REDMOND, WAIn what CEO Bill Gates called "an unfortunate but necessary step to protect our intellectual property from theft and exploitation by competitors," the Microsoft Corporation patented the numbers one and zero Monday.
With the patent, Microsoft's rivals are prohibited from manufacturing or selling products containing zeroes and onesthe mathematical building blocks of all computer languages and programsunless a royalty fee of 10 cents per digit used is paid to the software giant.
"Microsoft has been using the binary system of ones and zeroes ever since its inception in 1975," Gates told reporters. "For years, in the interest of the overall health of the computer industry, we permitted the free and unfettered use of our proprietary numeric systems. However, changing marketplace conditions and the increasingly predatory practices of certain competitors now leave us with no choice but to seek compensation for the use of our numerals."
A number of major Silicon Valley players, including Apple Computer, Netscape and Sun Microsystems, said they will challenge the Microsoft patent as monopolistic and anti-competitive, claiming that the 10-cent-per-digit licensing fee would bankrupt them instantly.
"While, technically, Java is a complex system of algorithms used to create a platform-independent programming environment, it is, at its core, just a string of trillions of ones and zeroes," said Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, whose company created the Java programming environment used in many Internet applications. "The licensing fees we'd have to pay Microsoft every day would be approximately 327,000 times the total net worth of this company."
"If this patent holds up in federal court, Apple will have no choice but to convert to analog," said Apple interim CEO Steve Jobs, "and I have serious doubts whether this company would be able to remain competitive selling pedal-operated computers running software off vinyl LPs."
As a result of the Microsoft patent, many other companies have begun radically revising their product lines: Database manufacturer Oracle has embarked on a crash program to develop "an abacus for the next millennium." Novell, whose communications and networking systems are also subject to Microsoft licensing fees, is working with top animal trainers on a chimpanzee-based message-transmission system. Hewlett-Packard is developing a revolutionary new steam-powered printer.
Despite the swarm of protest, Gates is standing his ground, maintaining that ones and zeroes are the undisputed property of Microsoft.
"We will vigorously enforce our patents of these numbers, as they are legally ours," Gates said. "Among Microsoft's vast historical archives are Sanskrit cuneiform tablets from 1800 B.C. clearly showing ones and a symbol known as 'sunya,' or nothing. We also own: papyrus scrolls written by Pythagoras himself in which he explains the idea of singular notation, or 'one'; early tracts by Mohammed ibn Musa al Kwarizimi explaining the concept of al-sifr, or 'the cipher'; original mathematical manuscripts by Heisenberg, Einstein and Planck; and a signed first-edition copy of Jean-Paul Sartre's Being And Nothingness. Should the need arise, Microsoft will have no difficulty proving to the Justice Department or anyone else that we own the rights to these numbers."
Added Gates: "My salary also has lots of zeroes. I'm the richest man in the world."
According to experts, the full ramifications of Microsoft's patenting of one and zero have yet to be realized.
"Because all integers and natural numbers derive from one and zero, Microsoft may, by extension, lay claim to ownership of all mathematics and logic systems, including Euclidean geometry, pulleys and levers, gravity, and the basic Newtonian principles of motion, as well as the concepts of existence and nonexistence," Yale University theoretical mathematics professor J. Edmund Lattimore said. "In other words, pretty much everything."
Lattimore said that the only mathematical constructs of which Microsoft may not be able to claim ownership are infinity and transcendental numbers like pi. Microsoft lawyers are expected to file liens on infinity and pi this week.
Microsoft has not yet announced whether it will charge a user fee to individuals who wish to engage in such mathematically rooted motions as walking, stretching and smiling.
In an address beamed live to billions of people around the globe Monday, Gates expressed confidence that his company's latest move will, ultimately, benefit all humankind.
"Think of this as a partnership," Gates said. "Like the ones and zeroes of the binary code itself, we must all work together to make the promise of the computer revolution a reality. As the world's richest, most powerful software company, Microsoft is number one. And you, the millions of consumers who use our products, are the zeroes."