Although the worldwide patent lawsuits between Apple and nearly every major Android smartphone vendor have been bitterly fought and may eventually involve government intervention, there's really no day-to-day impact on the consumer — Apple, Google, and its OEMs continue to improve and sell their devices as quickly as they can. But a quick tour through the halls of Mobile World Congress reveals that Android OEMs are rapidly learning to design around some of Apple's iPhone-related patents, and coming up with some pretty innovative ideas in the process.
I focused on two of Apple's more notorious patents: #7,469,381, which covers the distinctive "scrollback" behavior in iOS, and #7,657,849, which is the infamous "slide-to-unlock" patent. Apple's asserted both of these patents against Android makers in US litigation, and it's clearly had an effect: almost none of the major phones announced at MWC 2012 had scrolling or unlock features that touch on the most important elements of Apple's patent claims. Part of that is simply because Google's made substantive changes to recent versions of Android itself, but manufacturers like HTC and LG have diverged sharply from stock Android and built their own unique implementations of both features. (On the other hand, Sony's unlock is exactly like Apple's.)
Apple has many more patents than just these two, of course, and some of its more esoteric patents on operating system functionality might not be so easy to work around. And the future could change the landscape dramatically in both directions: while Apple's already licensed the scrollback patent to Nokia and offered it up to Samsung in settlement negotiations, it's also recently acquired patent #8,046,721, which covers slide-to-unlock without that pesky predefined path. And the entire smartphone ecosystem might be upended once Apple takes on Google directly after the Motorola acquisition closes. These fireworks are far from over.
But it's clear that the current state of Android patent litigation is having a much deeper effect on the products in the market than just Samsung's minor redesign of the Galaxy Tab 10.1N's shell — it's changing how Android actually looks and feels for the end user. In the end, the question for Android smartphone manufacturers is whether that's a limitation or an opportunity — and it seems some are taking that question more seriously than others.