Android patent deal leaves Google out in the cold

The Android operating system is now available to Samsung, but it's not Google who will reap the benefits.

Samsung will use the OS in its mobile devices thanks to an intellectual property agreement signed between the device manufacturer and Microsoft.

Microsoft's aggressive patent strategy in the mobile-device industry has created so many love triangles and bitter breakups that even the most ardent soap-opera or reality-TV fan would have trouble keeping score. This week's Android cross-licensing agreement between Microsoft and Samsung has set off a whole new round of alliances and suspicion that once again ensnares some of the industry's biggest names.

Simply put, the crux of this agreement is that Samsung will pay Microsoft royalties for using Google's Android operating system in tablets and mobile phones.

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"Microsoft and Samsung see the opportunity for dramatic growth in Windows Phone, and we're investing to make that a reality," Andy Lees, president, Windows Phone Division, Microsoft, said in a press release. "Microsoft believes in a model where all our partners can grow and profit based on our platform."

Evidently, Microsoft also believes in hanging what it considers to be a strong patent portfolio over the heads of device makers that use Android; the Redmond software giant apparently holds the position that Android violates at least some of the patents in Microsoft's mobile-OS portfolio. A paragraph in a recent Microsoft blog entry lays out the company's mobile-patent situation in simple terms: "Together with the license agreement signed last year with HTC, today's agreement with Samsung means that the top two Android handset manufacturers in the United States have now acquired licenses to Microsoft's patent portfolio. These two companies together accounted for more than half of all Android phones sold in the U.S. over the past year. That leaves Motorola Mobility, with which Microsoft is currently in litigation, as the only major Android smartphone manufacturer in the U.S. without a license."

If the name Motorola Mobility sounds familiar, that's because Google recently announced that it would buy the company for $12.5 billion, a purchase that is still pending. One of the obvious motivations for Google's acquisition was Motorola's patent portfolio, which the search monster apparently hoped to use to fend off disputes from patent holders such as Microsoft.

However, according the Korea Times via GigaOm, Samsung, which holds quite a patent portfolio of its own, apparently wasn't sure that Google's Motorola buy would do any good in fending off patent problems and went ahead and signed a deal with Microsoft, anyway.

Outraged as always when these matters arise, Google issued a statement accusing Microsoft of extortion. But Microsoft brushed away those claims, obliquely suggesting that Google might do well to follow the lead of device makers such as Samsung and HTC that have reached patent agreements with Microsoft.

Extortion or not, Microsoft's mobile patent strategy has brought in revenue at a time when its own mobile OS, Windows Phone 7, continues to struggle for market share. Goldman Sachs says that Microsoft will rake in nearly $450 million in revenue from Android patent agreements in 2012. How much damage Microsoft's aggressiveness will do to the Android OS -- and what kind of impact it will have on relationships with handset and tablet makers -- remains to be seen.

In its blog post, though, Microsoft speculated that "[t]here undoubtedly will be a good deal of additional drama before this new generation of patent issues sorts itself out in its entirety." Of that, there can be little doubt.  

About the Author

Lee Pender is the executive features editor of Redmond magazine.


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