Apple Put on Patent Defensive by Google's Motorola Unit: Analysts

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2012-08-21

Apple Put on Patent Defensive by Google's Motorola Unit: Analysts

With its eagerly awaited iPhone 5 slated for release in September and its ongoing patent legal fight with Samsung nearing the home stretch, Apple already has a lot on its plate. So it needs a new patent lawsuit from Google's Motorola Mobility unit like a hole in the head, according to IT analysts.

But a lawsuit is just what Apple received recently from Motorola Mobility, filed through the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) and claiming Apple has violated patents related to email notifications, video players and location reminders as well as patents related to Apple's Siri voice-recognition program. The patent claims, which are in Motorola's second lawsuit against Apple recently, involve designs in Apple iPads, iPhones and various Mac computers including the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.

The new lawsuit is an apparent extension of what has been playing out as an escalating market war between Apple and Google over the last six months. Apple previously announced that it's removing Google's YouTube and Google Maps apps from its devices. Meanwhile, Google has been bringing out Siri-like voice activation services for its Android mobile operating system, which is gaining developers and market share and becoming a keen competitor against Apple and iOS. Google is even bringing out a version of its voice services for iPhones and iPads to take on Apple in its own backyard.

The new Motorola lawsuit against Apple is an expected part of what is a bigger battle for a broad market of mobile users, from consumers to the enterprise.

"By Google taking the offensive, they can bring it up on their terms and make a first strike," said Dan Maycock of Slalom Consulting. "They're posturing themselves, rather than waiting for Apple to be done with the Samsung patent proceedings and then firing something off at Google. Right now, Apple is consumed with the Samsung case."

What's really big here, said Maycock, is that Google/Motorola is blasting Apple right now, just a short time before the long-awaited launch of the iPhone 5. "That's no coincidence," said Maycock, because Google/Motorola can seek an injunction to try to block the launch and harm Apple in the marketplace as part of its patent claims.

"The iPhone 5 is said to be a game-changer for Apple, and [any kind of market disruption] would be a huge hit for Apple," said Maycock. "The iPhone 5 is going to set up Apple for the next several years, with new adapters, new systems and more changes. It will have a significant impact."

The lawsuit against Apple comes just a week after Google announced it is laying off 4,000 workers in the Motorola Mobility unit, or about 20 percent of its 20,000-member workforce, just three months after acquiring the company for $12.5 billion in May.

"I think it's all very precise timing," said Maycock. "It makes sense that they would sue Apple right out of the gate, coinciding with the purchase of Motorola and the recent consolidation there."

Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, said the lawsuit is proof that Google had more in mind than handsets when it purchased the flagging Motorola unit. "Frankly one company doesn't go after another one when the other one has been losing money hand over fist for four-plus years unless there is some kind of underlying value there," said King. "The value there was in the patent portfolio" held by Motorola.

Google Playing Catch Up in Patent Defenses

Kevin Benedict, an analyst with Netcentric Strategies, said the latest battle between the two companies, which had been close allies and partners over the last six or seven years, is to be expected nowadays because the mobile market is getting larger and becoming even more competitive.

"You're seeing Apple removing itself from Google in every way possible and Google/Motorola taking them on in hardware, too," said Benedict. "Both of these companies recognize the extreme growth in mobile commerce, mobile marketing and mobile payments" and each wants to keep their part of the pie. "Everything is moving into the mobile space. The market has moved. That's the mega-trend that we all need to know."

And for Google, that will have a huge impact, said Benedict. "That means that everybody will be doing all their searches on mobile devices, so they realize that they can't let Apple control all of that. Google is thinking that if they allow that then they can be excluded from that market."

In the new version of Apple's device operating system, Mountain Lion, Apple has removed the search bar of the past, he said. Now users will just type searches into the URL bar and they'll be handled by Apple's own processes, rather than through Google, taking away a large market for Google.

Carl Howe, an analyst with Yankee Group, said that the Mountain Lion change is actually ironic. Removing the search bar in favor of typing queries directly into the URL bar, "was the first thing that Google did with its Chrome browser," said Howe. "It certainly makes Google less visible in Safari."

What the latest lawsuit really makes clear, he said, is that the battle lines have truly been drawn between the two companies. "Apple and Google are best friends forever no more," said Howe. "In 2007, Apple needed Google for the iPhone because they needed a lot of the services from Google. Now, it's 2012, and they don't need them as much."

Though the latest legal salvo has been fired, Howe said he thinks it will be a challenge for Motorola to win before the ITC. "Motorola was found innocent in March of infringing on Apple's patents, so that does not mean they are going to win a lawsuit going the other way," said Howe. "The ITC does tend to be even-handed."

Rob Enderle, principal analyst with The Enderle Group, said the suit against Apple shows just how much Google's strategy is changing.

"Motorola was purchased primarily to be used in this way," wrote Enderle in an email reply. "Google really didn't believe in patents early on and they are paying the price now. Often the issue with kids coming into the market believing in Linux and open source, the belief can cause them to believe the market works this way and it doesn't."

What Google is now trying to do, he said, is to catch up in an area where they haven't been very active. "Google still has an inadequate patent defense, which is what is putting their licensees at risk (because Microsoft and Apple are going after the licensees not Google for the most part). They are trying now to correct this problem but started late and that will make the effort very expensive."

Ultimately, that will mean "lots of litigation and appeals over a very long time" in this case, said Enderle.

"Apple feels Google used its unique position (Jobs was mentoring the founders, Google's old CEO was on Apple's board) to steal from the company," wrote Enderle. "That makes this personal and personal means expensive."

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