Smartphone Wars: Is Google Apple's Real Target in the HTC Suit?

The patent-infringement lawsuit Apple filed against HTC on Monday caught the entire industry off guard, and has left plenty in the tech press and blogosphere accusing the firm of using HTC as a proxy to attack Google, widely seen as Apple's real enemy.

One thing that made the lawsuit so unusual is that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) is not a company known for initiating patent litigation. It will countersue, as it did with Nokia, but when it comes to taking the initiative, it's not an Apple habit. Its last patent-infringement lawsuit came in 1988 against Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) over the look and feel of Windows.

But there is no mistaking that this is Apple on the offensive. It filed suit in district court in Delaware and with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC). "We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We've decided to do something about it," said CEO Steve Jobs in a statement. "We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."

HTC issued its own response in a brief statement, saying only that it would cooperate with the U.S. judicial system "to protect its own innovations and rights" and that it did not believe the suit poses a short-term material impact to its business nor will it affect its Q1 2010 guidance. The company did not address the merits of the case.

Analysts Weigh In On Mobile Device Wars

The tech press and always-opinionated blogosphere have been quick to accuse Apple of really targeting Google, the maker of the Android operating system that runs on HTC phones like the Nexus One.

"Apple's Patent Lawsuit Against HTC Is All About Android," said TechCrunch. "Apple aims to take down Android by court order," proclaimed BetaNews. Even more sensationalist was the story on SlashGear, which ran under the headline, Apple could force HTC to remotely cripple smartphones warns patent expert".

For its part, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is backing HTC, but saying little else. "We are not a party to this lawsuit. However, we stand behind our Android operating system and the partners who have helped us to develop it," a Google spokesperson said in a statement e-mailed to InternetNews.com.

Analyst opinion on Apple's real motive is split. "I would have to agree it's ultimately an attack on Google. But suing HTC may be a result of the implementation issues," said Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile research for Gartner.

Dulaney noted that Google doesn't really "own" Android since it's open source and overseen by the Open Handset Alliance. "So until it's put on a phone, there is no target to attack. Suing Google wouldn't make sense since they really don't control it. It's the OEMs who choose the particulars," he told InternetNews.com.

Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, agreed on this point. "Google has specifically stayed away from multitouch. In the Nexus One and Android stuff, they don't even take a strong position on the implementation of touch UIs beyond single touch," he told InternetNews.com.

So Apple wouldn't be able to get Google for multitouch. The Android operating system, being open source, is subject to all kinds of modification, and vendors implement it differently. Motorola's Droid phone, which is a big seller, doesn't offer multitouch yet.

Offering that feature could be a deciding factor in litigation, Dulaney said. "It depends on whether Motorola launches a product in the Google store using the technologies at question. To date they haven't done that since they launched through the carrier," he said.

Bajarin thinks HTC was the right party to go after because it added the multitouch feature, not Google. "What I think Apple wanted to do was make sure HTC does not appropriate any of these touch-based interfaces that are really covered by Apple's patents on any phone they make," he said.

"A big part of this is focused on how the operating systems in the mobile market use these touch-based interfaces. Since HTC themselves use it on their systems and at the same time make phones for multiple companies, they became the more practical target to try to keep Apple's patents from being used," he said.

Gartner is telling its customers not to worry because by the time the lawsuit is adjudicated or settled (and they usually are), the IP in question will be obsolete anyway.

"For now the only winners are the lawyers who will get lots of money effectively taxing the system and raising consumer prices," Dulaney concluded.

Andy Patrizio is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.


Google, Apple, mobile device, mobile computing, HTC