Will Microsoft Hold Android Hostage?

Right now, we’re all worrying about Apple’s patent claims against HTC, but Android may face a similar attack from Microsoft.

It’s not terribly well known that Microsoft claims that it owns significant intellectual property used in Linux, the operating system at the heart of Android. Starting in 2006, Microsoft began reaching licensing deals with a number of companies that use the open source OS, among them Novell,  I-O Data, Samsung, LG Electronics and most recently, Amazon.

All these deals are similar, but as an example, Amazon has agreed to pay Microsoft licensing fees to use Linux on Amazon.com and on the Kindle. Read that again and let it sink in.

Many have voiced skepticism that Microsoft could successfully defend their claims, but so far, companies have rolled over and complied rather than take the question to court.

So, what about Android? Is it far-fetched to wonder if Microsoft might bring similar claims our way as they prepare to launch Windows Phone 7 Series? And if they do, will they be looking for cash, or will they prefer to cripple a competitor or try to shut it down entirely? Even if they just pursue a licensing deal, as they have before, it would mean an end to Android as a free operating system. And licensing fees paid to Microsoft would, of course, be passed on to consumers.

It will be instructive to see how the Apple vs. HTC case proceeds. I’m sure Microsoft would prefer bringing IP claims like this to the device manufacturers and carriers to taking them up with a big fish like Google, and if Apple is successful it may signal to Microsoft that this is a viable path.

What are your thoughts on this possibility? Is it something we should be worried about?

Source: Ryan Gallagher

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  • great article – one problem though…
    linux is not an operating system, it is the kernel at the heart of linux-based operating systems

    • Leachpunk

      @garok89 and he wasn't talking about linux as an OS. Microsoft doesn't own IP in linux based operating systems, it owns IP in the linux kernel.

    • MisterMeister

      Linux is a kernel and a operating system. Even Linus thinks so:

      "Umm, this discussion has gone on quite long enough, thank you very much. It doesn't really matter what people call Linux, as long as credit is given where credit is due (on both sides). Personally, I'll very much continue to call it "Linux""


  • Android is a Google product Microsoft might be able to scare small fish into paying protection money but Google is not going to feel the least bit intimidated. In fact the Linux community would love nothing more than to see Microsoft suing Google over Linux.

  • Eric

    Isn't it amazing how what should be nothing more than healthy competition has turned out to be a pissing match. If Apple and MS would spend more time and money creating better products to compete with Google it would be a win, win situation for everyone. It might be difficult to boycott MS products, but it wont be hard to take a bite out of Apple's. If Apple persues this thing with HTC there will never be an Apple product in my home and I am sure there are others that feel the same.
    Hey Steve, my N1 rocks!!

  • gad

    I've never had an Apple product and will never have one. I hope Microsoft doesn't go that route,because if they do i might have to boycott their products as well

    • James

      Microsoft has already gone down that route. Microsoft is strong-arming competitors to get license fees from them. It hasn't gone to court yet because everybody is paying up but eventually someone will say no to Microsoft and Microsoft will then sue.

      This is the US legal system as it pertains to software patents. Unless software patents are reformed, it is going to keep happening. I wonder what people will say when Google has to go to court to protect some of their patented IP? As far as I can tell, it hasn't happened yet but it is practically inevitable. Corporations have a responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profit and patents are a major part of US intellectual property law.

  • neuron

    Thought the quality checking was done more carefully on androidguys… Yes, without a doubt there are some patents owned by microsoft that could be used against linux as a whole. But that doesn't matter, because IBM (huge linux pusher) and for example holds patents that go the other way.

    There's no way in hell microsoft can use their patents to hold back android because of linux.

  • Art Williams

    There is a Linux patent pool. Should MS sue, don't expect the Linux world to take it down. It would be litigation Armageddon.

  • Niko

    @everybody Microsoft will sue… Or Microsoft will not sue… Who cares??? Android unlike amazon.com is not restricted to the US. If Microsoft sues Google in the US. I'll donate my backyard for Google to open a new headquarters. That would be in India and anything goes here.

  • hazydave

    Google's using GNU/Linux to power everything it does… if Microsoft sees that as a legit target for themselves, they're taking on a whole lot more than Android if they go after Google.

    I guess we'd have to see just what Microsoft's talking about here to actually judge this. After all, Linux-the-kernel and all those GNU tools began life as clones of the UNIX work being done at AT&T Bell Labs and sometimes the University of Berkeley. Both of those pre-date not just Windows but MS-DOS.

    So maybe there's something, but it rather boggles the mind that something as recent as Windows would have really testable (eg, not easily tossed out due to prior art) inventions that didn't show up much earlier. Software patents didn't even exist until the 80s, so nothing Microsoft filed for would have shown up as patent-level prior art, necessarily.

