Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 likely won't benefit from Oracle's patent-infringement lawsuit against Google, which may affect Android, but almost certainly not soon enough to affect the near-term smartphone wars.
Google has vowed to "strongly defend" open-source standards and its Android operating system from an intellectual property lawsuit by Oracle, which sued the search-engine giant Aug. 12 for allegedly infringing on seven patents and other copyrights related to Java. And while much of the Oracle-Google drama relates to open source, some have been asking whether Microsoft and its Windows Phone 7 smartphone OS can somehow benefit from the friction.
Thanks to its $5.6 billion acquisition of Sun Microsystems, Oracle owns thousands of Java-related patents. Meanwhile, Google uses Java applications running on a Java-based framework for Android, but lacked a licensing agreement with Sun; while Sun seemed content to let the matter slide, Oracle is a different beast.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Oracle and Google terminated discussions over licensing when neither company could see eye-to-eye on fees. Now Oracle seems ready for war, one which Google may avoid only by shelling out billions of dollars. Whether the matter is settled in court, though, it seems all but guaranteed to drag on for some time: Oracle has filed an injunction to impede Android's development, but Android phones nonetheless continue to sell at a healthy average of 200,000 units per day.
Some pundits have suggested that Microsoft could prove the big winner in this situation, particularly when it comes to mobile. That seems a logical assumption, given how anything that potentially harms Android's ability to saturate the market would likely boost the fortunes of Microsoft's upcoming Windows Phone 7. However, the Oracle-Google battle may proceed at far too slow a pace to help Microsoft's smartphone operating system, at least in any material way.
Microsoft's share of the smartphone market has been on the decline for the past several quarters, something that Redmond executives hope Windows Phone 7 will reverse. Unlike Android, whose user interface largely follows the iPhone's "grid of individual apps" model, Windows Phone 7 aggregates Web content and applications into a series of subject-specific hubs, such as "Office" and "Games."
Microsoft executives have positioned their smartphone project as one with a long-term horizon. "The phone is going through a massive inflection point," Andy Lees, senior vice president of Microsoft's Mobile Communications Business, told an audience during his July 13 keynote at July's Worldwide Partner Conference. "There's immense competition but, in many respects, things are just beginning."
But Microsoft, in its urgency to divest itself of the sagging Windows Mobile, may have also raised the pressure for an early smartphone success. Windows Mobile apps will not be compatible with Windows Phone 7, and manufacturers will need to design hardware to exacting specifications for the new operating system.
That "clean break," in conjunction with Microsoft's renewed focus on consumer smartphones, likely means that Windows Phone 7 will need to be a quick hit once it enters the marketplace-both to encourage developers onto the platform, and to convince potential owners that the new phones have the sort of longer-term momentum that justifies a purchase. Major mistakes could doom the whole effort out of the proverbial gate. "All the stuff has to work pretty well, it has to be quick, it has to be stable," Casey McGee, a spokesperson for Microsoft, told eWEEK in a July 13 interview at WPC. "We need to launch with a marketplace that shows we have a variety of applications that can be used on a daily basis."
The recent history of "revamped" or brand-new smartphones entering the consumer space, such as the Palm Pre or Windows Mobile 6.5, suggests that consumers generally give those products a few quarters at best to succeed; if sales momentum isn't achieved by that point, the smartphones begin a slow tumble into obsolescence.
Microsoft faces a good deal of pressure heading into the mobile marketplace: the Apple iPhone continues to sell well, Research In Motion is making an aggressive play with the BlackBerry Torch 9800 and BlackBerry 6 operating system, and Hewlett-Packard will likely launch a smartphone running its newly acquired Palm WebOS sometime soon. And no matter how the lawsuit between Oracle and Google eventually plays out, Microsoft will almost certainly face Android for the quarters that ultimately determine Windows Phone 7's success.
The Oracle-Google battle may change a lot of the tech landscape, but it won't affect how Windows Phone 7 performs.
Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.