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

If you're as old as I am, you may remember Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev making an ass of himself claiming that the Russians invented television. Now Apple is making an ass of itself, claiming that the seeds of the Android were planted at Apple in the early 1990s.

How could that be? According to Apple (in a legal filing related to its patent fight with HTC), Google's Android czar Andy Rubin came across the idea when he was a junior engineer at Apple some 20 years ago, long before the iPhone, the iPad, or even the iPod existed.

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Although there may be a relevant patent in question here, Apple's implication that Rubin's invention of Android was somehow inspired by the work of his senior colleagues seems bizarre. But when you step back from the oddity of the legal maneuver, there may be a very significant message hidden inside the legal verbiage.

Apple could well be preparing to sue Google, which means going nuclear in the ugly mobile patent war that's roiling and distracting the industry. "In legal terms, since Rubin never worked for HTC, this doesn't have nearly as much weight in the ITC investigation of HTC's Android-based products as it would have if Apple ever decided to sue Google itself," patent and software analyst Florian Mueller wrote in a recent blog post.

(The ITC is the International Trade Commission, which is investigating Apple's infringement complaint against device maker HTC. At the same time, HTC is suing Apple, using patents it bought from Google as part of its claimed evidence. Read Mueller's blog for the gory details on who is suing whom; I don't have the patience or the space.)

An action targeting Google would be a bombshell. Apple is already trying to block sales of various Android products on the basis of patent infringement. But those actions have been aimed at specific devices and their manufacturers, including HTC and Samsung. Suing Google would signal a much broader attack on the Android platform itself.

What did Rubin know and when did he know it?
Among the barrage of documents flying around the ITC is this gem, recently filed by Apple: "Android and Mr. Rubin's relevant background does not start, as HTC would like the Commission to believe, with his work at General Magic or Danger in the mid-1990s. In reality ... Mr. Rubin began his career at Apple in the early 1990s and worked as a low-level engineer specifically reporting to the inventors of the '263 patent at the exact time their invention was being conceived and developed."

As Mueller put it: "Look at the first two sentences again: 'Android [...] does not start [...] at General Magic or Danger.' According to this filing, it all started at Apple!"

Apple isn't saying Rubin stole anything, but the implication is clear. As Mueller points out, because Rubin never worked at HTC, his relationship to its work is tangential. But that's obviously not the case at Google, where he is a vice president in charge of Android development.

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