Apple's HTC lawsuit: Is it biting off more than it can sue?

Apple's high-profile patent lawsuit vs. HTC could set off a wide range of unintended consequences including a big two-front legal battle with well-heeled foes like Google and Microsoft. Can Apple really win a legal showdown with both Google and Microsoft?

Apple's high-profile patent lawsuit vs. HTC could set off a wide range of unintended consequences including a big two-front legal battle with well-heeled foes like Google and Microsoft. As noted by CNet's Maggie Reardon, Apple's motives so far are unclear. On the surface, it appears that Apple wants to merely push aside HTC, an emerging smartphone threat. Zoom out a bit and you could picture a patent war on the horizon. Apple isn't in the patent game for revenue or cross licensing deals---the motive of many patent lawsuits. Apple is looking to use patents as a moat around its iPhone juggernaut.

But let's fast forward a bit. Apple's lawsuit against HTC and Android (and Google by proxy) is likely to bring the search giant into the legal mix at some point. Google will stand behind Android. The wild card is Microsoft. Apple didn't call Microsoft out by name, but the HTC devices mentioned in its complaint run on Windows Mobile.

Also see: HTC responds to Apple - the long-term hit? · Apple sues HTC

The HTC phones specifically mentioned in Apple's complaint include:

  • Nexus One;
  • Touch Pro;
  • Touch Diamond;
  • Touch Pro 2;
  • Tilt II;
  • Pure;
  • Imagio;
  • Dream;
  • myTouch 3G;
  • Hero;
  • HD2;
  • and Droid Eris.

While Android is mentioned heavily in Apple's complaint it needs to be noted that the Touch Pro 2, Touch Diamond, Imagio, Pure and Tilt II are Windows Mobile phones.

Update: In the talkbacks there are questions about whether the phones above are Windows Mobile phones. Here are the links for cross reference purposes: HTC's Windows Mobile phones (listed above and in the lawsuit). And the HTC's Android lineup.

The Microsoft-powered HTC phones are cited in Apple's complaint for violating digital signal processing patent, which is also in the middle of the Nokia patent fight too.

The excerpt from the complaint:

Meanwhile, there has been some indirect back and forth over multitouch patents with Microsoft and Apple before.

Reardon's money quote comes from Jason Schultz, director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law:

"If Apple just wants to push one competitor out of the way, then it may not implicate Google or Microsoft at all. But if they are staking out their turf and letting everyone know that they own the whole touchscreen smartphone market, then there will be a showdown."

That's a showdown Apple can't be serious about. Apple has a ton of cash, but so does Google and Microsoft. Apple vs. a tag team of lawyers from Google and Microsoft is an unwinnable war.

What could Apple be thinking?

Perhaps Apple just wants to squash iPhone lookalikes, but is that really the best use of the company's time? HTC is clearly the weakest legal link in this chain. HTC doesn't have the history or bag of patent tricks to fight Apple well.

Apple could be hoping for a chilling effect from other handset makers looking to avoid a legal battle. But Apple is walking a tightrope. It needs to whack HTC without drawing Google and Microsoft into the fight. Riddle me this: Can you realistically just focus on the hardware here? If so perhaps Apple can prosecute a surgical strike on HTC. The reality is that the smartphone software and hardware are intertwined. You can expect that Google and Microsoft will defend their code at some point.

Then the real legal fireworks will begin and Apple may find out it bit off more than it can sue.


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