But doing all that digging started me thinking about NI's patents. Dataflow programming was first proposed way back in 1966 by Bert Sutherland, so NI couldn't patent that. Although, if you do a patent search on, say, NI and programming you'll find hundreds of patents (or look here). To my knowledge, patents can expire in as soon as twenty years. LabVIEW was first introduced back in 1986. Doing more digging, I found yet more nuggets:
- According to this news release, one of NI's key LabVIEW patents expires in April of next year.
- NI spent significant time and money defending a patent against The Mathworks (the MatLAB) people in 2002.
- There was a very interesting conversation on LAVA back in 2004 regarding the SoftWIRE v. NI lawsuit.
- Right around the turn of the century NI was in a LOT of activity: licensing patents and buying companies to resolve patent disputes (ex: here, here, over there, and out thatta way).
So where does this trip down the rabbit hole lead? Here's what I saw:
- Many of the original LabVIEW patents are getting long in the tooth and will start to expire as soon as next year, if they haven't already.
- NI has no problems litigating patent infringement.
- NI will buy companies to protect patents.
Based on that, here's my prediction: history will repeat itself. In the next few years there will be at least one software company that develops a software package that competes on the cheap with LabVIEW (which currently runs several thousand dollars per license). They'll be able to do this because of those expiring patents. Heck, they may even write their compiler so that it can use subVIs written for LabVIEW. After this happens, NI will sue them, force them out of business, or buy them. I imagine they'll buy them out - I doubt they'd want the price point on LabVIEW to drop at all.
It'll be interesting to see how it plays out.