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Larry vs. Larry

A San Francisco courtroom is presently the center ring in the worldwide tech IP litigation circus. While other legal battles over mobile device patents and copyrights are as down and dirty as ever in places like Germany, Australia, and elsewhere in the U.S., the fight between Oracle and Google over the alleged theft of Java technologies stands out due to its cast of characters. The plaintiff started things off with an appearance from Oracle CEO and virtuoso trash-talker Larry Ellison, and then Google CEO Larry Page took the stand in his company’s defense.

The trial also stands out due to what’s at stake: On the line is potentially the future of the smartphone industry, not to mention a billion-dollar damages claim leveled by Oracle. That’s the amount the company maintains it’s lost thanks to Google’s allegedly illegal use of Java code. Oracle acquired the rights to Java when it bought up Sun Microsystems in 2010, and it says Google ripped off the technology in order to build parts of Android, its mobile operating system. Google says it did nothing of the sort.

What makes the case murky is that Java is freely distributed — but users still must obtain a license.

The Larry-on-Larry action kicked off Tuesday with testimony from Ellison, who’s never short on words when given a public forum for criticizing his enemies. He told the court that Google is the only company he knows of that doesn’t have a license for Java. He implied Google created a “cheap knockoff” of his company’s product. Oracle’s lawyers also produced emails exchanged between top Google staffers, including Page, back before Oracle bought Sun. In them they discussed whether Google should get a license for Java or just plow ahead without one and deal with the consequences.

But Ellison’s past came back to bite him too. Google attorneys dug up a 2010 speech he gave to developers in which he said they should be flattered that Android used Java.

Apparently one of Team Google’s goals is to convince the court that Oracle was a one-time wannabe player in the smartphone world, but it decided that making a phone or software would be too difficult, so instead it’s using the lawsuit as a way to shake Google down for a bite of Android’s profits. Ellison admitted on the stand that Oracle at one time considered buying RIM or Palm but never actually went through with it.

Next up was Google’s Larry Page. Courtroom accounts state that his grilling had the CEO staring at the ceiling sometimes when asked about various conversations that supposedly took place. The phrases “I don’t know” and “I don’t recall” were frequently repeated. When the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we-get-a-license email was brought up, he claimed not to remember the exchange and to barely remember the employee on the other end of it, Tim Lindholm. Sorry, Tim.

The trial could drag on at length, and that billion-dollar damages claim isn’t the only thing at stake. An Oracle win would be a big shock to the system for the smartphone market — Google might have to rebuild a huge chunk of Android to eliminate the offending code, or pay up for proper license agreements.

But regardless of whether Google successfully defends itself, the splashback may also hurt Oracle, depending on how much it cares about Java as a technology rather than as a basis for a huge lawsuit. The sight of Oracle releasing the hounds on Google could have a chilling effect on the use of Java in general. With this suit, Oracle’s sending the message that now that it’s in charge of Java, it intends to keep it under tight control — and sue the pants off anyone who colors outside the lines.

Listen to the podcast (14:26 minutes).

Make Up, You Two

Another high-profile IP lawsuit in the mobile world may soon be put to be put to bed much more quietly — or not.

Federal Judge Lucy Koh has told Apple and Samsung to sit down and at least try to settle the patent infringement suit between the companies that’s currently on her docket. The California suit was filed by Apple, which at one point tried to block sales of four Samsung products in the U.S., including a few smartphones and the Galaxy Tab 10.1. That motion was denied, but the case marches on.

Koh wants the two companies to hash the matter out in private within 90 days, and according to court documents, the CEOs of Apple and Samsung Electronics — Tim Cook and Geesung Choi, respectively — will be in attendance.

It’s not uncommon for judges to order a trip to the negotiating table, and sometimes being forced there by a third party is really all it takes to get the ball rolling. Neither side wants to appear weak by being first to suggest a truce, but if a judge puts them in the same room, an agreement may eventually be reached.

The fact that the top executives at both companies will be at the table indicates they’re serious about cutting a deal — perhaps a very big one. Or maybe they just want to get within punching distance of each other and figured this would be a good opportunity.

This is only one battle among many all over the world that Apple and Samsung are fighting with each other, of course, but high-level settlement talks in one case could involve some de-escalation of hostilities in other theaters too.

In the meantime, the patent war machine’s wheels keep rolling. A filing in a different Apple v. Samsung case has been made recently, and the timing is interesting. Not 48 hours after the settlement order was issued, Samsung threw an eight-bladed counterclaim at Apple in a separate patent case — incidentally one that’s also playing out in California.

The timing was apparently out of necessity. Samsung had a court deadline it had to abide by. But the move could add another degree of tension to the negotiation talks, and perhaps it’ll make Samsung look a little tougher when the talks actually happen.

The patents cited in Samsung’s counterclaim could turn around and bite the company in its back, though. Two of them are so-called FRAND patents — patents for technologies that are deemed so vital to industry standards that they must be made relatively easy and cheap to license.

Samsung’s alleged stinginess with its FRAND patents has already earned it some unwanted scrutiny from European antitrust regulators. Bringing FRAND patents into a lawsuit’s offensive team will probably be frowned upon by the EC, even if the case is limited to the U.S. So using those assets to build a patent case against Apple in the U.S. could help build an antitrust case against Samsung in Europe.

Litmus Test

Windows Phone is a relatively young mobile operating system. It got off the ground years after heavyweights like iOS and Android. It started its life as Windows Phone 7, and now it’s getting ready to make its first full-version jump, from Windows Phone 7.5, aka “Mango,” to Windows Phone 8, nicknamed “Apollo.”

