Is Android really at risk? Why Apple might not sue Google


The win for Apple in the recent patent case in California is still sending out shockwaves across the tech community. We’ve seen lots of speculation and plenty of analysis on how Apple’s victory will affect you and what the verdict means for Android. The big loser is obviously Samsung, as a share slump wiped $12 billion off its value on Monday and that’s the last thing it wants after being ordered to pay over $1 billion in damages to Apple.

We’ve discussed the inevitable patent battle between Google and Apple before. Now that Apple has been emboldened by the Samsung win, it will continue to pursue patent infringement claims. Does this mean that Android is really at risk? Will Apple target the platform and Google directly or continue to go after the device manufacturers?

Google’s statement

Following the verdict in the Apple vs. Samsung trial, Google released an interesting statement.

“The court of appeals will review both infringement and the validity of the patent claims. Most of these don’t relate to the core Android operating system, and several are being re-examined by the US Patent Office. The mobile industry is moving fast and all players — including newcomers — are building upon ideas that have been around for decades. We work with our partners to give consumers innovative and affordable products, and we don’t want anything to limit that.”

So challenges to the validity of Apple’s patents could have an impact, but how long will that take? The vast majority of the Samsung case doesn’t relate to the Android platform, but “pinch to zoom,” “double tap to zoom,” and universal search are all areas that could lead to more court cases. If one jury has ruled in Apple’s favor on these patents then there’s every chance that another one will. It’s vital that these patents are re-examined.

Google isn’t about to sit idly by and wait for that process though. Instead it will continue to support Android manufacturers against Apple and bring its own patent infringement cases through Motorola.

Why wouldn’t Apple sue Google?

The question a lot of people have been asking is whether Apple will now go ahead and sue Google. The truth is that suing Google over Android could prove to be tough, compared to suing Android device manufacturers. There are quite a few compelling reasons not to sue.

Google doesn’t charge a licensing fee for Android and it makes money indirectly from the platform mainly through advertising, but also through apps and media in Google Play. When Google has gotten involved in hardware, it has generally been very careful to avoid copying Apple. The Verge did a nice job explaining how Google has made efforts with its branded Android devices, and with the software, to avoid infringing on Apple’s patents.

All of Google’s hardware looks significantly different from the iPhone and iPad lines. The Nexus S is the only Google-branded device to have been included in the recent case. The Android platform has gradually dropped features that look similar to iOS and Google has found new ways to achieve the same functions. We can expect Google to continue to make platform tweaks if it feels there is a great risk of impending legal action.

The other Android manufacturers are a much easier target. If Samsung can be beat, then what about companies that don’t have such deep pockets or patent portfolios of their own? Apple can pursue HTC, LG, Amazon, and others. HTC is having a tough time lately so it seems an obvious target and has already been targeted by Apple in the past. Last year Apple sued Amazon over the ‘App Store’ name. Will it sue over the Android platform?

What about Apple vs. Motorola?

When Google bought Motorola Mobility, it was widely assumed to be largely about acquiring patents. However, the strength of the portfolio lies in standard-essential patents. These are supposed to be patents that must be licensed on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, sometimes called FRAND patents, because everyone has to use them.

Now, as this Reuters article points out, standard-essential patents have not been doing well in U.S. courts. Samsung and Motorola have both failed to get the decisions they wanted against Apple based on these kinds of patents. That doesn’t really bode well for any future Motorola vs. Apple cases, at least in the United States. It’s worth remembering that international courts often see things differently.

Add all these potential targets together and it seems like Apple has enough to keep its lawyers busy without going for Google.

Do Google and Apple need each other?

It’s also worth remembering that, despite the fact Apple seems to be stripping away dependence on Google where it can – the two companies still collaborate on many fronts. Google is still the default search engine and Apple’s iOS platform provides plenty of traffic. Many Google services are popular with iOS users. If Apple is serious about providing the best user experience then it can’t afford to ditch Google right now.

Never let a dispute get in the way of profits. That’s a lesson that you don’t need to teach Samsung. The South Korean company’s courtroom loss will not stop it from selling components to Apple for the next iPhone and iPad releases. If Apple doesn’t stand to make a significant gain from going for Google directly then it won’t.

What about negative press?

A lot of people have been calling Apple a bully in the patent wars. There is a danger that continuing to pursue patent infringement lawsuits over everything will turn consumers off. Apple cares about its public perception, especially if there’s any chance that it could affect profits. When loyal customers complained about Apple ditching EPEAT certification for its devices, the company reversed the decision and re-affirmed a commitment to environmentally friendly products.

On the other hand, many Apple fans seem to feel the patent infringement cases are justified. Perhaps the outcry is from the other side of the divide, from people who wouldn’t buy Apple products anyway. Are there any Apple fans out there who will forgo the new iPhone in protest at the patent war?