In something of a victory for Microsoft, a preliminary ruling by the International Trade Commission has found that Motorola Mobility's Android devices infringed on aspects of one Microsoft patent. But the judge also declined to find Motorola Mobility in violation of six other Microsoft patents.
Microsoft insists that Google Android broadly violates its intellectual property rights, and has aggressively pursued litigation against companies that use Android as the operating system for their mobile hardware. The ITC battle comes at a particularly auspicious time, with Google looking to buy Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion.
The ITC will hand down its final decision in April 2012. The patent in question covers features such as group scheduling on a mobile device. "For business users, that's an essential feature," patent expert Florian Mueller wrote in a Dec. 20 posting on his FOSS Patents blog. "Scheduling meetings is also increasingly popular on some social networks, so it's probably a feature for both enterprise users and consumers."
The big question is how Motorola Mobility will alter its existing code in order to sidestep the infringement.
Motorola Mobility's statement on the matter tried to accentuate the positive. Underneath a headline that read, "Initial Determination from ITC Finds That Motorola Mobility Did Not Violate Six of the Seven Patents," it quotes Motorola Mobility senior vice president and general counsel Scott Offer as saying: "The [Administrative Law Judge's] initial determination may provide clarity on the definition of the Microsoft 566 patent for which a violation was found and will help us avoid infringement of this patent in the U.S. market."
For their part, Microsoft executives played up their victory. "ITC finds Motorola patent infringement in Microsoft case. Another indication that licensing is the best path for the industry," Brad Smith, executive vice president and general counsel of Microsoft, wrote in a Dec. 20 Tweet, following it up with: "One key step behind us in the ITC. More to follow. But we'll also remain focused on licensing, as we have with Samsung, HTC and others."
On the legal front, it's already turning into a less-than-stellar month for Google Android: Apple also scored a minor victory with the ITC, which ruled that HTC's Android smartphones violate a minor patent.
The patent in question, considered a minor one by analysts, concerns the ability to dial a phone number in an email or text by tapping on it. "We believe there are workarounds available to HTC, and HTC has noted that it can quickly remove the feature," Peter Misek, an analyst with research firm Jefferies & Co., wrote in a coauthored note Dec. 20. "A prior ruling that HTC was infringing one of Apple's broader patents was overturned."
In other words, Apple hasn't exactly managed to cripple HTC's efforts in the United States. "This ruling falls far short of anything that would force HTC out of the U.S. market in the near term," patent expert Florian Mueller wrote in a Dec. 19 posting on his FOSS Patents blog. "Out of ten patents originally asserted, Apple finally managed to enforce one, and it's one of medium value."
Apple and Microsoft are clearly willing to fight tooth-and-nail against Android, which challenges their respective market shares in smartphones and (in Apple's case) tablets. But they will almost certainly need larger victories if they want to cause lasting damage.