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Integrate your credits cards into Windows? MS buys dodgy patent

This one really pushes the, er, envelope...

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Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications

Microsoft has bought a new ludicrous patent to add to its collection. That of course is not quite how the company describes US patent 5,655,089 - according to Redmond Innovation Central: "The patent protects electronic payments technology that will be integrated into future Microsoft initiatives."

Cool? Well, you decide. The patent was granted to Joseph Bucci on August 5th 1997, goes on about paper and envelopes a lot, and relates to the consolidation of multiple bills from unrelated companies into a single mailing sent to participating consumers. This is how Bucci's application says it works: "The method forms a computer database of addressee information; merges with that database all such record information provided by subscribers; prints out one or more sheets, preferably on both sides, of all information intended for designated recipients during the time period in question; and allows for a single mailing of such sheets in a single envelope."

Any of you who've ploughed through pages and pages of supercomplex and largely unintelligle semiconductor patent applications will be surprised/relieved to learn that that is it. Bucci's application for a "Method for the consolidation summarization and transmission of a plurality of mailable materials" says something of this ilk several times over a commendably short document, but it's the sort of invention any of us might hit on while waiting for the kettle to boil - rock on, US patent office.

What it means is simply that billing organisations can participate in a clearing house system whereby participating subscribers get just the one summary bill every month, and can pay the lot with one cheque if they like. The clever bit, such as it is, seems to be merging the database info, or maybe printing on two sides of a sheet of paper. Wow.

You can see why, if this sort of tosh is defensible, Microsoft might want the patent. Bucci seems to have largely envisaged snailmail as the transport when he applied back in 1992, but it obviously works better if done electronically. And actually, it probably wouldn't work too well by mail, because you'd surely look at the summary, wonder how you spent this big sum on, say, Amex, then demand details - exit the single sheet of paper printed on two sides.

A convenient MSN-based (oh yes) centralised billing and payment system "integrated into future Microsoft initiatives" (oh yes oh yes) could work very nicely. Microsoft takes the hassle out of your financials, right?

Microsoft also holds an awful lot of your financial records, and equally importantly, your financial records are all consolidated in the one place. So there are all sorts of potential advantages (not for you) in terms of credit checking, fighting tax evasion and general-purpose snooping. To an extent the amount of this that happens kind of depends on how much They think they can get away with, but it'd obviously be a tempting target for investigators, security services and general-purpose hackers, even without the traditional security holes.

Bucci touches on this in between repeating the database merge mantra, suggesting the method could have applications in terms of identifying consumers' buying patterns, which indeed it could. But if it's defensible (yes, we know it shouldn't be), it could help Microsoft establish a strong (dare we say monopoly?) position in the operation and management of consumer billing systems. Would consumers pay for the convenience? Could banks, credit card companies and retailers be forced to pay a gatekeeper fee? Both? Endless possibilities based on the flimsiest of foundations - hats off to the US patent office... ®

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