Tuesday 16 January 2018

Google and Microsoft in row over smartphone patents

Microsoft's chief executive: Steve Ballmer. Photo: Getty Images
Microsoft's chief executive: Steve Ballmer. Photo: Getty Images

Christopher Williams

Google and Microsoft lawyers are embroiled in a public row over smartphone patents, after Google accused rivals, including Apple, of using them to attack its Android operating system.

The web giant’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, complained in a blog post that it was the target of “a hostile, organized campaign against Android by Microsoft, Oracle, Apple and other companies, waged through bogus patents”

Mr Drummond said the firms had formed alliances to buy the patent portfolios of Nortel and Novell, two companies that were previously leading technology innovators, in an attempt “to make it more expensive for phone manufacturers to license Android”.

The accusations follow news that Android handset manufacturers such as Samsung are being asked to pay a royalty of $15 per unit to Microsoft, even though Google provides the software for free.

Striking a conspiratorial tone, Mr Drummond said that "Microsoft and Apple have always been at each other's throats, so when they get into bed together you have to start wondering what's going on".

“A smartphone might involve as many as 250,000 (largely questionable) patent claims, and our competitors want to impose a “tax” for these dubious patents that makes Android devices more expensive for consumers,” he said.

But Microsoft quickly hit back. Brad Smith, its general counsel, mocked Mr Drummond’s claim that the consortium that bought the Novell patents had done so to stifle Google.

“Google says we bought Novell patents to keep them from Google,” he said on Twitter.

“Really? We asked them to bid jointly with us. They said no.”

Frank Shaw, its head of communications, was similarly derisive of Google’s blog post.

“Free advice for David Drummond – next time check with Kent Walker before you blog,” he said.

Kent Walker is another senior lawyer at Google. Mr Shaw also tweeted an image of an email he received from Mr Walker in October appearing to reject an offer to join in the Novell bid consortium.

Another consortium including Microsoft and Apple paid $4.5bn for Nortel’s patents earlier this year, after the telecoms equipment firm went bankrupt. They cover a host of smartphone technologies, and grant the consortium, which also included the BlackBerry maker RIM, a stronger position on what has become a major battlefield for the industry.

Google was a member of a rival consortium which bid $900m before the auction. Microsoft and Apple’s winning bid was “nearly five times larger than the pre-auction estimate of $1bn”, Mr Drummond complained.

The public spat represents an escalation of hostilities on the patent front, with Google apparently feeling encircled by its rivals.

Despite Android’s position as the best-selling smartphone operating system, it may be further trapped by the forthcoming sale of almost 9,000 relevant patents owned by InterDigital. Apple, which is said to be bidding, has cash reserves that dwarf Google’s.


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