, instead of issuing a press release and follow up blog post.

Clearly it will take less effort and money for Microsoft to go after companies that build and sell Android-powered products as opposed to Google itself. And as Microsoft reveals, HTC already has cut a deal so that it can continue manufacturing Google Android handsets even as it makes a few Windows Phone 7 devices. But the list of those that use Android to build devices grows by the day: even a treadmill I recently purchased uses Google Android, although I don’t know if the implementation infringes upon any patents.

Ideally, Microsoft would work out an licensing agreement or out-of court settlement with Google and leave the device makers out of the equation. The company is already far behind its peers in the mobile space so why not focus on making a good operating system with potential even better in Windows Phone 7? Maybe the time and effort on this lawsuit would be better served by adding features that customers want; like copy and paste, for example.