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Will Legal Battles Jeopardize Android’s Rise to Dominate the Device Market?

The breadth and depth of the Android ecosystem, driven in part by the participation of the open source community, is among the platform’s greatest strengths. But will another of Android’s perceived strengths, the open source nature under which the platform is governed, ultimately prove to be its undoing?

The formation of various industry consortia and open source projects has intensified the open source community’s challenge to the commercial market for mobile operating systems. Based on VDC’s 2011 Embedded Engineer survey the adoption and use of open source software is more acceptable within engineering organizations developing mobile devices. 

However, Google’s leveraging of open source code has come under fire in recent months, with competitors peppering Android OEMs and Google itself with a variety of legal actions primarily centered around the unauthorized use of software-based intellectual property.

Microsoft has pursued device manufacturers Barnes & Noble, HTC, and Samsung, seeking royalties as compensation for designs that allegedly contain a wide range of Microsoft-owned patents, while similarly, Apple claimed a number of Samsung’s Android devices violated Apple’s intellectual property. Oracle, in an effort to protect the Java-related IP it acquired as part of its purchase of Sun Microsystems, has set its sights on Google itself, claiming the search company had infringed upon Oracle’s Java technology in its development of Android.

Last week, Google lost a well-publicized bidding war for approximately 6,000 Nortel-owned patents which, if won, may have helped the search giant stave off the aggressive legal advances of these competitors. Instead, despite its incredibly deep pockets, Google ultimately lost the auction to a group going by the name “Rockstar Bidco” which was headed by Apple and, at the end of the bidding process, was revealed as also including EMC, Ericsson, RIM, Sony, and Microsoft.

While it is clear that the pooling of resources was the key driver behind the formation of this group – which must have required some participants to subscribe to the theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – what does it say that so many participants in the mobile ecosystem were willing to team up against Google? Is this a simple case of software companies protecting their IP, or are these industry competitors – specifically Apple, Microsoft, and RIM – so concerned that Android will run them into the ground that they’re willing to do whatever it takes to bring the platform down?

Although such legal action is relatively commonplace in the software industry, VDC believes that these legal issues may be among the reasons OEMs such as HTC and Samsung have not dedicated their smartphone strategies exclusively to Android, perhaps fearful that a collapse of the Android business model would be capable of compromising their entire smartphone business. Furthermore, this may be one of the factors driving the circumstance that Nokia has to this point avoided Android, at least publicly, altogether.

The contentiousness of these specific lawsuits will ultimately determine if mutually beneficial arrangements can be agreed upon by the involved parties or if the fallout from these legal issues will undermine the continued growth expected of Android. Moving forward, particularly with regard to potential deployments of Android beyond smartphones and tablets, it is possible that OEMs not currently involved with Android may be hesitant to adopt the platform due to these legal concerns. Until these issues are more firmly understood, the risk of costly royalty payments has the potential to undermine the success of this “free” platform in new markets.

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