(This story is running in the print edition of The Seattle Times Oct. 23, 2011. – Janet I. Tu)
It seems not a week goes by these days without news of another patent battle or announcement: Microsoft reaching licensing agreements with various device manufacturers. Apple and various handset manufacturers filing suits and countersuits. Oracle suing Google over the use of Java in Android.
Not to mention barbed digs and jabs that company executives trade over blogs, Twitter and news releases.
After Microsoft and Samsung announced a patent-licensing agreement last month involving Google’s Android operating system, Google issued a statement saying, in part: “This is the same tactic we’ve seen time and again from Microsoft. Failing to succeed in the smartphone market, they are resorting to legal measures to extort profit from others’ achievements and hinder the pace of innovation.”
Microsoft’s PR chief Frank Shaw shot back via Twitter: “Let me boil down the Google statement … from 48 words to 1: Waaaah.”
So what gives? What’s up with the spate of patent petulance?
The answer is that they’re visible signs that technology companies’ patent practices have evolved from using them to defend their own inventions to deploying them as a significant part of competitive strategies in the fast-growing mobile market.
And Microsoft serves as a key example of that.
Their past relationship
At issue in Microsoft’s current patent wrangling is its contention that Android — the mobile operating system developed and offered to manufacturers for free by Google — has certain features that infringe on Microsoft’s patents.
Whether Android does indeed infringe on those patents is up to the courts to decide, said a Google spokesman who questioned whether many of the software patents at issue are overbroad or vague.
One Google attorney has accused Microsoft, along with Apple, Oracle and other companies, of “a hostile, organized campaign against Android,” when those companies formed a coalition to buy old patents from two tech companies. (Microsoft countered with tweets saying Google had voluntarily declined to jointly bid with Microsoft for some of the patents.)
In just the past two years, Microsoft has reached agreements with 10 smartphone and tablet manufacturers that use Android on devices they produce, most recently with Compal, a company that designs and makes computers branded by other companies. (It has sued Motorola, after the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement, as well as Barnes & Noble over the Nook e-reader and Nook Color tablets, which run on Android software.)