Apple this week launched a proxy attack on Google's Android smart phone OS, by accusing handset maker HTC of violating 20 Apple patents related to the iPhone. HTC makes a number of popular smart phones, including the popular Nexus One, which is based on Google Android.
"We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it," Apple CEO Steve Jobs said. "We've decided to do something about it. We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."
That's quite a statement coming from the man who orchestrated the theft of Xerox's GUI for the Mac and then sued Microsoft for doing the same. That case, from the early days of the desktop PC era, was eventually settled. But HTC, unlike Microsoft, doesn't have a mountain of cash and overwhelming market share to fall back on. Fortunately, it has some wealthy and influential friends of its own.
"We are not a party to this lawsuit," a Google representative said. "However, we stand behind our Android operating system and the partners who have helped us to develop it."
HTC also has an inconvenient truth on its side: It's highly likely that many of Apple's iPhone-related patents are invalid due to prior art. Apple certainly didn't invent multi-touch technologies, for example, though it's acting like it did. And while Apple was wise to start with a relatively small company like AT&T, if it's going to protect its patents--and thus open them up to legal challenge--it's going to have to eventually confront the industry heavyweights that are also using these technologies. And that means not just Google, but Microsoft.
Microsoft, in fact, has been using multi-touch for years--its multi-touch Surface device dates to 2001--though it only recently added the technology to its phones. But Microsoft's not alone. According to Wikipedia, multi-touch (and even pressure sensitive) technology has been used on computing devices as long ago as 1982. Pinching motions date to 1991. (And if it's in Wikipedia, it must be true, right?)
HTC says it's going to fight Apple's suit. "HTC is a mobile technology innovator," the company wrote in a filing. "\\[We\\] also hold a large number of patents." HTC said that the Apple suit poses no short term threat to its business.
So why is Apple suing? Clearly, Apple is feeling the competitive heat, with Google's Android systems growing much faster than the iPhone and catching up to (and in many cases surpassing) Apple's devices in terms of performance, capabilities, and ease of use. And surely at least a few of Apple's patents will hold up in court. But regardless, the company is likely betting that the ensuing legal drama will take a lot of time and scare off some of the smaller potential customers.
Apple can use that time to shore up its still considerable market share while developing a coming generation of iPhones and related devices. And if the past is any indication, that new generation of devices will be interesting, exciting and innovative. And, of course, heavily protected by patents.