Is Apple preparing a legal assault on Google over Android?

Apple says Google's Andy Rubin got the idea for Android while employed by Apple -- surely, another shoe is about to drop

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How strong is Apple's claim about Rubin? It depends on what Apple really wants to accomplish, says patent attorney Brad Pedersen of Patterson Thuente IP. If Apple merely wants to keep him from testifying as an expert witness on behalf of HTC, it may have succeeded in reducing his credibility. But proving he derived the ideas that led to Android from his time at Apple would be difficult. "They would have to show that it communicated each and every feature of the invention to him," Pedersen tells me.

Maybe Apple is merely engaging in a fairly standard courtroom maneuver: Make the other guy's witness look bad. Or maybe Apple is simply floating a trial balloon to see what evidence its claim pushes to the surface, says Pedersen.

But there's a psychological element here that could raise the stakes even higher.

A chilling effect
Everyone in the technology industry is worried about being sued by someone, be it a troll or a reputable patent holder that feels aggrieved. I don't want to get paranoid about Apple's motivations. After all, it has a right to protect its valuable intellectual property, and patent lawsuits are a brutal game indeed. 

But given the nervousness in the industry, I wonder if the Rubin ploy will send a chilling message to the industry: Somebody could come after you, if one of your employees used to work for a competitor.

Joe Wilcox over at BetaNews makes an interesting point: If Apple can claim that Rubin's employment somehow contributed to an alleged infringement by HTC (where he never worked), what about someone like Jon Rubinstein? Rubinstein played a key role at Apple in the development of the iPod and left to become to join Palm, where he developed WebOS and eventually become CEO.

Now he's an executive at Hewlett-Packard and a member of Amazon.com's board of directors. Picture this: HP is still holding on to WebOS although it won't make any more WebOS hardware. And Amazon.com is coming out with an Android-based Kindle tablet that may compete with the iPad. Does Rubinstein's status as an ex-Apple executive open the door to patent troubles for his new employers? I don't know, but the possibility is troubling.

As Pedersen points out, most patent lawsuits end up with settlements. And it's not hard to imagine Google and device makers negotiating a settlement that would involve royalty payments to Apple. That, of course, would raise the price of Android devices, making them that much less competitive against Apple's iOS products.

That's pretty crazy, but not as crazy as the $12.5 billion Google paid to buy Motorola Mobility and scoop up its huge patent portfolio. As I wrote a few weeks ago, it amounted to paying $400,000 for each of the company's patents. It's also not as crazy as Apple and Microsoft leading a consortium of technology companies in a $4.5 billion purchase of roughly 6,000 patents from Nortel Networks, for an even richer price of about $750,000 each.

All of that money that could have gone to hire new people and create new products has been wasted because everyone is afraid someone else will drop a patent bomb.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here (Add a comment) so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net. Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "Is Apple preparing a legal assault on Google over Android?," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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