HTC Licensing, 'Vail' Beta, Messenger Headlined Microsoft's Week

Microsoft had a busy week on the intellectual-property front, entering into an agreement with HTC that will see the phone manufacturer license Microsoft's patented technology for uses in smartphones running Google Android. While the deal may help HTC in its upcoming patent-infringement battle against Apple, it may also allow Microsoft to further extend its philosophy toward open source into the mobile realm. This week, Microsoft also unveiled early looks at the next versions of its Windows Home Server, code-named Vail and Windows Live Messenger.

The most newsworthy portion of Microsoft's week came April 27, when the company announced an intellectual property agreement with HTC that will see the phone manufacturer license Microsoft's patented technology for use in its smartphones running Google Android. The deal has implications not only for Android and HTC, which will pay undisclosed royalties, but also Apple.

Microsoft originally launched its IP licensing program in 2003, eventually entering into more than 600 licensing agreements with a broad range of companies including Apple, Hewlett-Packard, LG Electronics and Nikon. Ostensibly, such deals allow companies to create stronger partnerships and avoid the patent-infringement lawsuits that occasionally plague the industry, such as the battles currently underway between Apple and both HTC and Nokia.

HTC has been gaining momentum as a top smartphone maker for the U.S. market, primarily on the strength of Android-based devices such as the HTC Droid Incredible and the Nexus One.

Microsoft, for its part, took pains to paint the HTC agreement as simply the natural evolution of a long-running partnership. "We are pleased to continue our collaboration with HTC," Horacio Gutierrez, Microsoft's corporate vice president and deputy general counsel of IP and licensing, wrote in an April 27 statement. "HTC and Microsoft have a long history of technical and commercial collaboration."

But the agreement may be more geared, ultimately, towards both companies' respective opponents. HTC is currently preparing to face down Apple's patent-infringement lawsuit, which alleges violations of some 20 patents surrounding the iPhone's interface, architecture and hardware. The general assumption is that Microsoft's patents, while not delineated in either HTC's or Microsoft's public statements on the matter, will give HTC more ammunition in its Apple battle.

But for Microsoft, the agreement suggests a plan that extends past HTC, and toward the use of open-source technology in the mobile space.

In an April 28 statement emailed to eWEEK, Gutierrez wrote: "We have built a significant patent portfolio in this field, and we have a responsibility to our customers, partners and shareholders to ensure that competitors do not ride free on our innovations."

Gutierrez added: "We have also consistently taken a proactive approach to licensing to resolve IP infringement by other companies, and have been talking with several device manufacturers to address our concerns relative to the Android mobile platform." In that spirit, apparently, Microsoft is negotiating with other, unnamed phone manufacturers to extend to same licensing agreements as HTC.

Android relies on the open-source Linux kernel v2.6 for core system services "such as security, memory management, process management, network stack, and driver model," according to the Android Developers Website.

Microsoft's philosophical position on open-source products is a well-documented one. During an October 2007 meeting of Web 2.0 developers and partners in London, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was quoted 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." Ballmer has also suggested in speeches that Linux violates a number of patents.