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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 report that Google has filed a case against Apple with the US International Trade Commission.
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:
(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 mobile market.
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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