Microsoft has been granted a patent for "Time-based hardware button for application launch". To you and me, the mouse double-click.

US patent 6,727,830, filed 12 July 2002 and granted 27 April this year, is described: "A method and system are provided for extending the functionality of application buttons on a limited resource computing device."

Hmmm. You see, "alternative application functions are launched based on the length of time an application button is pressed". Okay. And? "A default function for an application is launched if the button is pressed for a short, i.e., normal, period of time." Right... anything else? "An alternative function of the application is launched if the button is pressed for a long, (eg, at least one second), period of time." So that's a long time, and a short time, covered. Is there more? "Still another function can be launched if the application button is pressed multiple times within a short period of time, eg, double click."

Good lord! Microsoft has cracked it. So what exactly is the patent for?

Microsoft's not too sure. A spokesman said it was developed by employees working in the company's Pocket PC group but couldn't say whether or not the patent applied to desktop applications, or how Microsoft planned to enforce it.

Perhaps there are some clues in the patent itself. "In the past, the actuation of an application button caused an application to be launched in a particular state, for example a view state," it reveals. "The user was required to take further steps to invoke additional application functionality, such as opening a document."

Got that so far? It goes on: "It is desirable to more easily launch applications in various states. The present invention is directed to increasing the functionality of application buttons so as to accomplish this result." Right (?!).

Here's a patent lawyer. Jeff Norman with law firm Kirkland Ellis. He says the patent appears to cover "the time dimension to a click".

"Depending on how long you hold the button, that would define a different set of applications," he said. "It could be used, for example, in a voice recorder. Instead of launching the application, the voice recorder software could know to begin recording if the user clicked and held down on the click."

So it would seem that Microsoft has patented time. In fact, if you accept that your use your arms and hands to formulate a "click", it could be argued that Microsoft owns the right to their functioning too. Well, why the hell not? Let's run with this.

However, others are not quite so sure. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which operates a "patent-busting" project for getting frivolous patents revoked, said Microsoft's patent was no more innovative than Amazon.com's famous patent on "one-click shopping". "Extended button functionality has been fairly common in consumer electronics since the early days of digital and calculator watches," said EFF staff attorney Jason Schultz.

The difference between Microsoft and Amazon is that so far at least, Microsoft isn't suing anyone over PDA buttons, Schultz said. "Many companies like Microsoft acquire patents for defensive purposes in case they get sued by someone else for using the same technology," he said. "As long as Microsoft continues to use its patents solely for defensive purposes, these kinds of patents aren't really a big problem."