[Update] The first version of this post did not list Microsoft's license deal with Coby Electronics, announced in July 2012. As a result, the deal count was 19, though 20 is right. [/Update]
This morning's most significant smartphone patent news comes out of Asia: Hon Hai, the parent company of Foxconn (manufacturer of more than 40 percent of the world's consumer electronics), signed a worldwide patent license agreement with Microsoft to address infringement issues created by Google's Android and Chrome operating systems. Microsoft has entered into license agreements with numerous device makers (including Samsung, HTC and LG) as well as contract manufacturers.
The fact that any Android and Chrome devices made by the Hon Hai group in the future will result in royalty payments to Microsoft is, in and of itself, bad news for Google, which has flatly denied that Android devices need a patent license from Microsoft even though its own Motorola Mobility subsidiary has in practical terms already lost its own patent dispute with Microsoft by a wide margin. The following statement by Hon Hai must be a huge disappointment for Google as it reflects a respectful approach to intellectual property of the kind Google is not really known for:
"Hon Hai is the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer that holds more than 54,000 patents worldwide," said Samuel Fu, director of the Intellectual Property Department at Hon Hai. "We recognize and respect the importance of international efforts that seek to protect intellectual property. The licensing agreement with Microsoft represents those efforts and our continued support of international trade agreements that facilitate implementation of effective patent protection."
The previous day, Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt announced 1.5 million Android device activations per day and predicted that one billion Android devices would be in use by the end of the year. But this success is built in no small part on intellectual property belonging to third parties including Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, Oracle, and probably many others, given how many patent infringement claims have been brought against Android over the lsat couple of years, including by large players such a British Telecom. The infringement issues to which Google exposes the Android ecosystem need to be addressed, and this costs money, which in turn may affect Android's longer-term competitiveness.
The Microsoft-Hon Hai patent license agreement is already the 20th announced Android patent license deal (there may very well be other deals that were struck but not announced). Here's a chronological list of all announcements to date:
April 27, 2010: Microsoft Announces Patent Agreement With HTC
June 27, 2011: Microsoft and General Dynamics Itronix Sign Patent Agreement ("Agreement will cover General Dynamics Itronix devices running the Android platform.") (FOSS Patents coverage)
September 28, 2011: Microsoft and Samsung Broaden Smartphone Partnership ("Under the terms of the agreement, Microsoft will receive royalties for Samsung's mobile phones and tablets running the Android mobile platform.") (FOSS Patents coverage)
April 30, 2012: Barnes & Noble and Microsoft Form Strategic Partnership to Advance World-Class Digital Reading Experiences for Consumers" ("Barnes & Noble and Microsoft have settled their patent litigation, and moving forward, Barnes & Noble and Newco will have a royalty-bearing license under Microsoft's patents for its NOOK eReader and Tablet products.") (FOSS Patents coverage)
July 9, 2012: Microsoft and Coby Electronics Sign Patent Agreement Covering Android and Chrome Based Devices ("Although the contents of the agreement have not been disclosed, the parties indicate that Microsoft will receive royalties from Coby under the agreement.")
November 7, 2012: Microsoft Signs Licensing Agreements for exFAT With Sharp, Sigma, NextoDi, Black Magic and Atomos Global ("The agreements cover Sharp Android tablets, Sigma and NextoDi high-end cameras and accessories, and Black Magic and Atomos Global broadcast-quality video-recording devices.")
- December 11, 2012: Microsoft and Hoeft & Wessel AG Sign Patent Agreement ("Agreement will cover Hoeft & Wessel devices running the Android platform.") (FOSS Patents coverage)
April 16 (U.S.)/17 (Asia/Europe), 2013: Microsoft and Foxconn Parent Hon Hai Sign Patent Agreement For Android and Chrome Devices ("Agreement provides broad coverage under Microsoft's patent portfolio to manufacturer of more than 40 percent of the world's consumer electronics.")
Which deal will be number 21 on this list? There can always be surprises, just like the Microsoft-Hon Hai announcement was not preceded by any rumors about negotiations. It was stated in open court last month that Nokia and ViewSonic are in negotiations, and a deal between them, which would also involve Android, could be imminent. I also believe it won't take too long before Google's Motorola Mobility subsidiary will be added to this list. It has zero leverage against Microsoft with its own patents (I'm sure it will lose another decision in Mannheim on Friday), but it has been found to infringe various Microsoft patents, and the next injunction may very well affect the Google Maps service in Germany beyond Motorola's Android-based devices.
I also believe it won't be long before HTC settles with Nokia.
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