But there arose some confusion recently about what path the upgrade would follow — one on which current Windows Phone owners will get the new software when it eventually comes out, or one on which early adopters are ignored and getting the next version requires buying an all-new phone.

The tangle kicked off with the posting of a video on which a developer evangelist said Mango users would indeed get a taste of Apollo. Later he backtracked, claiming he meant that Apollo would be backward-compatible with existing WinPho apps. Different.

Now current users are concerned their handsets will be been dead-ended, and it seems Microsoft still hasn’t officially made up its mind one way or another.

Which way Microsoft decides to go with this decision could have big implications for the future of the platform. Windows Phone occupies a middle ground between the two biggest mobile OSes on the market — Android and iOS. On one end, you have iOS, which only appears on Apple’s own devices and is very strictly controlled by the company. On the other, there’s Android, an OS that’s distributed freely to anyone who wants to build an Android gadget, regardless of whether that gadget is garbage or golden.

But in between is WinPho, over which Microsoft holds total control, like Apple over iOS. But like Android, WinPho is found on a variety of different devices from different manufacturers, and even though Microsoft has set strict ground rules for the features and technologies a phone must have to run its mobile OS, it still has to deal with a handful of different companies that make the devices.

Microsoft’s decision on the upgrade issue will indicate whether it leans left or right when it comes to giving users new software. Apple’s very clear about which iPhones will work with new iOS versions when they’re released, and compatibility normally spans two or three generations of phones — though once in while an older model will seriously strain under the weight of the new software.

But due to Android’s free nature, it’s up to phone makers themselves to take a newly issued version of Android, fix it up for whatever old handsets they still have in circulation, and push it out to users — or not do that, as the case may be. Promises are rare, and availability sometimes takes a while, if it comes at all.

With Apollo, it seems we’ll get to see what degree of upgrade angst Windows Phone users can expect.

Go Your Own Way

When it was revealed recently that Facebook had agreed to pay $1 billion to acquire Instagram, critics of the deal wondered how Facebook’s board came to the conclusion that a year-and-a-half-old mobile photo-sharing network was worth that kind of money.

It turns out, it didn’t — not in a deliberate and thoughtful way, at least. That’s because the board didn’t have time to be very deliberate or thoughtful. CEO Mark Zuckerberg informed members of his decision to buy Instagram just a few hours before the deal was made, according to insights in The Wall Street Journal. He and Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom did most of the haggling privately at Zuckerberg’s own home before finally settling on an even billion. Only when the deal was all but clinched did Zuckerberg inform his board about the situation, though at that point it was probably more like he was telling them rather than asking them.

Whether Zuckerberg made a good decision to pay that much for Instagram is still up in the air, and it’ll depend a lot on what Facebook actually does with the service now that it has it.

But the fact that he just went ahead and made the buy apparently with no real consultation with his board of directors speaks to Zuckerberg’s style of running the company: When something looks like a good opportunity, don’t sit around scratching your head and asking a million people for advice on every possible angle and eventuality. Just take it, or else someone else will. And if a problem comes up later, it’ll all be sorted out in time. Pain is temporary, glory is forever. In fact, you could say that approach has been a characteristic of the company since Day One, depending on how much of “The Social Network” you believe is true.

It’s one of the factors that have contributed to Facebook’s rise. In fact, Facebook seems to thrive on unpredictability and the assumption that it really can do whatever the hell it wants.

But can that approach survive the changes in store for Facebook over the next few weeks? Instagram might have been Zuckerberg’s last chance to make a power play like that, in light of Facebook’s plans to go public a few weeks from now. As soon as the social network puts its shares up for grabs, investors could demand a lot more accountability — such as having more than one person know what’s going on when a billion-dollar deal is on the table.

TV in a Box

Furniture mega-retailer Ikea has brought many things to the U.S. — Swedish Fish, umlauts, millions of tons of particle board, and an inconceivable number of free hex keys. Maybe soon it’ll also free its American customers from the tyranny of the rat’s nest of cables many of us have stuffed behind our living room entertainment centers.

Ikea’s Uppleva series blends furniture with home electronics, sort of like those giant coffin-sized stereo consoles from the ’60s. Uppleva is a full home entertainment system built into a single cabinet using electronics from Chinese manufacturer TCL. It packs a flat-screen TV, speakers and a DVD, CD and Blu-ray player. It’s WiFi-ready, and there’s even a wireless subwoofer you can stash anywhere in the room.

Everything’s built right into the cabinet. That eliminates that fearsome, hard-to-hide tangle of wires that usually accumulates behind component systems. Rather than laying out an array of dusty black boxes, the cabinet’s facade allows a remote control signal to pass through while it keeps its insides hidden from view.

Uppleva could prove to be an easy solution for people who don’t want to bother stacking and hooking up a complete entertainment system — or those who don’t know how to do it. Another hassle it eliminates is remote control sprawl — the armory of clickers a viewer needs to keep at the ready when watching TV on a big, built-out component system. With Uppleva, everything’s controlled by a single handheld.

That simplicity may come at the cost of versatility, though. In the U.S., some cable companies insist on having customers use a clunky, old set-top box of their own branding, and it’s unclear whether those can be smoothly integrated into an Uppleva system. Those who use video game consoles, home theater PCs and other extra add-ons may want to ask about available options and take a close look at the back end of one of theses sets to find out whether those items can be shoe-horned in.

But those who just want an uncomplicated and decent-looking TV setup without having to break out the zip ties may see some potential with Uppleva. The sets will come in a variety of screen sizes and colors, and they’ll start for around $955. U.S. residents may have to wait a while to get their hands on one, though — initial launch markets are Sweden, France, Poland, Germany and Italy.

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