Phone makers: Please spend $12.5bn on mobile innovation, not on a self-serving patent war

Google has become a major player in the mobile phone market in a very short time.

Android was launched as an open source mobile operating system only in 2007, and the software was made available to phone manufacturers in 2008. It has since become the bulwark that most smartphone makers (with the notable and financially devastating exception of Nokia) turned to as a counter to the rise of the Apple iPhone.

In only three years, Android has become the most popular mobile operating system in the world, with over 40% market share. That’s a position that has been achieved through the wholehearted support of the likes of HTC, Samsung, LG, Motorola and others, each attracted by the kudos of association with Google and the attraction of equal billing on the use of Android.

HTC, in particular, has established itself as a major phone maker almost exclusively because of its high-quality implementation of Android – HTC tends to be the phone of choice for many technology journalists (me included) and tech experts.

And as tablet PCs take off as a major new device – a market created by Apple, but now dominated by Android in terms of the range of products available – the buyer’s choice is effectively the iPad and all that goes with being tied into the Apple ecosystem, or to opt for one of the many Android-based tablets, with all the openness that implies.

So it’s a surprise, to me at least, that Google has now purchased a hardware maker – Motorola’s mobile phone division – in a move that seems on first impression to be at odds with what has made Android such a success. That’s a $12.5bn bet on the kindness and largesse of Motorola’s hardware rivals.

Despite their public words of support, you’ve got to think that executives at HTC and Samsung must be privately seething at the hand Google has played.

So why has Google done it? Most observers point to the effect of the “patent wars” – perhaps the most self-serving, anti-innovation, pointless and perplexing development of the whole recent rise in smartphone popularity.

Here’s a selection of recent headlines on the subject from Computer Weekly:

HTC share price hit by latest Apple patent infringement claim

ITC awards Apple preliminary patent ruling against HTC over copyright infringements

Nokia claims victory in long-running patent battle with Apple

Apple wins battle in patent infringement war with Samsung

Microsoft-Apple patent pact could drive Android prices up, warns Google

You could summarise most of those stories simply as: Tit for tat. So far missing is the headline: Smartphone users couldn’t give a monkeys and tell suppliers not to be so stupid.

Patents are, of course, a good thing, designed to protect and reward innovation and invention. Unfortunately, in the US in particular, it seems that in the digital world, patents are being used to protect a fart. See here, for example, how Google has patented the means of estimating a product’s shipping time. The problem is that in the US, you can patent a business process – something you can’t do so easily in Europe.

This protection is leading to what many could characterise as a gross misuse of the patent system, and the patent wars we now see between smartphone makers, a process that threatens to stifle innovation in the market and ultimately drive up prices.

And this, it is suggested, is the reason Google shelled out $12.5bn to buy an ailing hardware company – for the 17,000 patents Motorola Mobility owns, and the 7,500 patents pending. The move is seen as a response to Microsoft, RIM, Apple and others’ multibillion-dollar purchases of the patents of Nortel and Novell.

After each spending so much cash on buying patents – the rights to other people’s inventions – you can bet the patent lawyers are going to have a field day. It’s already rumoured that Microsoft makes more money out of sales of HTC Android handsets than it does from selling its own Windows Phone 7, purely over yet another arcane legal dispute over a patent.

While the entertainment industry continues to fret over the impact of the digital world on its copyrighted intellectual property – and as that topic becomes one for governments and international legislation – the IT industry that overtly stays out of that debate is indulging in its own spat over intellectual property in a way that can only disrupt its customers.

Clearly there is a need for reform of the patent process if it leading to such mud-slinging. But given the success and popularity of Android in such a short time since its creation, wouldn’t you particularly want to see how much more and better innovation could be placed in our hands if Google spent $12.5bn on product development instead, and not on a patent war that brings little or no benefit to mobile users.