When news broke late last week that Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) would seek a $15 license from Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC) for every Google Android-based smartphone the handset maker produced, it seemed less like a smart business move and more like desperation.
But added to similar patent enforcement actions against Samsung from Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL), the action now looks like a clarifying of strategies to take on Google's move into mobile, by way of patent law. (See: Which Company Does Apple Fear the Most?)
Here's the basic scheme: Microsoft, Apple, and Oracle are all making similar claims that Samsung -- and presumably other Android device makers watching -- needs patented technology to make its Google phones work. Samsung is the likely target for this sort of action because its Galaxy phones and tablets look to be the key competition; estimates indicate it has shipped more than 3 million Galaxy line units since just April.
If patents do turn out to be Samsung's -- and really Android's -- Achilles heel, it would be a massive problem. Patent watcher Foss Patents has a copy of the complaint here. Apple's complaint is the second since March; Oracle's, perhaps the more damaging suit, argues that it's owed by Google and its handset partners for use of Java, which is an integral part of the Android system.
So the tablet wars, it now seems, are going to be fought in patent court. And in fact the first shot wasn't at Samsung. Back in 2009, Nokia filed a similar action against Apple, for use of various Nokia technologies across the Apple product line, including the iPhone. The patent experts writing at Foss, who must be enjoying the whole dustup (the company name stands for Free and Open Source Software; picture a graffiti artist tracking the case of a stolen painting), noticed back then that Nokia held five times as many patents as Apple did.
It's a useful question for today, too: Just how much of this technology does Microsoft (which once patented a radio-controlled talking bear) own, compared to what Samsung has? No one's yet got a sense of just how many patents the odd collection of anti-Google interests hold collectively, compared to what Google holds.
But one can easily imagine this going quickly to a negotiation, rather than to court. The $15 demanded by Microsoft doesn't sound like a firm figure; it sounds more like an opening offer, by a company pretty sure already that it has a pretty strong case against Samsung and Google.
If so, then the floodgates, presumably, open. In a world where OEMs are paying licensing fees to a number of the tech world's largest players, Android starts to look less attractive -- particularly if Microsoft succeeds in winning anything close to that $15 payment. Add in similar demands to three or four others, and suddenly the hope of a $20 smartphone, the golden dream of the handset makers from last winter's Mobile World Congress, disappears into a lawyer's pocket.
That's a place from which most ideas, even good ones, don't typically manage to return. At least not anytime soon, and usually not intact.