Google's Android Patent Dilemma: 10 Reasons the Company Is Worried

By: Don Reisinger


When it comes to the mobile market, much of the attention surrounds the recent success of Android and the ongoing popularity of Apple’s iOS. There are good reasons for this. Both platforms are running on outstanding devices, and the vast majority of consumers around the globe see them as worthwhile alternatives to anything else on the market. And yet, behind all the success that those platforms are enjoying, there are a slew of patent lawsuits being waged by both big and small companies, all in the hope of taking a bigger slice of a market that could generate many more billions of dollars in the coming years.

In many of those lawsuits, especially those involving Oracle, Microsoft, Barnes & Noble, and Apple, Android is the target. According to the plaintiffs, Google’s Android operating system is infringing patents they hold, and the companies want to either collect a licensing fee on that or stop the sale of the products altogether.

For its part, Google has complained about all that litigation, saying that it does little else but stifle innovation in the marketplace and hurt consumers. And yet, the company has been acquiring patents all over the place. In the summer, Google shelled out more than $12 billion to buy Motorola Mobility in an effort to shore up its patent portfolio.

In addition, Google acquired more than a 1,000 IBM patents in July. Then, on Sept. 15, Google confirmed it purchased another trove of patents from Big Blue.

All that action seems to indicate quite clearly that Google is extremely worried about patents.

Google is worried with good reason. Here are some reasons this story is worth following:

1. Its patent portfolio falls short

The biggest issue with Google right now is that its patent portfolio is simply not as strong as the competition’s holdings. That’s precisely why Google has been so outspoken about the litigation going on in the marketplace, and why it has acquired so many patents from IBM. If Google had a stronger patent portfolio, its attitudes would be much different.

2. Litigation is everywhere

The last thing Google wants is to get hit with more lawsuits. Currently, the company is embroiled in a lawsuit against Oracle. And its operating system, Android, is being hit from all sides by Microsoft, Apple and others. Litigation is simply everywhere right now, and Google, with its aforementioned sub-par patent portfolio, isn’t too happy about that.

3. Android is under attack

The odd thing about Google’s issues with patent litigation is that, for the most part, it’s not the subject of many of the lawsuits. As mentioned, only Oracle is really taking aim at Google; all the others are targeting Android. However, if Apple continues to win cases in Europe, it might just use those victories as precedents to go after Google itself. In other words, Android’s defense is holding up for now, but over the next several months and years, all that can change. And that makes Google nervous.

4. It’s a matter of survival

Although arguments can be made that patent litigation isn’t good for anyone—companies or consumers—it’s a reality. And depending on how a court decides, it can have a profound impact on the mobile space. Make no mistake, there is a lot riding on the patent cases currently being waged. If Google and its Android vendors lose, there’s no telling what the future might look like for the operating system. At this point, holding strong against these cases is a matter of survival for Google.

5. Apple has a strong portfolio

The issue right now is that Apple might have the strongest mobile portfolio in the business. Over the last several years, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company has been applying for patents at an astounding rate. And most importantly, it has been granted those patents at an astounding rate. Combine that with the fact that Apple is Google’s top contender in the mobile space, and it quickly becomes clear why Google is so worried.

6. It might be Microsoft’s “in”

Microsoft is Google’s arch-nemesis in the mobile space. Both companies are trying to appeal to vendors with their products, and elsewhere around the industry, there is a palpable hatred between the firms. Right now, Microsoft is targeting a host of Android vendors, trying to get them to pay it a fee for each device they sell. If Microsoft continues to be successful, and wins the cases it has initiated, it might just be Microsoft’s best way to gain at least a chunk of the mobile market.

7. Vendor relationships

The trouble with all these lawsuits is that Google’s vendor partners are bearing the brunt of the litigation. For now, those companies have stayed strong and fought through it. But how much longer will that happen? Android’s success directly relates to the number of vendors supporting the operating system. If vendors decide to go elsewhere for fear of continuing to get hit with patent lawsuits, Google could be in deep trouble.

8. It really can stifle innovation

Google is right when it says that patent litigation can stifle innovation in the mobile space. Companies both big and small have a host of patents right now that, most would agree, are laughably broad, and probably shouldn’t have been granted. What’s more, there are other companies that are doing really neat things, but getting hit hard by the owners of those vague patents. Patent litigation works to a degree. But in this case, it might be stifling innovation.

9. The future is in doubt

There’s no telling what the future holds when it comes to the mobile market. Will the patent lawsuits continue? Will Google use Motorola Mobility to end them? Will Google itself take aim at other firms? There’s no telling. And that makes Google nervous. In the next year, many of the biggest cases in the mobile space will likely be settled. And when that happens, the face of the mobile market could be very different.

10. Nothing will stop the litigation

Unfortunately for Google, it has no way to stop the current litigation. As noted, its patent portfolio is quite weak, and until it can take control over Motorola Mobility’s more than 17,000 patents, it will need to wait and watch. But even then, there’s no telling if Google will be able to stop all the litigation. It’s quite easy to file cases, and its competitors have enough cash to keep cases hanging in court. It’s a real problem.