Dell's cloud computing effort must proceed without exclusive trademark

Key to Dell's comeback as the leading server manufacturer is the repair of its image as a fair corporate citizen. So this week's public notice that it probably can't trademark the phrase "cloud computing" won't help.

An effort initiated by Dell in March 2007 to register the phrase "cloud computing" as a United States trademark appears destined for defeat, as the US Patent and Trademark Office's database now indicates it sent Dell a non-final action notice last Tuesday refusing its request.

A non-final action notice is exactly what it implies: not the last word on the subject. According to the USPTO database, "no final determination as to the registrability of the mark has been made." A deep perusal of the contents of the notice to Dell last week, however, turns up 41 screenshots of Web pages from 2007, most notably from BusinessWeek and TechTarget, showing the phrase being used in a general fashion without reference to Dell.

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Announced that same March, the Dell Cloud Computing Solution is not a hosting service for business applications, but rather a marketing and support program for data center-class servers that customers may use to build such services for their own customers. As the company implied at the time, designs for such data center clusters may be "hyper-scalable," meaning that customers may require rapid increases in capability and capacity, which may involve virtualization for data center consolidation.

But exactly why anyone at Dell would expect an entire pre-existing category of technology -- one which it acknowledged was pre-existing on the very day the marketing campaign was launched to address it -- has never been fully explained. The Cloud Computing launch took place merely two months after Kevin Rollins stepped down as CEO and Chairman Michael Dell assumed his role, meaning it's likely that Cloud Computing was already under way at Dell prior to the management shift.

The concept of providing computing services over a network has also gone by the names utility computing and grid computing, and the idea actually predates both the PC and the Internet by several years. The creators of the BASIC programming language, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, foresaw their language's use as a timesharing system control language as far back as the late 1960s.

The association of the concept with clouds may have come by way of a kind of grafting of an old metaphor for Internet routing with a diagram for utility computing services, where in both cases, neither server nor client really had to "care" about what goes on in-between. Exactly who came up with the "cloud" is in dispute -- many credit Bell Laboratories -- though a serious discussion of the use of clouds in routing protocols culminated in IETF documents such as RFC 3056. IBM was a key contributor to that 2001 document on the use of IPv4 protocol on older network backbones to link IPv6 addresses during the Internet's transition period.

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