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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Should Android be Worried?

I recently wrote a blog post entitled "Android Destroying the Competition". While this still may be the trend currently, a recent patent infringement case might have the potential to change the face of the smartphone market as we know it. As the linked article states, HTC has infringed two Apple patents, and that based on the nature of the infringements it's quite possible that every current Android on the market is in violation as well. This is the first legal case regarding the Android's infringement of third-party IP rights, and according to some it could prove devastating to the brand. So what are the two patents in question? According to ZDNet HTC is infringing:

Now if you're anything like me, you have no idea what these patents really mean. But upon further research (and a perusal of the aforementioned article's comments for guidance), it seems like for the most part the patents are purposefully vague, using nonspecific language that can be applied to nearly every modern computational device. As for the first patent, it seems to apply to "Graphical User Interfaces" (GUIs), Hypertext, or any number of other basic computing functions/features that Apple can in no way claim rights to. The second patent is apparently no more specific, and cases with respect to their infringement would likely get thrown out of court with any tech-savvy judge. That being said, I can't pretend to really know what these patents are all about, and have very limited knowledge when it comes to assessing tech patents and whether Apple's case holds water. But it seems like the technologically-versed bloggers out there consider these to be junk patents that involve computing functions so basic that Apple's case can't be considered anything other than ridiculous. Moreover, the generality of these patents is evidenced by the fact that they are also in dispute between Apple and Motorola and Apple and Nokia at the moment!  (Note: there is a link on the article to a blog which discusses software patents and how the HTC devices infringe them, but the information included is way over my head. Feel free to comment if you understand this stuff better than I do, but for the moment I'll just have to stick with what others more knowledgeable than I are saying). 

So the question remains, should Android be worried? Ultimately, while the potential consequences of the case could be severe ("The worst-case scenario is that the ITC imposes an US import ban against all of HTC’s Android products"), it seems like there is little hope for Apple actually following through with damage claims. Of course, this could all be completely off-base and HTC really could be faced with the task of trying to get around "The Great Wall of China", as IP activist Florian Mueller puts it. But besides the issue of whether a damage claim actually sticks, Android/HTC should still be worried about what this could do for their brand image. Most people don't have an in-depth understanding of these patents (me included), and are therefore unlikely to read into the case beyond the headlines they encounter. For example, a quick view of the popular website CNET shows an article titled "ITC says HTC Violating two of Apple's Patents", and another one attached to it called "HTC's Fate up in the Air". Now anyone reading these two headlines and giving the articles a quick scan would probably be inclined to think that Android should be very, very worried. Now say this person was in the process of looking for a new cell phone to purchase. Upon seeing these articles they'd likely conclude that HTC is legitimately "stealing" from Apple, will potentially be defunct in the near future, and is the inferior of the two brands. All of that is far from true (or at least appears to be at the moment), yet the average consumer  wouldn't really know any better. As no one wants to bet on a losing horse, chances are, all else being equal, they'd go with an Apple phone instead of an HTC Android phone. I'd like to think that most consumers try to make more informed choices than this, but the truth of the matter is that with so many similarities and complexities in the current smartphone market, the choices people make often come down to the most finite of details, reputation included. I guess only time will tell whether this case plays a factor in altering the Android OS' current domination of the market. But I for one think that whether the case gets thrown out of court or not, HTC would be much better off if it just goes away.


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