Is Google Gunning for the Right Patents vs. Apple, Microsoft?

Google has acquired some patents from IBM that don't seem to protect the search engine from Android lawsuits. That is, until you dig more deeply, according to IP experts.

With the number of lawsuits versus Google's Android operating system approaching the number of cards in a deck of playing cards, it's no wonder the search engine is trying to acquire patents related to mobile phone and wireless network software.

A good question to ask is: Is Google doing enough? Microsoft, Apple and others in the so-called Rockstar Bidco consortium outgunned Google for Nortel Networks' 6,000-plus wireless LTE (Long-Term Evolution) and various other patents in June. The companies spent $4.5 billion total in that not-so-playful game of keepaway from Google.

The search engine responded by reportedly bidding on the patents of InterDigital, another major wireless patent holder. InterDigital possesses roughly 8,800 patents relating to transmitting wireless data and other mobile phone and network technologies.

Unfortunately for Google, Apple appears to be targeting those technologies, too. However, Bloomberg said Samsung is also in the running for InterDigital's work. Samsung is the top Android phone maker and a powerful Google ally; if Samsung were to procure InterDigital's technology, it could offer protection for Google.

Still, while Google remains in limbo over the InterDigital technology treasure trove, the company did last month score 1,000 patents from IBM related to relational databases, object-oriented programming and business processes. The patents -- 1,029 of them to be exact -- also include specifications for the fabrication and architecture of memory and microprocessing chips, as well as for servers and routers.

That deal begged the question of whether Google, whose Android platform is seriously threatened by a lawsuit from Oracle and several by Apple against Android OEMs, was targeting the right patents. How would patents on database technology help Google fend off attacks versus Android? These same attacks forced Google to cry collusion on the part of Apple, Microsoft, Oracle last week.

Bill Slawski, search engine optimization expert and author of the popular SEO by the Sea blog, said some of the patents Google acquired from IBM include wireless sensors for Google's driverless cars. That's not exactly the type of protection media and pundits envisioned when looking for defense versus Android attackers.

Still, Slawski said Google did acquire some mobile phone patent protection last year, when it assumed control over patents from Myriad Group in Europe.

This technology includes predictive model that guesses what the next keystroke might be by a phone user, scrolling for zoom displays, linking and bookmarking and application launching through a mobile browser, as well as a number of approaches to optimizing browsing on a smartphone.

So it's not as if Google is totally bereft of mobile patent protection. Moreover, Slawski said the IBM patents could protect Google from litigation in other areas by opportunistic companies. Google, for example, acquired several patents from its Widevine acquisition that will protect YouTube.

Intellectual property expert Florian Mueller, who as part of his tireless coverage of Android lawsuits has counted no less than 46 lawsuits targeting Android, also offered some suggestions as to why Google is showing a broad patent appetite.

"In order to enter into cross-license agreements that can help to protect Android, Google would need patents that are relevant to such companies as Apple, Microsoft and Oracle," Mueller told eWEEK. "The types of patents Google bought from IBM looked to me like possible ammunition for a countersuit against -- or licensing negotiation with -- Oracle."

For example, Oracle is the leading database software maker and now Google has key relational database software patents. Mueller said Google could propose to Oracle a cross-license that would resolve the Android IP dispute on more favorable terms than Google could negotiate without such leverage. Of course, it's not been proven whether Oracle infringes on Google's newly-acquired IP.

Still, this is the kind of leverage Google could be aiming for by acquiring patents that aren't necessarily relevant to protect Android from litigants. At the least, it will deter some companies from suing Google directly, even if it won't protect Android OEM makers.

"Apple, Microsoft and Oracle are highly diversified tech companies, so I think Google can also benefit from patents that aren't strictly mobile communications-related," Mueller added.

Mueller also agreed that InterDigital is valuable for just about any company in the high-tech sector because it includes not only a a sizable patent portfolio but a research and development group that produces many hundreds of new patent applications every year. With these patent researchers, Apple, Google or Microsoft could accelerate the pace at which they obtain new patents.

Unfortunately for Google, Mueller doesn't think the search engine could outbid Apple for InterDigital. Apple has more than $70 billion in the bank compared to just under $40 billion for Google.