Whenever one looks at the mobile patent wars, it is natural to conclude
that everybody is suing everybody else. Thus far, though, that has not
actually been true. Google has been on the receiving end of a number of
lawsuits, either directly or indirectly via attacks on manufacturers
shipping Android devices, but Google has not, itself, launched patent
attacks against others. That situation has just changed, though, with the
that Google has filed a case against Apple with the US International
In short, Google is trying to use seven of its patents (just acquired from
Motorola Mobility) to block the import of Apple's products
into the US. Those of us who fear the effect of software patents on free
software might be forgiven for feeling that it is only just for Apple to be
on the receiving end of the sort of attacks it has launched against
Android. But Google's transformation into a patent aggressor may not bode
well in the long term, regardless of how the current cases end up.
So what is Google claiming? The seven patents asserted against Apple are:
significant messaging (5,883,580). The idea here is accepting
messages with an associated location identifier (and maybe a time
range). Should the user of the device wander into the specific
location, the messages are acted upon. Think "50% off on a latte
right now!" as one walks past a coffee shop.
method and system for multimedia control and communication
(5,922,047). This patent seems to cover using a handset as a remote
control for external devices, from entertainment through to heating,
lighting, and security.
and method for handling dispatching messages for various applications
of a communications device (6,425,002). A system that receives
"messages," classifies them, and delivers each type of message to the
right application. It does not take an overly broad reading of this
patent to imagine that it could apply to most networking
implementations or to higher-level applications like mail transfer
agents, web servers, or IRC clients.
language for interactive services and methods thereof (6,493,673).
This patent covers the use of a markup language to describe user interface
elements and the actions to be taken in response to user actions. It
could easily describe a Tcl/Tk program or an HTML form, but there is
one additional twist: the claims require an attribute enabling audio
input by the user. It is clearly being asserted as a direct attack on
Apple's "Siri" functionality.
for providing continuity between messaging clients and method
therefor (6,983,370). This is a mechanism for transferring a user
session (in some application) from one device to another.
and apparatus for obtaining and managing wirelessly communicated
content (7,007,064). A device receives "content portions";
contained within those portions can be instructions for the removal of
previously-received portions. The idea is to push information (news,
financial information, sports scores) to a device and automatically
clear out old or obsolete information.
and method for managing content between devices in various domains
(7,383,983). A simple algorithm for pausing content playback on one
device and resuming it on another.
(Credit is due to Florian Mueller, who found
and posted the specific patents at issue).
As is so often the case, there is not much in these patents that appears to
be particularly novel or worthy of protection. Once one concludes that a
particular problem (moving video playback from the handset to the
television, say) is in need of solution, the form of the solution becomes
fairly obvious. The patents asserted by Apple against Android seem trivial, but it is hard to come up with a
way to say that Google's patents are less so.
If one is concerned about attacks against Android and other platforms based
on free software, one might be tempted to hope that Google will find some
success against Apple and, in so doing, deter further attacks on the
platform. The mobile patent wars could be declared to be a draw, and the
companies involved could get back to their real business: running on the
consumer electronics product treadmill and trying to create better products
to sell to their customers. Barring real reform of the patent laws in the
US, that might well be a best-case outcome.
What seems more likely, though, is that the companies involved, having
shown that they can make each other hurt, will come to some sort of
understanding involving the sharing of patents and, perhaps, the passing of
undisclosed amounts of cash between some of the parties. Such an agreement
would presumably make the world safer for Android and for at least some of
the manufacturers who use Android in their products. But it's not at all
clear that the situation would improve for free software as a whole, or for
anybody who is outside of this agreement and who wants to break into the
A worst-case scenario could involve Google asserting these patents (and
others from the massive pile it acquired from Motorola) against devices
based on Tizen, Nemo, Firefox OS, or other free platforms. Unlike
some companies, Google has not pledged not to attack free software projects
with its patents. Such an attack would certainly be widely considered to
be "evil," but the sad fact is that, in an extended fight, one tends to
become more like one's enemy. Having found that it can further its goals
with patent attacks (assuming that is, indeed, the outcome), Google may
find it hard to resist making more of them in the future.
In the end, that may be the environment we are stuck with until the
software patent situation can be addressed. Until then, it will be
impossible to achieve a certain level of success in the software area and
not be subject to patent attacks, either from trolls or from competitors.
Given the nature of the game, it is hard to fault Google for playing
hardball. Hopefully, the company's recent suggestions
that software patents should be eliminated entirely are sincere and we are
not witnessing the birth of another patent problem.
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