Although Apple may have kicked off the post-PC era with the iPhone and iPad, it's Android that's allowed the tech industry to reinvent itself — the mobile computing explosion would look very different without Google's open-source operating system. With that success has come a corresponding explosion of patent litigation and licensing: the three biggest Android phone vendors are now all enmeshed in patent lawsuits with Apple, and Microsoft has signed patent licensing deals with 10 Android vendors, allowing Redmond to collect revenue on some 70 percent of all Android phones sold in the US.
In many ways that's simply the cost of doing business in a market where core software innovations were developed by entrenched players long ago — does anyone really care if LG is paying Microsoft some small per-unit fee on its Android phones? LG can afford it.
Does anyone really care if LG is paying Microsoft some small per-unit fee on its Android phones?
But Google's operating system is also at the center of another revolution: a huge variety of smart devices all running Android for everything from control to power management to custom apps. It's real innovation, the kind that comes from new ideas and fresh thinking — and the kind most at risk from expensive patent lawsuits and unit royalties that most small companies can't afford.
Yet Android continues to flourish in the corners and sidestreets of the tech world despite the enormous amount of legal activity at the top of the market. That's surprising, but developers say the benefits of using such a popular and well-established platform vastly outweigh the risk that Microsoft or Apple might come calling. Building the WIMM One smartwatch would have been "prohibitively hard" without Android, says Ted Ladd, WIMM's director of developer relations. "We would have had to define all the APIs ourselves. With Android it's all done." Asked about the Android patent wars, Ladd simply shrugged. "'I'm not sure there's a problem — I don't see it. These legal shenanigans are not getting in the way of innovation for small developers."
Smaller gadget manufacturers are also drawn to Android's momentum, and most pay no mind to the legal battles between massive companies like Apple and Samsung. "There's a balance between taking the risk of going with a trendy ecosystem and a developer community that is supporting and building an open platform, or going with the safe, paid OS," said Hamid Abdollahi, CTO of Recon Instruments, makers of the MOD Live ski goggles. "We chose to go with the open platform." The legal activity around Android doesn't faze Abdollahi either. "There's no obvious link between the giants and us."
What's more, Microsoft itself doesn't appear to be too interested in pursuing small developers. "Our focus today is on the smartphone and tablet," says Microsoft IP licensing manager David Kaefer. "If you're booting Android on a toaster, we're not going to be focused on you." That doesn't mean Microsoft can't expand its licensing efforts to new markets; Kaefer says the company is looking into licensing TV manufacturers as smart TVs begin to get popular.
"If you're booting Android on a toaster, we're not going to be focused on you."
Merely dismissing potential liability doesn't make it go away, however, and as the smart device market gets larger it will become an increasingly attractive target for lawsuits, especially if Microsoft, Apple, and others prove victorious in today's intensely-fought smartphone cases. Armed with a victory against, say, Samsung, it would be fairly easy for Apple to squeeze a smaller Android vendor out of the market for infringing a core technology patent — unless, of course, Google steps in to somehow protect the entire Android ecosystem with licensing deals and lawsuits of its own.
If that happens, protecting small Android innovators may well be the lasting legacy of Motorola. Sources close to Google say the company considers the Motorola purchase to be an aggressive move to support the Android community and provide cover to innovate free of patent litigation — protection not necessarily needed by major players like HTC and Samsung, but sorely required by smaller Android-related shops developing new markets. But a Motorola-brokered détente might be a few years off: Google's strategy for Motorola seems to be largely hands-off for now, and Motorola itself is coming under serious international scrutiny for its use of standards-related patents in litigation against Apple and Microsoft.
In the meantime, the small Android ecosystem continues to hum along with the full expectation the patent issue will solve itself. WIMM's Ladd, a Palm veteran who's faced off with Microsoft before, was particularly blunt. "I've seen this play before from Microsoft, and therefore it doesn't faze me... This is not a new game."