One way to know that a product has become successful is to see others
lining up to attack it in the courts. Imitation may be the sincerest form
but FUD and lawsuits also show, in a rather less sincere way, a certain
form of respect. By this measure, the Android system, by virtue of being
the target of both, must be riding high indeed.
At the top of the news is Microsoft's just-announced lawsuit against Barnes
& Noble, an American bookstore chain. According to Microsoft, the Nook ebook reader, which is
based on Android, violates five of Microsoft's software patents. By now,
the fact that these patents cover trivial "innovations" should not come as
a surprise. Here is a quick overview of what Microsoft claims to own:
"Remote retrieval and display management of electronic document with
incorporated images." What's described here is displaying a document
on top of a background image with the brilliant feature that the
document is displayed while the image is still transferring and the
whole page is redrawn once the image shows up.
"System provided child window controls." This patent covers an
application settings dialog with tabs.
"Loading status in a hypermedia browser having a limited available
display area." This patent covers the idea of putting up a "loading"
image over a page while the page is loading.
"Selection handles in editing electronic documents." Covered here is
the technique of putting little images around a selection area so that
the user can, by dragging those handles, resize the area.
"Method and apparatus for capturing and rendering annotations for
non-modifiable electronic content" - a method for storing
"annotations" outside of the text of a read-only document. Broadly
read, this patent could be said to cover browser bookmarks, an idea
that somebody might just have thought of before this patent's 1999
It seems unlikely that any of these patents would stand up against a
suitably determined challenge in court - though such an opinion does
certainly rely on a possibly naïve view of the rationality of American
patent courts. In the real world, challenging patents is a time-consuming
and expensive affair. Barnes & Noble, which may well have been chosen
because it looks like a weak target, may not have an appetite for that kind
of fight. That said, the company has, evidently, refused offers to license
these patents from Microsoft; its management had to know that a lawsuit
would be the next step.
Perhaps we'll see a counterattack from the rest of the industry; the idea
of paying rent to Microsoft for the privilege of using bookmarks is
unlikely to have broad appeal. Or, perhaps, the entire mobile marketplace
in the US will simply collapse under the weight of the steadily increasing
pile of patent-related lawsuits.
The patent suit is not the only attack ongoing against Android currently; there
is also, seemingly, a determined FUD campaign underway. Most recently,
this campaign has taken the form of assertions that Android is violating
the Linux kernel's license; LWN examined those
claims in a separate article. It's worth noting that one of the
proponents of these claims has
represented Microsoft in the past - a fact which he chose to remove
from his online
biography shortly before beginning the attack.
The goal of these attacks seems clear - to inject fear, uncertainty, and
doubt into the growing Android ecosystem. Hardware vendors have been
that they may well be sued for using Android. Software vendors are being
told that writing for Android could expose them to copyright infringement
all aimed at getting these companies to reconsider investing in Android in
favor of the "safer" alternatives.
The thing is, of course, we have seen this kind of FUD campaign before. As
early as the 1990's, people were warning that use of Linux could cause
companies to "lose their intellectual property." Fortunately, most
companies have figured out that they face no such threat. So, when we see
something like this
If Google is proven wrong, pretty much that entire software stack
-- and also many popular third-party closed-source components such
as the Angry Birds game and the Adobe Flash Player -- would
actually have to be published under the GPL.
We can relax in the knowledge that we have seen such things before. Linux
turns out to be surprisingly resilient to FUD; this campaign seems
unlikely to even slow things down.
It is worth noting that, despite the recent claims that companies working
with Android might be sued by free software developers, the actual lawsuit
was filed by a company which is generally hostile to free software. There
are indeed threats out there, but they do not come from our community; they
come from companies which feel they are losing in the market and which, as
such companies so often do, are turning to the courts instead. It is one
of the less pleasant signs of success; our community should feel flattered
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