And so it continues.
The legal/Intellectual Property rights assault on Android OS, caused by Google’s inability/failure (so far) to protect OEMs from patent infringement liability claims, just got a new casualty – Motorola.
The first casualty of the Android IP liability claims was HTC, which was first sued by Apple and then strong armed by Microsoft into royalty payments for each Android handset they sell. Now it’s Motorola’s turn, which is getting sued by Microsoft over various alleged patent infringements on it’s smartphones running Android OS.
Microsoft announcement about the lawsuit was pretty vague, mentioning in passing ActiveSync, calendar/contact management, app notifications about signal strength and battery power, and storage memory management, as Microsoft technologies are being infringed upon.
Here’s a more detailed look into Microsoft claims against Motorola.
These patents go way back to pre Windows 95 era, when Microsoft DOS was it’s main OS. During these early times of personal computing, the files on your PC couldn’t have a name that was longer then 8 characters, plus 3 character extension, so called 8.3 short filename system. Instead of easily understandable name like “MyVeryimportantDocument.doc”, your file on a pre Windows 95 PC would have been named “verimpdc.doc” or something like that.
With Windows 95, Microsoft started allowing for longer, more natural filenames that we are used to today. But to keep the backwards compatibility with the older PCs, for every long filename you create, Windows also generates a shorter 8.3 version of it. Then they are using some clever tricks to bind those two names to the actual files on your hard drive and each other, so when some application needs the actual file, it can find it, using either the short or long name.
Now Microsoft claims that the way Android OS handles those long filenames, is in some way infringing on the stuff Microsoft thought of first, when creating their new long name handling file system for Windows 95.
- Patent No. 6,621,746 is related to the flash memory management techniques.
This one is way over my head in technical stuff, so I’ll just cite the abstract of what it’s all about:
Erase operations are performed on a flash memory device by monitoring the entropic nature of the flash memory device. In one implementation, flash abstraction logic, tracks how many physical sectors are free to receive data; track how many physical sectors contain data that is dirty, and compare whether the physical sectors that are free to receive data outnumber the physical sectors that contain data that is dirty. A compactor performs an erase operation of one or more blocks when the physical sectors that contain data that is dirty outnumber the physical sectors that are free to receive data. In another implementation, the flash abstraction logic tracks how many physical sector addresses are free to receive data, and track when the physical sector addresses that are free to receive data are insufficient in quantity to receive write requests from a file system. The compactor executes an erase operation of one or more blocks if the physical sector addresses that are free to receive data are insufficient in quantity.
- Patent No. 6,826,762, called “Radio interface layer in a cell phone with a set of APIs having a hardware-independent proxy layer and a hardware-specific driver layer”
This patent covers the basic functionality of smartphone applications that need to connect/use radio network. It describes a proxy interface layer between the applications on the smartphone and radio module.
When making smartphones, different vendors are using different radio modules and components they get from different suppliers, all of them with different drivers and interaction command sets. For the feature phone, where mobile vendor was responsible for both software and hardware on the device, this wasn’t a big problem. Vendor could just tailor it’s own apps on the phone – e.g. dialer, SMS client or WAP browser to the radio module he used, and it just worked.
With the advent of smartphones, open mobile OSes and third party applications for them, things get more complicated. Different cellphone vendors who use Windows Mobile OS, have different suppliers for different radio components. To work with different hardware configurations, Windows Mobile OS, and apps on it, will need adaptation for each handset from different vendor. Which is hugely time consuming.
Instead, Microsoft created a Radio Interface Layer (RIL), with a set of API’s. OS apps send commands/calls for various radio/network related functions, e.g. “call this number”, “send SMS”, etc; to the API, then RIL translates those commands into commands that the radio module of mobile device can understand. From the other side, for hardware/component vendors, RIL also has a set of APIs where hardware vendors can plug in their radio component drivers, so the commands coming through the radio network are translated by RIL into commands that can be understood by OS applications.
This is just a broad outline of the patent, and Microsoft is much more specific about the exact actions it thinks this patent should cover. But, overall, it’s pretty basic Smartphone functionality today, and obviously something similar to RIL is used by any smartphone OS, including Android.
- Patent No. 6,909,910 called “Method and system for managing changes to a contact database”
This is a pretty narrow patent, which describes a way to save contact information/phone number from a call log to phone book. Basically, the following process is patented:
“Save” button for a number in the call log is pressed, the dialog/menu with “Save as new contact” and “Update contact” shows up. If “New contact” is selected, a fresh contact card shows up, with phone number from the log, already pre-filled in one of the contact card fields, the user fills in other fields, like “Name”, “company”, etc;. If “Update contact” is selected, phone book pops-up, user selects the contact name he wants to update, then the old contact card appears with the new number from the call log already there, after the needed edits, the info is saved in contact database.
Sounds pretty obvious thing of how these things should work, and, except that we are talking about the phone numbers here, there should be plenty of similar things implemented in, for example, various PC e-mail programs . But Microsoft has a patent for it, so we’ll just have to wait and see if this one can stand up in court.
- Patent no 7,644,376 called “Flexible architecture for notifying applications of state changes”
This patent also describes a pretty basic functionality in today’s smartphones – the way various applications on the smartphone are notified about the external events that affect them. Like in Radio Interface Layer patent, Microsoft describes an intermediary layer, in this case called the “information broker”.
