Apple and Samsung have sued each other so often and in so many countries that you can certainly be pardoned for yawning when the subject comes up. I would too, except that the new case unfolding this week in a federal court in San Jose is actually about a company that's not officially involved: Google.
Features like the ability to make a call within an app or text message by tapping on a phone number or sliding to unlock a smartphone are so common to so many devices that you'd hardly think they were someone's patented invention. But Apple asserts that they are, and it is suing Samsung for allegedly pirating them. But if anyone stole those ideas, it was Google, because those are features of its Android operating system.
[ InfoWorld's Galen Gruman explains what the first epic mobile patent battle was all about in "Apple and Microsoft: Frenemies beat back Android axis in mobile patents." | Get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter. ]
Steve Jobs famously said that he was ready to wage "thermonuclear war" against Android because the product was "stolen" from Apple. Well, put on your radiation suit. Apple wants to have new devices using those (and several other) features banned for sale, as well as have Samsung pay $40 for existing infringing devices sold.
If Apple wins, could a demand for payment from Google be far behind? I couldn't care less if Samsung and Google have to fork over a bazillion dollars and make Apple even richer, but the other possible result of Apple's campaign -- wiping out key features of Android -- would be a huge blow to competition.
Which of course brings up the topic of software patents, a legal notion originally designed to protect innovation but now does the opposite. Coincidentally, the very subject is now being argued in the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case that could -- but probably won't -- put an end to this sort of nonsense.
Google's long known it's the ultimate target
Google has seen this day coming for a good while. So in 2011, it paid $12.5 billion for Motorola Mobility, hoping that its huge store of patents would protect Android. Roughly half of that gargantuan sum, analysts figured, represented the value of those patents, which worked out to about $400,000 to $500,000 per patent.
I was appalled when the deal was announced: Think what kind of real innovation Google could do with $6 billion. Think of the research that would spawn new products, advance innovation, and create who knows how many thousands of good jobs up and down the technology food chain. Instead, that money went to buy patents. Ironically enough, Google dumped Motorola Mobility last year, taking a huge loss, but it apparently held on to key patents it needs to fight Apple and other companies, including Oracle.
Google, which has a lot at stake if Samsung loses, is expected to show up in court next month for that latest Apple-Samsung trial. Executives including Hiroshi Lockheimer, vice president of engineering for Android, will testify. No doubt he will bring slides and drawings of Android prototypes that purportedly include all of the contested features -- and then some.