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.
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.
Windows Embedded Standard 7
Microsoft’s licensing with phone manufacturers would allow Microsoft to not only extend this philosophy to smartphones, but also keep closer tabs on how Android develops.
“Microsoft’s policy is one of mutual respect for IP and we are committed to licensing our IP on reasonable terms,” a Microsoft spokesperson wrote in an April 28 e-mail to eWEEK. “Phone manufacturers, in general, and HTC in particular, are sophisticated businesses that have a track record of licensing patents to secure the necessary IP rights for their products.”
Microsoft’s other announcements from the week were lower-key. On April 27, the company announced the release-to-manufacturing of its Windows Embedded Standard 7, which allows manufacturers to utilize Windows 7-based components for the creation of specialized devices such as industry-specific handhelds.
“With the release of Windows Embedded Standard 7, Microsoft has furthered its commitment to the integration of Windows 7 technologies in the specialized consumer and enterprise device markets by providing OEMs with the latest innovative technologies,” Kevin Dallas, Microsoft’s general manager of the Windows Embedded Business Unit, wrote in an April 27 statement. “The addition of the Windows Media Center Feature in Windows Embedded Standard 7 is driving the set-top box, connected media device and TV markets by providing OEMs with the opportunities to develop uniquely branded experiences and service providers with capabilities to explore additional revenue streams with unique content through a centralized media hub in the home.”
Besides televisions, CMDs (connected media devices), and other consumer-oriented products, Microsoft intends for Windows Embedded Standard 7 to be used in thin clients, digital signage and industrial controls for the enterprise. The platform will be available for download at an as-yet-unannounced point within the next few days.
Microsoft also showed off a few products in development, including the next version of its Windows Home Server, code-named Vail. That platform includes a number of improvements, including multi-PC backup and restore, streamlined setup and user experience, media streaming outside the home or office, and a number of development and customization tools. The software can be downloaded from the Microsoft Connect Site; hardware requirements include a 1.4GHz x64 processor, 1GB of RAM, and one or more 160GB hard drives. However, Microsoft has also declined to offer an actual release date for the final version.
Also in the preview category, Microsoft offered up screenshots of the next version of its Windows Live Messenger, which will bundle everything from video chat to Bing search results into the user’s message stream. The interface also allows users to incorporate videos and photos from SkyDrive, Facebook and related sites into their messages.
“You can have a high-definition video chat with your friend while clicking through a set of photos, letting you see and hear each other’s reactions while you share. We’ve also made it easier to manage multiple simultaneous conversations by putting each one in its own tab,” Piero Sierra, a spokesperson for Microsoft, wrote in an April 28 posting on The Windows Blog. “And, of course, as part of our deeper integration with Facebook, later this year Messenger will support Facebook Chat, so you’ll be able to IM all your Facebook friends from within Messenger.”
Microsoft’s aim with the release is to apparently give users a consolidated platform for managing their increasingly diverse number of online services and applications. As with “Vail,” Microsoft offered no firm timetable for the new Messenger’s release, although a “limited number of individuals” will apparently have the chance to test the service out “in the very near future.”