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IPod's wheel patent? It's, er, welll, Microsoft's

SAN FRANCISCO -- Given the intense rivalry between Apple Computer Inc. and Microsoft Corp., this recent disclosure had a comedic tinge: Apple took too long to file a patent on part of its blockbuster iPod music players, so Microsoft beat them to it.

Bloggers and other tech pundits snickered at the prospect of Apple chief executive Steve Jobs having to pay Microsoft chairman Bill Gates royalties, and one Web columnist even dubbed the patent office the ''iPod killer."

To be sure, the US Patent & Trademark Office last month did reject a request that Apple filed in October 2002 to patent technologies that support the iPod's rotational wheel interface. The reason: Microsoft had apparently outraced Apple to the patent office with a similar request by five months.

Sales of of iPods and online music accounted for 38 percent of Apple's revenue last quarter. It sounds bad, but the setback is hardly a knockout blow.

Tim Bajarin, principal analyst for Creative Strategies, pointed out that Apple and Microsoft signed a five-year agreement in 1997 to share technology.

When the deal expired in 2002, the music-player patents in question may have been covered, he said.

''If someone were taking bets," he said, ''I would wager that Apple never pays Microsoft a cent."

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