In the wake of Samsung’s $1.05 billion punch in the nose from Apple in their high-stakes patent trial, the general reaction seems to be that Samsung’s loss is also a major setback for Google and Android. That’s not necessarily the whole story. In some ways, Apple could actually be doing Google an unintended favor.
For the most part, Google’s statement to the press issued Sunday has been portrayed as if Google is running for the hills. But there is another way to interpret Google’s statement. Google is also sending a clear message to the Android community: it’s our way or the hard way.
What Google Said
Google’s statement is brief and to the point:
“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.”
The emphasis about the core Android operating system is important, because it highlights the fact that many the features that were found to infringe on Apple’s iOS patents in the trial were features added by Samsung. That means they are not Google’s problem.
Google appears to be trying to walk a tightrope: support its stalwart vendor Samsung while not getting directly involved and possibly implicating Android itself as a patent violator. The end result is a statement that is predictably weak on both points.
What Google Meant: “Stay Closer To Android”
But the broader message for smartphone vendors - and consumers - is that the Google way for Android is the best way to avoid further litigation woes. Google seems to be saying that if the Android vendors stick closer to the core Android operating system - and not try to add on so many of their own bells and whistles, they’ll be more likely to avoid the kinds of disasters that sliced 7% off Samsung’s market cap on Monday.
That’s not really altruism for Google: a more unified Android ecosystem would be a big win for the search engine giant. And this position is not without precedent; Google has been explicit about restraining vendor modifications to Android, even if its suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. According to a trial brief filed by Apple, Google had apparently warned Samsung that the design specs for “Samsung’s ‘P1’ and ‘P3’ tablets (Galaxy Tab and Galaxy Tab 10.1) were ‘too similar’ to the iPad and demanded ‘distinguishable design vis-à-vis the iPad for the P3.’”
Samsung apparently didn’t listen or didn’t care. If the jury’s findings are upheld, they just got smacked in the face for their lack of attention to Google’s heads up.
Fighting Fragmentation 2 Ways
Android has often been criticized for the fragmentation the open source platform undergoes every time a hardware vendor makes modifications to the core Android platform in order to differentiate itself from the vendor’s competitors. In addition to confusing Android users who switch brands, such modifications have made it difficult for application developers to write apps that work on all Android device/OS combos.
In the past, Google has had to shrug its shoulders and point to the openness of the Android platform as the cause. But now two factors are helping Google control such fragmentation.
First is Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility. Having a “home” platform for Android gives Google the ability to firmly call the shots for Android development on at least one major player in the mobile device market. Given past patent and copyright lawsuits, Google will work very hard to ensure that Motorola’s version of Android is as bulletproof as possible against such challenges. That design mission, coupled with Motorola’s own rather healthy patent portfolio, should be enough to hold off all but the biggest litigants.
Motorola’s “safe” platform could also serve as a beacon for other Android vendors: a version of Android that’s less vulnerable to lawsuits could be very attractive to Motorola’s competition, even if it means working more closely within Android’s core look and feel.
Second, while Google can’t be thrilled with Android’s name being dragged through the mud in various court cases, the payoff could be worth it. Android device vendors will either learn to conform more closely to the core Android design or risk finding themselves on the receiving end of Apple’s legal stick.
When Trials Give You Lemons…
That makes Apple’s court victory a potential win-win for Google. Getting more core Android-compliant devices on the market should make the mobile operating system as a whole more attractive to app developers, which would make the overall ecosystem that much richer. And when Android vendors don’t play ball, they run the risk of being sued by a very aggressive Apple, while Google doesn't have to say a word.
Sure, court battles embroil Android in more mud-slinging - at least by proxy. But they’re less likely to affect Motorola products, which can be expected to use core Android.
Obviously, Google would rather see Apple back off and compete in the market rather than in the courtroom. But if court cases hand you lemons, getting a more unified Android vendor community out of this situation would definitely be a sweet glass of lemonade.
Top image courtesy of Pamela Robinson.
Lemonade image courtesy of Shutterstock.