Microsoft, Oracle, Apple Show Competition Through Litigation Is Back

News Analysis: In the tech world there's innovation, there's competition through innovation and, for Microsoft, Oracle and Apple lately, there's litigation.

One factor that's held true through the history of the small computer business (meaning after the exclusively mainframe days) is that there is a basic division between companies that innovate and companies that exist mainly through litigation. Companies that occupy those places in the industry occasionally change sides, but those that start spending too much time on the litigation side invariably find themselves on no side at all, because they fade into nothingness. Usually what happens is that these companies put their energy into fighting other companies that innovate in ways that they don't like, instead of putting their energy into building better products.

An early example of this is the sad story of a company that probably no one remembers except for those of us who were around this business in the early 1980s: Ashton-Tate, which developed the first really useful database software for small computers, called dBASE. It sold very well, and provided customers with a level of functionality and ease of use that simply wasn't available until then. About the time that Windows started to become popular, other companies started to create database software that also performed useful functions.

Ashton-Tate, which had then launched dBASE III, started suing everyone in sight over patent and copyright issues. Eventually, sapped of its resources, its programming language in the hands of others, the company quietly faded away. More recently, SCO has had the same thing happen to it as it's tried to fight the innovation of Linux open source with nonstop litigation. SCO is almost gone, and one would hope for it to die a self-inflicted death in the near future.

But once again, the competition-through-litigation process rears its ugly head as companies try to kill innovation through the courts. Oracle (which interestingly was Ashton-Tate's first real competitor) is now suing Google over its Android OS. Meanwhile Microsoft is suing Motorola, as is Apple. Both are suing over patents that they claim either Motorola or Google has violated. Whether these legal actions will be ultimately successful in some way remains to be seen.

But the lawsuits seem strangely timed. After all, nobody bothered Google or Motorola until the Droid series of smartphones suddenly took off, and since Android became the hottest smartphone OS in history. Now, suddenly, there are lawsuits galore.

There are two basic reasons why companies sue each other in this manner. The first is because their patents actually do violate something that the company initiating the suit has a legitimate patent for, but when this happens, those suits usually seem to happen right away, and the companies usually ask for a licensing arrangement if the lawsuit is legitimate. Normally, these suits are settled, and everyone is happy. After all, the point of a patent is to give the inventor a way to make money on his invention.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...