The reason all Android devices are potentially impacted by these suits, writes software patent expert Florian Mueller, is that the technologies covered by the Microsoft and Apple patents are central to Android itself. For instance, take U.S. Patent No. 5,946,647, which covers the technology used in Android's Web browser to automatically redirect users to applications based on on-screen data. This technology is used on Android devices whenever you click on phone numbers that automatically direct you to the device's dialer or on addresses that automatically redirect you to Google Maps. As Mueller notes, it's hard to imagine Android devices running without this key feature.
"[F]undamental elements of Android's technology and architecture are at stake," he writes. "It's hard to see how any Android device could not infringe them, or how companies could work around them."
To make matters worse for HTC and other Android vendors, Mueller thinks that Apple will not be as willing as Microsoft has been to settle for receiving licensing cash. Rather, he thinks Apple could try to deliver a major blow to the quality of HTC's Android devices in the United States by limiting the features they could have as a precondition to entering a limited licensing agreement. The reason Apple would be able to do this, he contends, is that HTC simply doesn't have enough relevant patents in its portfolio that would impact Apple's ability to operate. Android handset makers like Samsung, which have much broader and more extensive patent portfolios, have much more leverage to use in any potential licensing deal with Apple.
"I could imagine a situation in which Apple might agree on a partial cross-license that would grant Apple access to all of HTC's and S3's patents while HTC would get access to only some of Apple's patents," Mueller writes. "Maybe just enough so that HTC can at least continue to sell Android-based products of some kind, but those products could be limited and there might be substantial degradations of the user experience."
Regardless of whether HTC eventually enters into a licensing agreement with Apple (best-case scenario) or if it gets its Android phones banned from being imported (worst-case scenario), it seems that the era of Android being a cost-free operating system for device makers is over. And while this certainly doesn't mean the end of Android phones by any stretch of the imagination, it could put a damper on the number of Android devices manufacturers produce as they weigh just how much money they'll want to fork over to Microsoft and Apple.
Read more about software in Network World's Software section.