Little-known inventor's resolve led to triumph over Microsoft

Victor in patent dispute is career problem-solver

August 31, 2003|By Barbara Rose | Barbara Rose,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Had Microsoft Corp.'s lawyers glanced at inventor Michael Doyle's artwork, one drawing in particular would have given them pause.

Looking out from his life-size self-portrait is an inquisitive person with an unwavering gaze - someone who never gives up.

Doyle will need his resolve to continue waging the legal fight of his life, which culminated Aug. 11 in a $520 million patent-infringement award, the second-biggest in legal history.

If the federal jury's verdict is upheld over Microsoft's anticipated appeal, his tiny company, Eolas Technologies Inc., will have the legal power to enforce its Web browser patent to collect additional millions from a broad swath of Internet software players.

"Certainly we intend to build a licensing program," Doyle said in his first interview since the trial.

Eolas' patent is far-reaching because it covers fundamental browser technology used to call up and run computer "plug-ins" and applications.

Doyle also is fighting to defend his reputation against some in the Internet software community who say he wasn't first to invent such a browser and that he is trying to profit from technology that should be available free.

Dale Dougherty, a vice president at computer book publisher O'Reilly & Associates, testified for Microsoft that Doyle's browser invention was not new.

"The Web grew organically from a lot of contributors who did their work out in the open and shared it," Dougherty said in an interview. "Then this individual comes along and stakes a claim on what we view as public domain."

Doyle is unmoved.

"What's damaging," he said, "is when large companies use technologies that belong to smaller companies and interfere with these smaller companies' ability to compete."

The story of how a big-boned, brainy kid from Chicago grew up to take on one of the world's largest corporations - ending up a controversial and potentially wealthy figure - is the tale of a self-taught computer whiz who combined his artistic skills and a passion for science in novel ways.

It's about an inventor better prepared for research than for the world of commerce, but who now has a chance to build an important company.

"Mike's an extremely serious scientist and a genuine genius with a lot of good ideas and the drive to pursue them," said Eolas backer David Roseman.

The seventh of eight children in a close-knit Irish family, the soft-spoken 44-year-old displays a deceptively impassive demeanor and a mind roiling with ideas.

"There's a lot churning inside that furnace," said childhood friend Mike Walsh.

Doyle's cousin Willard Doyle recalls that Michael's father, the late J. Stuart Doyle, a gregarious ad executive and a Navy codebreaker during World War II who earned a law degree at the age of 66, relished being at the center of a family where "everybody always was doing interesting things."

Two years running, Willard Doyle recalls, Michael talked about building an artificial gill so humans could breathe under water.

He finished the project when he was 12, winning a statewide award.

Trained as a medical illustrator, Doyle later earned a Ph.D. in cell biology and anatomy at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, planning to write and illustrate textbooks.

Along the way, he taught himself to write software code because his computers would not accomplish what he set out to do. "It was a hobby that took over my life," he said.

From early on, he was drawn to solving real-life problems faced by surgeons such as Backer Roseman, now retired from Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, and Phil Donahue, chief of general surgery at Cook County Hospital.

They were part of a steady stream of doctors and scientists who coalesced around Doyle starting in the late 1980s when he ran the University of Illinois at Chicago's Biomedical Visualization Laboratory.

They often gathered for dinner to talk about the rapidly evolving technology that allowed them, for instance, to post snapshots of X-rays, then manipulate databases to diagnose and track illnesses indicated in the pictures.

The early seeds for Doyle's disputed patent were planted in 1990, when he grew interested in using computers to make available to the broadest possible audience a collection of 7,000 human embryos housed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington.

"Mike was first to inquire about using the collection in this way," said museum director Adrianne Noe. "He's a flexible thinker. One of the gifts he brings is making the same material useful for people with a lot of different interests."

His ideas sparked the Visible Embryo Project, now part of the federally funded Next Generation Internet Initiative.

Doyle was working on the embryo project while running a research lab at the University of California in San Francisco in 1993 when he and two colleagues enhanced an early version of an Internet browser, using the browser to summon and operate computer programs.

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