On August 24, 2012, a jury in San Jose, California drew curtains (for the time being at least) on the long-drawn saga between Apple and Samsung. The court delivered a verdict largely favorable to Apple, validating most of Apple’s claims and ordering Samsung to pay Apple $1.05 billion in damages.
The verdict followed months of bitter battle between the two companies, which together sell more than half of the world’s smartphones and tablets. Although Apple’s charges against Samsung are more about design and features, it is actually an attack on Google and its Android software, which drives Samsung’s devices and has become the most widely used mobile software.
Since Apple, Google and Microsoft belong to the operating platform universe, their patent strategies differ vividly from the old mobile telecommunications world of essential patents. The mobile telecommunications industry is not new to IP litigations. However, current litigations concern the operating software used in smartphones, whereas earlier litigations were targeted at mobile telecommunications standards. This situation has arisen as Google did not have ex ante licenses from Apple and Microsoft.
There are two IP regimes, ‘essential patents’ (radio, transmission and telephony) and ‘platform patents’ (operating system software). In the Apple vs. Samsung case, the charges filed against Samsung relate both to essential patents (related to design of Samsung phones and tablets) and to platform patents (related to certain features allegedly copied by Android from iOS). However, when it comes to mobile internet, there is no overlap between the two patent regimes. The current IP litigation game (between Apple, Google and Microsoft) is only about platform patents (operating system software) and not about ‘essential patents’ (radio, transmission and telephony).
The mobile telecommunications market is currently undergoing upheaval as mobile internet is becoming the dominant application and phones are practically turning into mobile internet devices. For mobile telecommunication incumbents (such as Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, Sony and Samsung), competition remains heated with direct threat from the likes of Apple and indirect competition from Google and Microsoft.
Apple and Microsoft are expected to be the winners in the current IP litigation scenario, since their IP is considered to have value in smartphones, while as Google’s IP, in comparison, is considerably lower, the Android operating system and its alliance network seem to be losing. The role of mobile telecommunication incumbents, with respect to patent portfolios is still important but limited to essential patents.
The unique position of Google as merely the provider of Android has also protected it from any direct IP litigation. However, to fight with Google, both Apple and Microsoft have filed IP litigation against the adopters of Google’s platform ecosystem, which includes original equipment manufacturers (e.g., HTC, Motorola Mobility, and Samsung) and application developers (Lodsys sues Rovio).
These attacks are global and are spread across four continents; specifically, Apple has sued the largest producer of Android-based devices, Samsung, in the USA and the rest of the world, except for China. It will be interesting to see the outcome of these litigations, as it might change the way the global mobile sector currently functions – if Samsung were to lose, it will shake-up Google’s ambitions of becoming the global leader in mobile telephony software; if the outcome comes out in favor of Samsung, both Samsung and Google will lead the market, and perhaps give rise to smaller hardware manufacturers which could use the Android platform to enter the market.
Whatever the outcome of these lawsuits, it sure is expected to spur innovation among relevant industry participants. Android (Google) has been found to be vulnerable/susceptible to litigation and unless they significantly strengthen their patent portfolio, hardware manufacturers would be wary of adopting android and will look for alternatives (such as MS Windows Mobile or develop their own operating systems). And if Apple wins, then OEMs will still have to look for alternative operating platforms. So the path is not as rosy for the Android system as it seems at the outset.
Thus, two key observations from the Apple vs. Samsung patent disputes can be noted:
Apple’s patents are only valid and enforceable in the USA and the company will have difficulty in leveraging these outside the USA, for example in Europe and Asia.
Apple’s patent portfolio outside the USA is minimal and the company will therefore struggle to protect its products in Europe and Asia. Moreover, the company would be forced to sign cross-licensing agreements with old mobile phone incumbents (Apple and Google Subsidiary – Motorola Mobility Consider Arbitration).
The current IP litigation scenario in mobile telecommunications shows how the industry is transitioning from an industry dominated by standards and essential patents in the late 1990s to an industry increasingly dominated by platform patents.
What’s next in this battle? Where might this lead the industry to?
Courts in different jurisdictions, such as in the UK, Korea, Japan, Australia and Germany have all given varied verdicts and the litigation battles are expected to continue (Samsung has already challenged the San Jose verdict). However, if Apple is able to enforce its patents outside the USA as well, mobile phone incumbents would feel hesitant to use Android and may opt for competing operating systems such as the Windows Phone.
Even then, it is unlikely to represent the demise of Android. Some of the features in contention have already been removed, while other features are given significantly lesser protection outside the USA.
The story, clearly, is far from over.