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The man who took on Microsoft - and won Add to ...


Michael Vulpe knows people don't want to spend a lot of time thinking about the documents that are required to keep a 747 in the air.

He also knows that if a 747 were loaded up with printouts of all the regulatory and maintenance documents required to keep it flying for a year, the plane wouldn't be able to take off. It would be too heavy.

Imagine having to create a system that took all that information and had to make it so easy to input, organize and retrieve that users never really had to think about it.

That's where Mr. Vulpe comes in.

For more than 20 years, he has been designing a technology that manages the flow of documents within organizations, creating usable databases that can be tapped to make businesses and governments more efficient. It all runs in the background.

Outside the IT departments of his clients, most don't know the technology is there - let alone talk about it. That's about to change.

Last week a Texas jury ruled in favour of Mr. Vulpe's firm, Infrastructures for Information Inc., in its patent dispute with Microsoft Corp., and awarded the Toronto-based company $200-million (U.S.) in compensation. The ruling has since thrust i4i and its 30 employees into the spotlight.

"All I can say is that we're very pleased with the jury's verdict," Mr. Vulpe said. "We're still in business, we're still growing. Obviously the team and the guys back at the technical shop are very pleased with the result. It vindicates everything we've been about."

He won't say much more about the dispute that lies at the heart of the conflict with the world's largest software company. His technology allows users to convert documents into "living databases" that make the information contained easier to catalogue, search and retrieve.

Court documents show i4i claimed that Microsoft infringed on its patent in a "willful and deliberate" manner when it created its Word 2003, Word 2007, .NET Framework and Windows Vista software.

A Microsoft spokesman said the company plans to appeal.

Mr. Vulpe has spent more than two decades helping organizations such as the Vatican, the Smithsonian and Finland's Ministry of Finance organize their documents. He founded i4i with the technology's co-inventor, Stephen Owens, in 1993. Their first office was down the hall from the change room of a massage parlour.

When he worked for the Smithsonian, Mr. Vulpe had to develop a system to allow the museum to uniformly catalogue and store information on all of its exhibits and treasures. No small order for an organization with 19 museums and more than 130 million artifacts.

"You can imagine the complexity of trying to identify with words and write in documents that describe all this stuff," Mr. Vulpe said. "Imagine what a database like that would look like. It's not a bank, it's not an insurance company. It's millions of documents that are written by curators, engineers, art historians and anthropologists about collections as diverse as the jewels of the Nile to the space shuttle to what's in a jungle."

"The only way to describe this stuff is through documents."

Today, the technology provides organizations with the means to produce documents in a manner that allows them to be sorted and searched easily, then provides the necessary technical tools required to catalogue, store and retrieve that information.

Mr. Vulpe took what he learned at the Smithsonian and when he returned to Canada, he set about coming up with a way to monetize the technology. Since then, the company has amassed a global stable of clients that includes government ministries, pharmaceutical companies and worked with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from its tiny office on Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto, where all the coding is done on site.

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