There have been rumblings in some corners of the tech press that Google (GOOG) ought to be quaking in its boots in the wake of the Apple (AAPL) v. Samsung (005930) patent verdict because it could give Apple enough juice to take out Android all together. This is highly unlikely to ever happen for a multitude of reasons, but the most important is that Google has a lot of money, a lot of creative and talented people, and a lot of incentive to make sure that Android remains successful.
First of all, let’s acknowledge that Samsung’s loss in the patent trial against Apple was more about its own mistakes than Google’s, since half of the patents successfully asserted by Apple were design patents that had nothing to do with Android and were only about Samsung’s hardware choices.
Yes, the jury also found that the Google-designed Nexus S infringed on two of the remaining patents that dealt with software, but only one of those patents — the ’915 patent that deals with pinch-to-zoom and one-fingered scrolling on iOS devices — seems consequential to Android’s core functionality. The other patent — the ’381 patent that covers the bouncy “rubber band” effect that occurs when scrolling on Apple devices — does not. And as 9to5Google notes, Google claims to have fixed both of these infringements with the release of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.
Couple this with the fact that Google allegedly warned Samsung that it was walking on thin ice with some of its design concepts for its tablets and you get the impression that Samsung was a uniquely rich target for Apple’s legal team to exploit. This is unlikely to be replicated with every other Android vendor. Indeed, Apple’s own attorneys at the trial pointed to the Android-based Sony (SNE) Xperia arc as a smartphone that had a unique design and that wasn’t a direct copy of Apple’s iPhone, so Apple does acknowledge to some extent that Android isn’t a complete ripoff of its own operating system.
That said, this is not the time for Google to kick up its feet and sip a martini. Android manufacturers such as HTC (2498) and LG (066570), which don’t have deep pockets like Samsung does, will undoubtedly be nervous and will need reassurance that their best devices won’t get similarly clobbered in the near future. To accomplish this, Google may want to take a much more hands-on approach with manufacturers. It can work with them to make sure their hardware doesn’t take liberally from Apple’s designs, and also to provide them with direct legal help during patent suits — something it was reluctant to do during the Samsung trial.
Google also might consider going back through Android to figure out which features are most vulnerable to intellectual property claims and alter them to lessen the likelihood of more Android-related patent litigation. At the same time, Google also will likely want to continue bolstering its own IP portfolio either through acquisitions such as the Motorola deal or through filing more original patents of its own to scare off potential plaintiffs.
While this is all easier said than done, Google has the resources, the talent and the incentive to do it.
Let’s start with the resources and the talent: Simply put, Google plugs a whole lot of its money into research and development and it encourages its developers to think really big, whether it’s creating a high-speed fiber network in Kansas City or creating “smart glasses” that beam images from the web directly to users’ eyeballs.
While not all of Google’s experiments have been successes — yes, I’m looking at you, Nexus Q — the company puts out so many different products that its Chromes, Androids and Gmails are more likely to be remembered than its assorted failures. Or put another way, Google has shown it has the creative energy and financial flexibility to keep innovating despite past failures.
Now let’s look at the incentives: Google knew exactly what it was doing when it launched Android as an open-source mobile operating system in 2007. The company knew that location-based advertising was about to become an enormous market in the smartphone era and was determined to get its own software and services out to as many mobile devices as possible. There’s simply no way that Google will allow Apple and its walled-garden devices to dominate a realm that is essential to the future of its business.
And besides, it isn’t as though manufacturers have an obvious alternative to Android that will guarantee them healthy revenues going forward, as Nokia (NOK) has shown that manufacturing solely for Windows Phone won’t magically improve market share. The fact is that many manufacturers need Android just as much as Android needs them.