Apple vs Android – what does it mean?

Androids popularity has brought a string of high-profile patent disputes. Could these sink Google's mobile OS before it dominates the market?
Emily Carlisle

July 20, 2011
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The dust is starting to settle following the International Trade Commission’s (ITC) controversial ruling on HTC’s infringement of Apple patents.

Although not a final decision, this initial judgement makes it even more possible that HTC – the largest Android mobile phone manufacturer and the second largest Android developer to Google – will face a ban on handset sales in the US.

Last week’s ruling confirmed a patent violation in relation to the Android ‘Linkify’ function, which automatically hyperlinks email addresses, locations and phone numbers within emails and text messages.

The ITC ruled that the functionality falls under Apple’s patent number 5,946,647 – a “system and method for performing an action on a structure in computer-generated data.”

In the same ruling, they concluded that patent 6.343,263 – a “real-time signal processing system for serially transmitted data” – has been infringed by HTC in four separate areas.

This latter patent refers to a generalised functionality performed by every smart phone – the use of an API to communicate between an application and the phone’s central processing unit.

If this ruling is upheld, Android has a serious problem.

In his keynote speech at Google’s Mobile Revolution Conference, held in Tokyo earlier this week, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt dismissed the patent disputes as “legal fun”, putting it down to professional envy over Android’s successes.  

“We have seen an explosion of Android devices entering the market and… competitors are responding with lawsuits as they cannot respond through innovations.”

He added, “I’m not too worried about this.”

But perhaps he should be, as other claims by Oracle and Microsoft look set to add weight to the problem.

If upheld, Android manufacturers would need to pay hefty licensing fees for the privilege of using other operating systems.

HTC seems to have taken the threat rather more seriously, last year signing a contract with Microsoft in anticipation of disputes.

In relation to these more recent claims, theoretically Apple could grant a licence to HTC but with Apple holding all the power, that doesn’t look likely.

It simply isn’t in Apple’s interest to close the technological gap between Apple and Android devices for the sake of a few dollars per handset.

The target date for the final ITC decision is 6 December this year, but that’s not Android’s only concern.

In addition to the sixteen patent disputes between Apple and HTC, there are nearly fifty lawsuits outstanding against Android, all relating to intellectual property, including Oracle’s lawsuit against Google’s alleged violation of Java-related patents.  

With Android’s US market share currently sitting at just under 50%, a ban would have massive ramifications throughout the industry.

“We are highly confident we have a strong case for the ITC appeals process,” said HTC’s general counsel Grace Lei in a statement issued on Saturday, in which she announced HTC’s plans to appeal the ITC ruling.   

Lei outlined HTC’s intention to develop alternative solutions to the issues raised in the patent dispute, but gave no indication as to what those workarounds might be, merely asserting that HTC is “fully prepared to defend [itself] using all means possible.” HTC’s confidence is impressive – time will tell whether it’s misplaced.


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