Innovation/Global Crisis Blog

Patent Wars: Do Patents Strangle Innovation?  Or Foster It?

The Case of Android

By Shlomo Maital


What is “Android?” ?

  (based on wiki):  Android is a mobile operating system for mobile devices such as mobile telephones and tablet computers developed by Google and the Open Handset Alliance, a consortium of 80 hardware, software, and telecommunication companies devoted to advancing open standards for mobile devices.   Google released most of the Android code under the Apache License, a free software license.   Android consists of a mobile operating system based on the Linux kernel, with middleware, libraries and APIs written in C and application software running on an application framework which includes Java-compatible libraries based on Apache Harmony.    Android has a large community of developers writing applications (“apps”) that extend the functionality of the devices. Developers write primarily in Java.  There are currently more than 250,000 apps available for Android. Android Market is the online app store run by Google, though apps can also be downloaded from third-party sites. Android is now  the best-selling smartphone platform worldwide. 

   Who are Android’s competitors? 

   Apple, Microsoft and Blackberry.  Microsoft, as always, never missses an opportunity to miss an opportunity, but then uses its money and muscle to kill competitors.  Nokia’s Symbian is being euthanized.  (See diagram). 

Which is best?

The blog “Andgeeks” cites a Wall St. Journal report:  “Last week, the Wall Street Journal asked its readers which was the best mobile operating system. Grabbing 6,365 vote sample,  …Android came away not only with a lead, but with the majority of the votes. Apple, of course, finished second, while BlackBerry sat in third place.”

   And what are Android’s competitors doing to fight back?  Competing fairly? Or trying to squeeze Google through massive purchases of patents?

     From press reports:  “Google announced Monday that it will acquire Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion in order to “supercharge” its Android mobile operating system and build up its patent portfolio.  “Android was born as an open platform,” Rubin continued. “It doesn’t make sense for it to be a single OEM. We want to go as wide as possible and all our partners make it what it is today.”

    Perhaps more important to Google’s bottom line will be the acquisition of Motorola Mobility’s patent portfolio. “Our acquisition of Motorola will increase competition by strengthening Google’s patent portfolio, which will enable us to better protect Android from anti-competitive threats from Microsoft, Apple and other companies,” Page wrote.   Sanjay Jha, CEO of Motorola Mobility, said the company has over 17,000 issued patents worldwide, in addition to 7,500 patent applications awaiting approval.

   Earlier this month, Google accused Apple, Microsoft, and other tech giants of trying to “strangle” Android with its coordinated patent purchases and pledged to “intensely” defend its mobile OS through patent purchases of its own and opposition to what it considers anti-competitive patent bids.

    Last month, a consortium of tech rivals purchased 6,000 wireless technology patents held by Nortel, which Google had said it wanted to buy. Apple, EMC, Ericsson, Microsoft, Research in Motion, and Sony joined forces to purchase the patents, which cover wireless, wireless  4G, data networking, optical, voice, Internet, service provider,  semiconductors, and other patent portfolios. Microsoft and Apple also teamed up to purchase patents from Novell, along with Oracle and EMC.”

    Comment:    Confused? So am I.  Google is pushing an “open system”.  Great.  It is defending its open Linux-based system by leveraging Motorola’s 17,000 patents (and 7,500 patents pending), i.e. using a monopoly right to foster ‘competition’.  Google’s rivals, in turn, are trying to marginalize Android by assembling their own patent monopoly, with Apple, EMC, Ericsson, Microsoft, RIM (Blackberry), and Sony joining forces. (Hello, America’s anti-trust regulators?  Is anyone home?  Is monopoly created by patents any different from monopoly created by predatory pricing or price collusion??).    

     It is time to rethink patents.  Patents grant a monopoly to the inventor.  When a million inventors come up with a million patented inventions, one can believe the system works. But when huge companies join together to buy thousands of patents, in order to block a rival, this is beyond doubt “restraint of trade”, and illegal.  

     Google may be slightly morally superior to Apple, Microsoft, Sony and RIM, but not by much.