    And as for "Amazon is licensing", you'd want to look closely at the deal. It may very be that Amazon is handing Microsoft a ton of money to use Linux. But it may also be that there's no money going back and forth, and maybe there's a cross-licensing of all patents between the two companies. After all, Amazon had all of their "web operating system" stuff in place before Microsoft finally decided that might be a good thing to do themselves. So it's more likely Microsoft came to Amazon looking to stay out of trouble, rather than to extort money themselves.

  • BrentP

    I think attacking Google, over Android, would be a bad move for MIcrosoft. I woudl just love to to know what defendable position that Microsoft really has with regard to Patents that it claims that Linux violates. I think think MS is avoiding a big fight, because they understand that it would only bring more publicity to Linux, and that Google is big enough to push back. Why hasn't Microsoft gone after IBM. Ponder that one. In my (uneducated opinion) MS doesn't have a leg to stand on, but if they do sue, they will certainly use their agreements with Novell, Amazon etc… as admittance of ingringement. Please Microsoft…… Sue Google and IBM. I really believe that woudl be a good thing for the open source community.

  • hazydave

    Yeah, and as someone else mentioned, there's IBM.

    IBM has crazy stacks of patents. There were one of the first companies to start to view their patent portfolio as both a defensive and offensive weapon, as well as a profit center. In the IBM PC days, they were worried about some little PC company getting some IP on them and having to pay up big, so they went after everyone in the PC industry for cross licensing and royalties on PC and other patents.

    They were also one of the first companies to establish an aggressive patent department. These guys went through every little thing that IBM ever did and filed whatever patents they could get away with. In short, they didn't patent inventions, they learned to hack the patent system and filed anything that pretty much hadn't already been patented. For example, while many people may remember doing cut and paste in text editors, going back well into the 70s, you might be surprised to find that IBM had a patent on cut and paste between text buffers, granted in 1984 (expired by now, of course). Literally tons of prior art, and of course, you can't really patent that as a concept, but that's just what IBM was claiming. And they could hit any company doing anything interesting with 100's of these.

    So IBM isn't getting sued by Microsoft over using Linux. But will they step up and defend others using Linux? They would certainly be a handy 362.87kg gorilla to have around.

  • Dave Haynie

    Actually, I would bet that Microsoft has a broad patent licensing agreement with IBM already, which is why they haven't gone after them. IBM definitely has such agreements with every company doing hardware in the PC world, and probably many others… they're very good at beating you over the head with patents.

    The one trick is the truth about software patents, though. Originally, software patents were not allowed, and in fact, the PTO was using the presence of software in any system as a reason to deny a patent. In short, patents must be both useful and novel… software alone fails, because it's useless without some hardware on which to run.

    In the early 1980s, the Supreme Court heard a case, in which a device that just happened to use software in an otherwise hardware-based invention had been rejected, and they held that software alone could not be a reason for rejecting an invention. This was taken to allow software patents, and they PTO was hit with a flood of them, and started granting them like crazy, despite not having any software engineers in place. That's actually a reason to suspect any early patents … a patent must not be "obvious to one skilled in the art"… impossible to judge if your examiner isn't skilled in the art.

    Anyway, basically, because of this history, there's technically no such thing as a software patent… but there can be software that makes your hardware violate a patent. So if Microsoft has some software patent on Linux, let's say (regardless of validity), they can't exactly go after Red Hat, for example, simply because Red Hat selling Linux isn't violation of the patent — the patent isn't violated until it runs on hardware. This is the same reason IBM went after all the PC companies, not Phoenix or Microsoft, when it came to PC patents, even those involving software.

    Of course, Microsoft has since become a hardware vendor, and essentially a PC vendor with the first X-Box, so there's every chance they cross-licensed with IBM back then, if they hadn't already. But by the same logic, Microsoft couldn't have gone after Google for Android directly, at least not until the Nexus One, which certainly seems to be a Google product.

    But Google runs Linux on their servers, supposedly, and so they might be subject to a Microsoft attack there… despite the dubious nature of MS really having defendable patents on Linux, which is based on UNIX, an operating system older than MS-DOS. With that said, though, given that software patents weren't even possible until the early 80s, it's possible Microsoft has patented things that have existed in UNIX since the beginning. They would be thrown out if ever challenged in court, but these things remain bargaining chips as long as they're still valid.

  • they have their own market.. it'll not make any different i guess..

  • thank you for sharing. nice post. i like it :p

  • It is an interesting situation to learn about all these deals which are similar, but as an example, Amazon has agreed to pay Microsoft licensing fees to use Linux on Amazon.com and on the Kindle. Read that again and let it sink in.

  • Right now, we’re all worrying about Apple’s patent claims against HTC, but Android may face a similar attack from Microsoft. There is possibility that it may so happen. thanks.

  • I am excited to keep track of this development or possibility of microsoft holding android hostage.  In the world of business and commerce, there is always a possibility of alignments, taking overs and bitter competitions.  Whatever, the out come, it should be profitable to the consumers.