Jobs vs. Gates. Again.

"Oh, please, not again."

That's the first thought that went through my mind when I learned that Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) may prevent Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) from receiving a patent for the software interface that drives the popular iPod.

The hysteria originated a week ago today with this story at Web news outlet AppleInsider. Apparently, Microsoft inventor John Platt filed a patent covering the generation of "playlists for a library of media items... ." If you think that sounds eerily similar to how the iPod organizes songs, you're right. And that's a problem for Apple. The Mac maker filed its own patent covering the iPod's interface in October 2002, five months after Platt.

The apparent oversight has set off a media panic. Indeed, some stories -- including this one -- have painted visions of Apple CEO Steve Jobs essentially writing personal checks to Microsoft CEO Bill Gates for each iPod that comes off the assembly line. No doubt this paranoia stems from history. Unless you've been living under a rock for the last 20 years, you know that Microsoft helped engineer the rapid decline of the Mac in the 1990s. The implication now is that the same fate could await the iPod. But could it really?

Sure, but probably not at the hands of a Microsoft patent (at least not according to the initial reaction from the Gates camp). Don't get me wrong; Microsoft had to demonstrate the viability of its wares to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as soon as it filed. That proves Microsoft has something, even if whatever that is has yet to see the light of the mass market.

Conversely, Apple claims it created and released to the public the iPod interface before Platt field his application in May 2002. That very well could be true.

And therein lies the real irony. Apple didn't file its patent until a year after the launch of its iconic digital music player. How remarkably smug. Sure, it's obvious now that Apple should have filed its patent the minute the iPod came to market. That it didn't suggests nothing more than laziness, pure and simple. In fairness, this might not have mattered given Microsoft's developments, but the gesture should have been made regardless.

But this time Apple may have gotten lucky. An apparently kinder, gentler Mr. Softy has used its appearances in the media to talk about its long history of cooperating with Jobs. Don't expect that to last.

Steve, it's time to take note. You and the rest of the Mac faithful have enjoyed a comfy perch in recent years. Those days are finally over. Welcome back to the trenches.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers is so tragically digital that he listens to more music on his G4 PowerBook than he does on his stereo. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile, which is here. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.


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