It's with a heavy heart that we start the week with another patent story because a) at their core, they're dull, b) we've been writing a lot of them recently, but most importantly c) they're a massive distraction from what we really want to be writing about - cool mobile device innovations.
But we owe it to you - the reader who wants to keep on top of business trends in the mobile device market - to keep you abreast of developments that affect the business, and the current patent litigation-frenzy very much qualifies.
At the centre of most of the litigation these days is Android - the Google-owned mobile platform with many third-party contributors. Android has been grabbing smartphone market-share hand over fist in the past couple of years and two of its biggest competitors - Apple with iOS and Microsoft with WP7 - have alleged the platform infringes some of their technology patents.
Apple kicked things off by lodging a complaint against HTC with both a district court and the USITC (US-based International Trade Commission) back in March 2010. The ITC part of that has, after over a year, reached the ‘initial determination' stage, in which a single judge has made a ruling, which will be reviewed by a committee later in the year.
The judge concluded two of Apple's complaints were valid. If this ruling is upheld it could result in HTC being banned from importing devices using the offending patents into the US - effectively freezing HTC out of one of its biggest markets.
One of the patents is for a quite technical process, but another covers something we can all get our heads around. Fortune summarises it well - it's the technology that allows the phone to recognise written passages as addresses, phones numbers, URL's, etc, and automatically turn those passages into links containing the appropriate functionality.
These apparent patent infringements are of concern, not just to HTC, but to all Android OEMs, as they seem to be intrinsic to Android, rather than HTC-specific features. As FOSS Patents put it: "[The] Patents appear to be at the core of Android and infringed by all Android devices".
Inevitably HTC is going to appeal, but it's also working hard on finding work-arounds for any patents it may be infringing. "We are highly confident we have a strong case for the ITC appeals process and are fully prepared to defend ourselves using all means possible," said Grace Lei, general counsel of HTC. "We strongly believe we have alternate solutions in place for the issues raised by Apple. We look forward to resolving this case, so we can continue creating the most innovative mobile experiences for consumers."
The HTC release containing the above statement also made a point of noting that the ITC has already ruled Apple infringes on a couple of patents owned by S3, which it acquired earlier this month. As we said at the time "HTC seems to have bought some leverage over Apple that, at the very least, may come in handy in the ongoing legal aggro between the two."
FOSS Patents doesn't reckon Apple would be too keen on licensing these patents - as Microsoft has done - even if the final judgment is in its favour, preferring instead to seek damages and force HTC to work around them. This could also be the first of many such rulings against Android, which is already under severe patent pressure.
We think it's sad that do much litigation is underway, much of it prompted by Apple. The spirit of the patent system is supposed to be to protect inventors from having their ideas stolen, but they now seem to be a way for large companies to suppress competition. In fact, given the age of these Apple patents, they must have been filed to protect Mac OS, rather than iOS...
Of course intellectual property needs to be protected, but Android is clearly quite different to iOS and WP7, and it's a shame that it looks set to be a less viable mobile platform thanks to the legal efforts of Apple and Microsoft.
But having said that, it's surely now time for Google and the OHA to get their act together and ensure Android is squeaky clean when it comes to patents. Alternatively they can counter-attack. The list of OEM members of the OHA alone is pretty impressive; surely between them they can find some patents Apple and Microsoft have infringed and come to a cross-licensing agreement.