Microsoft has been waving the Linux patent lawsuit stick for years, but in Google, it may have found a foe with deep enough pockets -- and the willingness -- to challenge the validity of these claims.
Cnet reported earlier this week that Microsoft is now claiming that Android violates its patents in a number of areas, including the user interface and the underlying OS.
There has been speculation that Microsoft's patent cross licensing deal with HTC was designed to make life more difficult for Apple, which sued HTC in March for infringing on patents related to the iPhone's touch-screen user interface, underlying architecture and hardware. But now it looks like HTC is the first of several similar deals Microsoft will seek to hammer out with other Android handset makers.
Microsoft's official stance is that it has invested heavily in its patent portfolio and has a responsibility to its customers, partners, and shareholders to ensure that "competitors do not free ride on our innovations."
"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," said Horacio Gutierrez, Microsoft's deputy general counsel, in a statement.
For years, Microsoft has insisted that Linux violates many of its patents, and the company often uses the specter of litigation to convince competitors to enter patent cross licensing agreements. As was the case with the Microsoft-HTC deal, the details of these agreements are hidden and protected by mutual non-disclosure agreements.
Jim Zemlin, executive director of The Linux Foundation, says the Microsoft-HTC deal is a prime example of how Microsoft chums the waters with fear to get companies to think twice about using Linux in their products.
"This is a classic from the Microsoft [fear, uncertainty and doubt] playbook. A confidential agreement where few terms are disclosed, vaguely referring to an operating system that is beating Microsoft in the market," Zemlin said in a statement. "Microsoft is once again demonstrating that it will attempt to use patents to muddy the waters about the viability of any competitive platform in order to maintain its Windows franchise."
Although Microsoft isn't suing Google directly, its move to put the chill on Android would definitely constitute a violation of Google's 'Don't Be Evil' code. A Google spokesperson said the company has no comment on the matter, but Google probably isn't going to sit and watch while Microsoft's legal team makes its way through the Android partner community. This is the kind of battle that Google craves.
Google is already a member of the Open Invention Network, an industry group formed in 2005 by IBM, Red Hat, Novell, Philips and Sony that maintains a patent portfolio and makes it available to member companies on a royalty-free basis.
The OIN's goals are to encourage companies to increase their Linux investments and "to address problems that arise from patent trolls and industrial companies whose business models and behaviors are antagonistic to Linux and true innovation," according to the OIN Website.
Many open source experts doubt the validity of Microsoft's Linux patent claims, and Google just might be the company that finally gets Microsoft to show its hand. If you think the battle between HP and Cisco is interesting, if Google does decide to defend its partners from Microsoft, that's going to look like a minor spat.