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Google accuses Microsoft, Apple of banding together to destroy Android with patents

by Phil Hornshaw

According to a blog post by Google Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond, Google is facing a concentrated effort by several tech companies, Microsoft and Apple among them, to destroy Android one patent at a time. Drummond claims that Apple and Microsoft have been in fierce competition for years, but that Google’s Android operating system is such a runaway success that the two have teamed up to take down the bigger threat. He claims that they’re doing it through the underhanded technique of litigation, rather than innovating and competing in the market.

Drummond is talking about a big set of patents being sold by two tech companies, Novell and Nortel, that pertain to smartphones. Those patents are being bid on by a group of other tech companies working in tandem, Apple and Microsoft among them, to buy the patents.

Drummond says that there are something like 250,000 patents involved in the creation of a single smartphone, and that Apple and Microsoft are working to drive up the price and lock Google out of the patents, then charge Android device manufacturers exorbitant licensing fees in order to make Android phones. And in fact, Microsoft does charge licensing fees on Android products for patents it owns. It recently told Samsung it wanted $15 per Android handset made, and it has made similar demands of HTC.

So Google is upset. Drummond sees the situation as one of Microsoft and Apple banding together to strangle competition through litigation. He claims the two companies are attempting to make it too expensive to make Android phones, which are being activated at a rate of 550,000 per day worldwide.

It might not be the whole story, however. TechCrunch wrote today that Microsoft responded to Google’s blog post on Twitter, claiming that before it joined with Apple and before it made bids for the Nortel patents, the company had asked Google if it wanted to join up and bid on them together (thereby allowing both or all the involved companies to share ownership and avoid paying licensing fees). According to an email supposedly sent back in 2010 from Microsoft to another Google SVP, Google refused the offer. That makes Google look pretty dumb for complaining about some secret conspiracy now.

There’s also another big set of patents that is accepting bids which Google has been eyeing and now other tech companies are flocking to grab. TechCrunch has the story, in which Samsung and Apple are checking out a trove of more than 8,800 patents owned by InterDigital, which dwarfs the set available from Nortel and Novell. TechCrunch’s story even mentions that some believe Google jumped into the Nortel deal to drive up the price there, when what it was really after was InterDigital’s patents.

Google is fighting some pretty tough patent battles with Oracle over Java code used in Android, and Samsung is struggling against Apple in patent disputes over the South Korean company’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 being a copy of the iPad. More patents for any of the companies would be good for business, and any one of the other companies having the InterDigital patents would be bad news for the other two.

Regardless of the ins and outs of buying tech patents, it seems that Drummond might have overreacted just a bit. That’s not to say that companies trying to squash each other with licensing fees is okay – it really is an underhanded way to stifle competition, and it’s technically illegal to do so – but it’s not as if Google is completely innocent in the situation. The company also wants to snag some patents, and it seems to have passed up a chance for collective bidding on the very patents it claims are now being used against it. Sounds like Google should have known better.