Android patent disputes and the digital divide
September 7, 2011
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from flickr user: kamotegirl (CC)
Google’s current legal dispute over Android OS got me thinking, as I often do, about the sad state of the current patent system. It’s a perfect illustration of our warped approach to innovation, where tech giants succeed on the size of their patent portfolio rather than their ability to deliver faster, smarter, or cheaper gadgets; a sad tale of old corporate dinosaurs pursuing a regressive business strategy, thwarting the potential of new modes of technological innovation.
Android is the operating system powering nearly half the world’s smartphones. It is compatible with a wide range of handsets and tablets, which means low barriers to entry for new handset manufacturers and software developers, making it the perfect platform for innovation. Low-cost Android phones and tablets are bridging the digital divide in the developing world, connecting African farmers to grain prices and Indian schoolchildren to cutting edge scientific knowledge. Unlike Apple’s iPhone range which is aimed at a relatively rich cosmopolitan elite, anyone can manufacture an Android device – meaning it is more easily adapted to serve the needs of emerging markets.
To recap: Smartphone manufacturers pay Google nothing to use Android on their handsets. In theory this should mean that their customers pay less than they would for other handsets which run on proprietary software. But increasingly they are being forced to pay the likes of Microsoft, Apple or Oracle for alleged patent infringements in the Android code. Microsoft are demanding Samsung pay them $15 in royalties for every Android handset sold. As litigations mount up, manufacturers could be paying $50 per handset – over half the retail price of many low-end Android devices.
Google have initially been reluctant to enter into the patent wars, preferring to let manufacturers pick up the bill when the patent lawyers come knocking. But the recent acquisition of Motorola will give Google a much needed boost to its mobile intellectual property portfolio. This comes after an embarrassing failed attempt to buy up Nortel’s patents at an auction. Google decided to bid in increments of infamous mathematical and scientific numbers ($3.14… for example) for which they ate humble PI. Google’s solution seems to be to enter the patent war themselves, defending Android manufacturers against lawsuits with their newly beefed-up patent portfolio. Free software advocates say Google should instead make Android more open, and release it under GPL3 – a different license with (they argue) stronger protections. (The technical details of this suggestion are debated in the comments in this Slashdot post).
The irony is that even when a (relatively) open-source offering takes on the proprietary big boys, and apparently wins, it still loses. Even though Android has the largest market share, if Microsoft and the rest are taking $10 each per handset, they still win. They win not by making the most innovative technology, but by buying up bigger patent war chests. It will be interesting to see how far Android’s patent woes go. As previously mentioned, much of the developing world will come online via cheap Android-powered devices. While western consumers can afford to stump up the extra cash, patent royalties could choke the nascent market in developing countries.