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Apple-HTC Ruling: Google Android's IP Assault

Google (and its Android OS) has become the monkey in the middle of IP fights involving Apple, Microsoft and Oracle.

Late last week, the International Trade Commission (ITC) issued a preliminary ruling against HTC for infringing on two of Apple's patents. The ruling isn't the only preliminary action in this patent protection endeavor, and Apple and HTC are not the only combatants. This ruling, if carried out, is likely to be the first in a series of decisions against Google's Android which, combined, could cripple this verdant mobile platform.

Let's review: Apple has sued HTC and Samsung for violating a variety of patents, many of which are for elements we take for granted today. (An excellent breakdown of the HTC patents appears on Foss Patents.) If the ITC's ruling against HTC becomes final, it will likely impact the import of the Droid Incredible, Wildfire, EVO 4G, and Desire phones. It will be a veritable assault on cartoonishly superlative naming conventions, and for that perhaps we should be thankful.

The Samsung suit could affect the Galaxy S 4G, Infuse 4G, and Droid Charge phones, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet; Samsung is countersuing Apple in six different countries, and any rulings against Apple in the 17 patents Samsung claims are being infringed upon will block the importation of iPhones and iPads.

More ominously, a final ITC ruling against HTC could open the door for Apple to take its claims (and maybe more of them) further, hitting not only other Android OEMs (Apple is also suing Motorola), but eventually Google.

But that's not all.

Oracle lays claim to a great deal of what's in Android, particularly Java, which makes up the mobile OS' application framework and code libraries. This particular case is a tricky one involving debates about how open Java should be. Just to add drama, Oracle has insisted on deposing Google CEO Larry Page, alleging that Page once attempted to make a deal for a Java license for Android.

Oracle is seeking at least $1.4 billion, and perhaps as much as $6.1 billion. With its initial victory against SAP ($1.3 billion), and lawsuits pending against TomorrowNow and Google, the company could create an entire profit center around litigation.

As if that weren't enough, Microsoft also says it has been wronged, that many of its patents are part of Android OS. Microsoft has already extracted payments from HTC, among others, and is seeking a big payday from Samsung as well. A Wells Fargo analyst note pegged Microsoft's patent enforcement revenue at a cool $1 billion in 2012 if all goes Microsoft's way. In other words, it might make more money from Android than it does from Windows Phone 7.

In the irony department:

* Google Chairman Eric Schmidt once ran software engineering for Sun and once sat on Apple's board. Early in his career, he worked for Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, which is said to have inspired the first Mac user interface.

* Oracle once pushed Sun to make more of Java open source.

* Apple and Samsung are partners; in fact, Apple is one of Samsung's biggest customers (it produces the A5 chip for Apple), although Apple is allegedly in trials with Tawain-based TSMC to manufacture the next-generation A6 chip.

It's not quite time to stop buying Android phones and tablets. Typically, these rulings simply lead to an agreement to pay a licensing fee, similar to what Microsoft and HTC worked out. We'll see more of that in due time, but it might also accompany a rise in device pricing as the litigants feel compelled to pass along the costs.

The more interesting question--if what lies within Android is billions of dollars of intellectual property from Apple, Oracle, and Microsoft, where does that leave Google?

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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