Microsoft took another swipe at rival Google's Android platform March 21, with the filing of legal actions against bookseller Barnes & Noble and manufacturers Foxconn International Holdings and Inventec. At issue is Barnes & Noble's Nook e-reader, which Microsoft argues violates its patents.
"The Android platform infringes a number of Microsoft's patents, and companies manufacturing and shipping Android devices must respect our intellectual property rights," Horacio Gutierrez, Microsoft's corporate vice president and deputy general counsel for intellectual property & Licensing, wrote in a March 21 statement. "To facilitate that, we have established an industry-wide patent licensing program for Android device manufacturers."
According to Microsoft, Barnes & Noble and its manufacturing partners have refused to participate in this program. "We have tried for over a year to reach licensing agreements," Gutierrez continued. "Their refusals to take licenses leave us no choice but to bring legal action to defend our innovations."
Based on Microsoft's description, the patents in question cover a broad range of functionality, including "interacting with documents and e-books" and "natural ways of interacting with devices by tabbing through various screens."
While Microsoft has fired intellectual-property lawsuits over Android before, they have generally been aimed at smartphone manufacturers. The Barnes & Noble action is unique in that it centers on an e-reader device.
In April 2010, HTC announced that it had agreed to pay Microsoft royalties in exchange for the use of "patented technology" in its Android-powered phones. In the wake of that agreement, rumors circulated that Microsoft was negotiating intellectual property (IP) agreements with other unnamed manufacturers over Android smartphones.
Since the launch of its IP licensing program in 2003, Microsoft has entered into more than 600 licensing agreements with companies ranging from Apple and Hewlett-Packard to LG Electronics and Nikon. In theory, those types of licensing deals allow companies to both create partnerships and avoid the patent-infringement lawsuits increasingly pandemic in the tech industry.
The Android lawsuits suggest that Microsoft is taking its traditionally aggressive stance with regard to patents and open source. Android relies on a Linux kernel for core system services such as security, memory and process management, and network stack.
During an October 2007 meeting of Web 2.0 developers and partners in London, Linux Watch quoted Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer as saying, "I think it is important that the open-source products also have an obligation to participate in the same way in the intellectual property regime." In the interim years, other Microsoft executives have reiterated both Microsoft's extensive intellectual property portfolio and its willingness to do whatever necessary to defend against perceived infringement.
In October 2010, Microsoft sued Motorola for allegedly violating nine patents with its own Android smartphones. "The patents at issue relate to a range of functionality embodied in Motorola's Android smartphone devices that are essential to the smartphone experience," Gutierrez wrote in an Oct. 1 statement. Motorola later retaliated with intellectual-property complaints of its own.
Less clear is whether Microsoft's Android lawsuits will have any effect on uptake of the Android platform, which has become an increasingly popular operating system for smartphones and tablets. Microsoft's own smartphone platform, Windows Phone 7, is currently battling for market share against Google Android, Apple's iOS and RIM's BlackBerry franchise.