Thursday, January 3, 2013

Based on Google's stance on API copyrightability, Samsung could make Android apps run on Tizen

Samsung today confirmed its plan to release during the course of 2013 multiple mobile phones running the Tizen platform, which is supported by companies including Intel, Vodafone and NTT DoCoMo, and Linux-based like Android. A Bloomberg report on this announcement says "Samsung looks to reduce its reliance on Google (GOOG) Inc.'s Android operating system after the Internet search company acquired handset maker Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. for $12.5 billion in May".

Samsung is rightly concerned about what Google will ultimately do with Motorola Mobility. Google's plan to use MMI's patents to bring about global patent peace has not worked out at all. And there comes a point at which Android will be perceived by many consumers as a Samsung platform -- because of the ubiquity of the Korean electronics giant's gadgets. Also, more and more end users become accustomed to Samsung's proprietary extensions on top of Android, named Touchwiz.

At some point Samsung may determine that Tizen meets its strategic needs better than Android does. For example, Samsung may want more freedom to partner with other providers of online services and/or to increasingly promote its own offerings. This would lead to a potentially irreconcilable conflict between the two companies.

In this scenario Google might hope that Samsung is going to remain focused on Android (and play by Google's rules) because of the huge number of existing apps. Even Samsung's strategy of hedging its bets with Tizen is not going to make the whole app developer community flock to that platform. But with both Android and Tizen being based on Linux, wouldn't it make a lot of sense to create an interface that enables most (or, at some point, all) existing Android apps to run on Tizen? Sort of an emulator? In that case, Samsung's customers could switch from Android to Tizen in a fairly smooth transition. Samsung would have to leave the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) for fragmentation of Android, but that wouldn't really matter at that point.

Over time, the Tizen engine for Android apps could even have unique functionality that would render apps optimized for Tizen incompatible with Android.

Granted, this is speculative. But this has happened before. When Google launched Android, it understood that it needed a large and diverse choice of apps, and in order to attract app developers, it provided them with a programming environment derived from Java. And it did this without a license from Sun Microsystems, which became a wholly-owned Oracle subsidiary three years ago. At the same time, it also hijacked Linux, using large amounts of Linux API material.

When Oracle decided to take legal action against this allegedly "lawless conduct", Google defended itself primarily with the argument that any material it appropriated was not protected under copyright law. Google didn't deny that it used Java API material: it merely disputed that there was anything unlawful about it.

Judge William Alsup in the Northern District of California sided with Google on this one. Oracle appealed his ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The appeal focuses exclusively on the copyright part of the case (which originally also involved seven patents).

As the saying goes, "live by the sword, die by the sword". Google would have to contradict its own positions on API copyrightability if Samsung decided to do to Android what Google did (and continues to be doing) to Java.

If Oracle's appeal succeeds and some or all of the appropriated API material is declared copyrightable, Google will have to work out a deal with Oracle. But in that event it will also be in a position to make it much harder for Samsung to supplant Android with Tizen.

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