October 31, 2012
Just five days after the launch of Windows 8 and the new
Metro Modern Windows UI, a virtually unknown software designer, SurfCast, has filed a patent suit against Microsoft for the "tiles" graphical user interface design style that the OS uses. The suit claims that SurfCast created the live tiles display design and filed for the patent of it in 2000, and that Microsoft has directly and indirectly infringed upon this patent.
While it is unknown whether Microsoft was truly aware of SurfCast's patent when it developed the new system, the patent office references SurfCast in an early denial of Microsoft's proposal, and its final, approved patent references SurfCast as a "case of prior art." Some news sources question whether SurfCast is focused more on patent litigation than actual production, as the company has no products on the market or in development, yet it has several patents to its name. SurfCast is asking Microsoft to account for and pay all damages caused by the software giant's proposed patent infringement. The complaint also notes that Microsoft is inciting others to infringe upon SurfCast's patent by encouraging them to develop their own "live tiles" for their Windows 8 application design.
While the patents are similar, Ars Technica noted that SurfCast recently changed the description of its patent to one similar to that of Windows 8's interface. Additionally, an archive of SurfCast's site from 2004 shows that the company didn't even use the word "tile" to describe its patent. Microsoft has stated that it believes its GUI design is unique from SurfCast's patent.
Ultimately, the patent suit matters very little to users, as SurfCast has not asked for a halt in sales, but only restitution for damages. However, it does speak to the state of UI design today. While original and innovative ideas are hard to come by, it is important for developers to ensure their ideas take a personal, unique approach.
The Verge noted that the key difference in the Windows 8 patent and SurfCast's is that the latter's references "a device under control of a program," and "an electronic readable memory to direct an electronic device," not a purely software-based UI. This difference, as well as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's initial approval of Microsoft's patent as a unique design, may be enough to kill SurfCast's case.