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Defense Contractor Heeds Microsoft's Patent War Cry

Defense Contractor Heeds Microsoft's Patent War Cry

Defense contractor General Dynamics Itronix has agreed to pay Microsoft licensing fees in order to avoid possible trouble over the contractor's use of Android in some of its products. Android, according to Microsoft, violates various Redmond patents, and the software maker is attempting to draw companies that use Android into licensing deals that will protect them from possible future litigation.

By Richard Adhikari
06/28/11 5:00 AM PT

Microsoft scored a victory Monday when defense contractor General Dynamics' Itronix division agreed to pay it licensing fees for using the Android operating system.

Itronix makes rugged mobile computers for military, law enforcement, first responder and field service use.

Microsoft's assertions of patent rights over Android and subsequent demands for licensing fees are controversial.

Some devices makers that use Android, such as Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC, have ponied up in response to Redmond's demands for licensing fees.

However, others, such as Barnes & Noble and Motorola, are fighting Microsoft in court.

"Microsoft's under threat, and part of the threat is that Android is a free operating system, while Windows Phone 7 is not free," Joshua Greenman, president of Mercury Development, told LinuxInsider.

"Microsoft's trying to do the same thing with Android that it's been trying to do with Linux -- make the argument that there's a high cost of ownership for these platforms -- and back up its claims with patent lawsuits," Greenman said.

Microsoft spokesperson Annie Truong declined to discuss the issue.

The Itronix Jab

Itronix's products include the GD300, an eight-ounce device that runs Android and can be worn on the user's forearm.

Think of a PIP-Boy from the "Fallout" series of video games, or of the monster in "Predator" and the computer on its forearm.

Itronix's capitulation to Microsoft's demand for licensing fees on Android further strengthens Redmond's assertion that it holds patents used in that operating system.

"Companies like General Dynamics have massive legal departments and wouldn't pay a fee if they didn't think they owed the money," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, pointed out.

Itronix did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Android, Redmond's Secret Money-Maker

The Android operating system is apparently a cash cow for Microsoft.

Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer HTC is reportedly paying Microsoft US$5 for every Android handset it sells, Citi analyst Walter Pritchard has reportedly stated.

Redmond is apparently looking to collect $7.50 to $12.50 per device from other makers of Android handsets, Pritchard says.

"By definition, Microsoft's assertion of patent rights over Android has legs because some people are paying licensing fees," Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC, told LinuxInsider.

The Linux-y Roots of Android's Problem

Android's based on Linux, and perhaps that's where the complications begin. Microsoft claimed back in 2007 that free software violated at least 235 of its patents.

The Linux kernel in particular violates 42 Microsoft patents, Horacio Gutierrez, Redmond's deputy general counsel of intellectual property and licensing, has previously stated.

Google didn't amass patents to cover its technologies, and is now paying for that oversight, Enderle suggested.

Fighting Back Against Redmond

Motorola Mobility and Barnes & Noble, which makes the Nook e-reader, are battling Microsoft in court over licensing fees for using Android.

Redmond filed suit against Motorola simultaneously in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington and the U.S. International Trade Commission in October.

Microsoft's argument got a boost earlier this month when Administrative Law Judge Theodore R. Essex, acting on behalf of the ITC filing, ruled in Microsoft's favor 17 times on the meaning of terms used in the nine patents in question. He ruled in Motorola's favor five times.

Motorola spokesperson Kira Lee Golin declined comment because the litigation is pending.

Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble's opposition to Microsoft's lawsuit is that Redmond's using patents that cover arbitrary, outmoded or non-essential design features.

So why didn't Barnes & Noble cut out those features from its version of Android for the Nook?

"This is why that defense is likely to fail," Enderle opined. "If they don't need the features they should never have used them, and they should have no problem stopping their use," he added.

"Patents are valid for many years, and by the time they expire, they might well be outmoded," IDC's Hilwa stated.

"When you go to court, you may have the patents reviewed to see whether they're valid, and that seems to be what Barnes & Noble is trying to do," Hilwa speculated.

Barnes & Noble didn't respond to requests for comment by press time.


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