Sunday, June 27, 2010

LabVIEW patent digging

I started down this path when I read an article about DASYLab in the April issue of Evaluation Engineering.  That triggered something in my memory about Measurement Computing, the company that published DASYLab.  After doing a little digging, I thought I confirmed what I remembered: National Instruments bought them out many years ago (1998).  But then I found a different article from 2003 stating that SoftWIRE, a subsidiary of MC, had patents it had acquired from Fluke that predate the NI patents for LV.  Hmm.  Finally, I found an article on Bloomberg that states, "as of April 29, 2005, Measurement Computing Corporation operates as a subsidiary of National Instruments Corporation."

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:

So where does this trip down the rabbit hole lead?  Here's what I saw:
  1. 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.
  2. NI has no problems litigating patent infringement.
  3. 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.

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