Patent war unlikely to bring Androidocalypse

However, patent trouble is still doing a lot of damage to the Android ecosystem

On the surface, Apple's recent courtroom victories are a threat to the future of the Android platform. A pair of injunctions blocking Samsung's Galaxy Tab and Galaxy Nexus from sale in the U.S. could lay the groundwork for a similar action against the Galaxy S III, as well as a huge range of other Android devices.

While these are serious problems for the Android ecosystem, legal wrangling has become commonplace in the smartphone industry. Gartner Research Vice President Carolina Milanesi describes them in an email as "a part of the mobile computing business."

BACKGROUND: Apple wins injunction against Galaxy NexusCourt rejects Samsung's motion for a stay regarding Galaxy Tab 10.1 injunction

Still, the effects are not incidental. While it's possible that bitterly fought patent wars could spur innovation by prompting companies to design their products in new and different ways, according to Milanesi, it's just as likely to stifle creativity by forcing engineers to tackle the same problem over and over again.

IBB Consulting partner Jefferson Wang holds the latter point of view. In addition to the direct costs imposed by a loss of sales, he says, successful injunctions force Android OEMs like Samsung to spend their time engineering their way around existing problems, rather than developing profitable new devices.

As well, in a worst-case scenario, the developer community could begin to drop the Android platform en masse if it feels its options are too badly constrained by legal action, according to Wang.

"They're really focused on 'How big is the install base,' and 'How capable are we [of monetizing] that install base,'" he says of developers. "So if you really think about how these rulings play out as a developer, you already have some issues with fragmentation ... it can reduce the potential number of screens you can reach."

Will Stofega, director of mobile device research for IDC, agrees that the potential stifling of creativity is one of the more serious issues posed by the continuing legal threat from Apple and others.

"What could end up happening is a situation where the market starts to become problematic in the sense that you have one company dictating what their competitors' innovations are going to be," he says.

Nevertheless, the effects of litigation shouldn't be overemphasized.

"You won't have a situation where, all of a sudden, [because of] this patent dispute, Apple will ... stop selling iPhones and Samsung will stop selling Android phones," says Wang. Almost without exception, companies will simply adjust their feature sets, pay a fee for the patent, or find some other way to reach an agreement, and business as usual will resume.

Despite the seriousness of the issue, Stofega says patent litigation is unlikely to cause a full-blown disaster for the Android ecosystem.

"You get all [these arguments] between Android fanboys and Apple fanboys ... some of that gets into it and contributes to the hype," he says. Moreover, the latest injunctions against Samsung are far less of a threat to Android than the recent Oracle lawsuit that targeted the platform more directly.

"I don't think this is quite the apocalypse scenario that a lot of people make it out to be," he says.

So are the lawyers the only real winners here? "Exactly," says Stofega.

All three experts agree that one of the biggest losers in the ongoing patent battle is the consumer.

"Once we start to see bans on products, I feel consumers are losing out as devices are pulled from the market even before the case is decided," writes Milanesi.

"At some point, people have to come back to the table and negotiate over these things," Stofega says. "If not, then you're going to get an already-overburdened patent system that sort of created the problem getting even more overburdened ... at the end of the day, I don't know if the consumer really benefits."

"In the end, it all adds up to the customers ultimately losing," says Wang.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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