The current states of the device – e.g connected or not, signal strength, battery charge levels, e-mail, SMS and call notifications, amount of used/available memory, etc; are stored in the information broker and changes to them continuously monitored. Applications on the device register with information broker via API, telling it about which changes in the device states they need to be notified about. E.g. when battery power gets low, a notification to the browser and audio streaming apps can be sent and data connection terminated to preserve power. When a voice call comes in, a notification to to media player to mute audio is sent, and dialer/phone app is launched to answer the call. The information broker also has a scheduling function, so some apps can be notified/launched or closed on schedule. Some of the registered state properties may persist through reboot.
Today, all of the smartphones have some way of notifying apps about state changes described above, and there’s a good chance that at least some of the ways Android does this, is similar of what Microsoft claims is patented.
- Patent No. 5,664,133 called “Context sensitive menu system/menu behavior”
The name of this patent pretty much says it all. It covers the process of generation of context sensitive menus on a computer. Context sensitive menus are those menus that pop up next to an object on your PC, when you right click your mouse, with a list of available actions specific to that object. On Android phones they are those menu boxes that pop-up on the long press in various apps.
It’s interesting that Microsoft decided to throw this particular patent into the mix. It’s a really old patent – filed in 1996 and based on an even older 1993 patent application, which is abandoned now. By the time a case runs through courts, there’s a very good chance that this patent application will have expired already. And context sensitive menus have been around in almost all the competing OSes and tons of third party apps for years. Pulling out this patent now in a suit against Android looks pretty strange to me.
- Patent No. 6,578,054 “Method and system for supporting off-line mode of operation and synchronization using resource state information”
This patent deals with data synchronization issues between mobile device and the server, ways of efficient exchange of info between them, when mobile device has been off-line for a while, and modified data during that process. Here’s the abstract of the patent:
Systems and methods for synchronizing multiple copies of data in a network environment that includes servers and clients so that incremental changes made to one copy of the data can be identified, transferred, and incorporated into all other copies of the data. The synchronization can be accomplished regardless of whether modifications to the data have been made by a client while the client is in an on-line or off-line mode of operation. The clients cache data locally as data are modified and downloaded. The caching enables the clients to access the data and allows the synchronization so be performed without transmitting a particular version more than once between a client and a server. Such elimination of redundant data transmission results in an efficient use of time and network bandwidth.
An example of the things the patent is talking about, can be a contact list/phonebook, or calendar sync between mobile device and Google servers in the cloud. While you are connected to the data network – your contacts and calendar entries on Droid 2 device are synced with the cloud. But you also are still able to access and modify your phone book and calendar, even when data connection is closed. And as soon as you get connected again, the copy of your address book and calendar in the cloud, gets updated with the changes you made on your mobile device.
Microsoft has described a pretty specific way of how such sync process should work, and, I guess, they found that the way Google does cloud sync on Android, is pretty much what is covered by the patent.
- Patent No. 6,370,566 called “Generating meeting requests and group scheduling from a mobile device”
Again, a pretty narrow patent, dealing with pretty specific functionality – requesting and arranging meetings through mobile device. It talks about generating a meeting request, with set time, date, location, etc; sending this request via e-mail to a list of recipients, accepting their responses and displaying information to users of who accepted the invitations.
The patent application was filed in 1998. But, except for the fact, that all this stuff is done on a mobile device and not a networked PC, I’d bet there were already quite a few similar scheduling systems in operation by then. I wonder how this patent will stand up in court today.
Well, that’s about it – 9 patents that Microsoft claims Motorola’s Android phones infringe upon. Some of them doesn’t look very serious and seem to be thrown in just in case, but some of them are look pretty strong to me. So it will be interesting to see how this things will proceed.
Well, the next step will probably be from Motorola, announcing a patent suit against Microsoft, for violation of a batch of wireless patents that Moto holds. I’m sure they will find quite a few of them, after all, Motorola invented the whole mobile phone thing, and been in this business for 30+ years now.
In the end, I think, Motorola and Microsoft will settle this thing with some sort of patent cross-licensing deal. And, who knows, maybe Motorola will worm up to Windows Phone 7 by then, too.
Which brings us to the central point – Google Android OS, which is the real target of this lawsuit. The main goal of Microsoft here is to damage Android, slow down it’s growth and make it’s own mobile OS more attractive to OEMs.
And there’s very little Google can do about it. It is a newbie in the mobile business, and does not have strong IP portfolio to field against companies who invented the mobile and smartphone technologies we are so used to today. Microsoft will have a particularly strong case against Google, since Andy Rubin – Google’s Android head previously was CEO of Danger, which Microsoft bought with all the rights to IP created there.
But Microsoft is certainly not the only one who is ready to sue Android handset vendors, if Google’s OS continues it’s meteoric rise. As the competition in converged mobile device space intensifies, I fully expect Nokia, HP/Palm, maybe even RIM, to get into anti Android patent litigation game soon. And Google will have no other option then to strike a patent licensing deals with most of them, eating the costs for every Android handset that is shipped. Or they will have to leave Android handset vendors open to IP infringement lawsuits, thus making Android much less attractive to them.
Just like with Motorola, Microsoft, and others too, have little chance deterring the biggest mobile phone vendors like Sony Ericsson or Samsung, from using Android OS. These companies have been in mobile business for years, and have big enough patent portfolios with which to retaliate to any threats of litigation related to Android on their handsets.
But for the new entrants into mobile space – PC OEMs like Acer, Dell, or Asus – it’s different. If Google does not get proactive on Android IP issues soon, they eventually will have to strike licensing deals with patent holders themselves, just like HTC did with Microsoft. This will make Android much more expensive and less attractive proposition, then it appears at first glance.
Which is the whole point of this exercise, from the incumbent competitor point of view.
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