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Android patent licensing

This is most clearly seen in the way Google has chosen to create and nurture the Android ecosystem – or, rather, the way it has failed to nurture it. I've written before about the growing disaster of the lawsuits attacking Android and the companies using it. As I suggested then, there might be a way for free software to emerge stronger as a result, at least in the field of smartphones. But looked at more broadly, Google's handling of this issue is weakening its influence in this sector – and with it, its authority in the digital world.

That loss of authority is palpable in a recent Microsoft press release:

Today, Microsoft announced its tenth license agreement providing coverage under our patent portfolio for Android mobile phones and tablets. Today's agreement is with Compal, one of the world’s largest Original Design Manufacturers, or ODMs. Compal is based in Taiwan, where it produces smartphones and tablet computers for third parties, and has revenue of roughly $28 billion per year.

Today’s announcement marks Microsoft's ninth Android agreement in the last four months. More important, today’s announcement means that companies accounting for more than half of all Android devices have now entered into patent license agreements with Microsoft.

The glee is evident. And things will probably get worse:

LG Electronics will likely ink an agreement on patent loyalties with U.S. software giant Microsoft as early as next month, industry sources said Tuesday.

Microsoft's diagram representing the lawsuits and licensing deals surrounding Android makes pretty clear what the problem is: Google is simply not engaged in the fight. All the patent attacks are against Android manufacturers, who have essentially been abandoned by Google to fend for themselves. The only signs that Google is actually trying to do anything is the purchase of Motorola – although there are conflicting views over whether this will really help much – and the fact that it sold nine patents to HTC to use in its battle with Apple, despite some vague claims to the contrary.

But it seems to me a massive failure on Google's part that support wasn't offered sooner – or, indeed, from the time that Android was first announced. As I've noted elsewhere, patent licensing is partly about appearances and bluff. The more the appearance is created that Android infringes on Microsoft's patents, the more Microsoft can apply pressure to other companies to sign up. That's why the more that do so, the more parlous the state of Android becomes.

Android should have taken steps to forestall this from the start. IANAL, so I don't quite know the best way of going about this, but some kind of promise to back up companies that were threatened by patent holders – for example, by sharing their costs – would have reduced the pressure on Android manufacturers to take the "easy" option and simply sign up with Microsoft.

Now it may be too late to stop the rot, since the analysts and the press are taking it almost for granted that Android does indeed infringe on Microsoft's patents. There's also the danger that people will assume that this means that Linux also infringes. That's why Google's inaction here is really terrible news for free software: it allows Microsoft to spread its usual FUD with more plausibility.

The escalating mess of Android suggests that the Google management really didn't think this through, and even now are still pretty much in headless chicken mode. Coupled with the user backlash over new products, engineering doubts within the company, and concerns that Google is falling behind in terms of key technologies, this all adds up to a very worrying situation. Let's hope the company wakes up in time to do something about it.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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