Why Apple is really suing HTC

Apple is going after HTC, maker of the Nexus One phone, but its real target is Google.

Apple's lawsuit against Nexus One maker HTC and its ongoing legal battles with Nokia and Kodak suggest a universal truth: that lawyers start where innovation stops. Maybe smartphone innovation has slowed so much that Apple now finds it easier to play defense than to invent cool new iPhone technology.

The case demonstrates the extent to which former BFFs Apple and Google are now at each other's throats, with smartphone manufacturer HTC caught in the middle. Or maybe Steve Jobs merely woke up in a nasty mood and called his lawyers.

My take is that the lawsuit is an attempt to spread FUD--fear, uncertainty, and doubt--across the Android world. While it names HTC, the suit really targets Google, which is not named in the legal filings.

Apple clearly has the dollars--if not the sense--the pursue anyone it wants for however long it chooses. If the Apple gets lucky and prevails in its related attempt to block importation of HTC's "infringing" smartphones into the U.S., it would be a huge win, even if only a temporary one.

HTC, of course, made the first Android handset and is quite committed to the Google smartphone OS, which includes manufacturing the Google Nexus One and Motorola Droid Eris. Apple accuses HTC of violating 20 of its patents, some dating back to the mid-1990s. Seems a bit like piling on, from where I'm standing.

Just the thought of "Goodbye, Nexus One" must warm the hearts of Apple execs. Why not go for it? Apple can afford to roll the dice on this one.

The case, however, points out the need for certain patents to be licensable at fair rates, whether the patent-holder likes it or not. This is necessary for patents that cover essential technologies responsible for creation of a whole new market segments, such as smartphones.

I fully support patent rights and know that any forced licensing scheme will be hugely controversial, but it seem obvious that current patent law is out of touch with how modern innovation works.

There are some things--covered by patents--that are so simple and obvious, such as gestures, that no company should solely control them. Yet, some payment is in order for their use.

If I were HTC and Google, I'd be working around the clock to get Apple's patents out of my products, if they are actually there. Even if not, I'd want to innovate around those patents, such as the one that covers unlocking a smartphone with a finger swipe on a touch screen.

Even patent experts are loath to comment on the validity of a case or its likely outcome. Far be it from me to suggest that HTC is or is not guilty of violating 20 patents as Apple claims. Since many of those patents reportedly involve the Android operating system, Apple's action seems to involve Google as well, though the company isn't named. That could change in the future.

While Apple can say this is merely an attempt to protect its property, the company clearly has reason to be afraid of Android and this lawsuit is a result of that fear.

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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David Coursey

PC World (US online)
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