From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:
Now that Apple has scored a decisive win over Samsung in its smartphone patent trial, the big question is whether the maker of the iPhone and the iPad will go after the real enemy: Google. The search company is the maker of the Android software underlying Samsung’s and many other companies’ mobile devices, after all.
But a direct shot at Google looks unlikely at this point for a variety of reasons:
* Apple’s schoolyard bully strategy of going after the legal weaklings like Samsung worked like a charm, so it’s likely to continue going after hardware firms such as HTC and the now Google-owned Motorola Mobility, rather than Google directly. There are many other cases involving those companies, as well as Samsung, around the world–plenty to keep Apple busy, especially now that it has such a clear victory to build upon.
Indeed, patent expert Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents, a persistent Google critic, thinks Apple is more likely to go after Amazon.com first. As Mueller told Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt: “If I were in Apple’s shoes the next company I would sue is not Google, but Amazon, which has an even weaker patent portfolio than Google and sells large volumes of Android-based devices with a subsidies-centric revenue model, which is even more of a threat to Apple’s margins than Google’s advertising-based model.”
* Other hardware makers may now decide to settle with Apple, ratcheting down the need for Apple to go after Google. Analyst after analyst notes that with the clear loss for Samsung, the leader among Android device makers, other firms may decide it’s not worth continuing a fight they now seem more likely to lose.
* Apple looks less likely to win a patent infringement case versus Google. For one, Google itself mostly makes only software, and although its Nexus S device co-branded with manufacturer Samsung was identified by the jury as infringing Apple’s patents, it’s the only one and it’s not clear whether a single device provides a strong case for a separate suit. (It’s also not on Apple’s list of Samsung products it wants banned from sale.)
What’s more, Google doesn’t charge hardware companies for using Android, relying instead on ad revenues derived from Android device use, so there may not be much for Apple to sue about. Finally, let’s not forget that Android existed well before the iPhone came out–in fact, Google bought the company that made it in 2005, two years before the first iPhone. That doesn’t guarantee that whatever Google has done with Android since then is on firm patent ground, but it doesn’t seem a stretch to cast doubt in a jury’s collective mind that Android is simply copying iOS when Android the company clearly predates the iPhone.
Not least, Google has pockets deep enough to counter whatever legal threats Apple throws at it. Indeed, this ruling could well galvanize Google’s mostly passive efforts so far to protect Android hardware licensees. Apple may get all it wants from going after hardware producers, given that Apple makes most of its money from hardware itself.
* Apple has already gotten what it wanted from Google with this ruling: the likelihood that Google will have to change aspects of Android to avoid infringement, potentially reducing the competitiveness of Android devices. As Needham & Co.’s Charles Wolf writes: “Google will be forced to design workarounds of the violated software patents, which was the intent of Apple’s lawsuit, not the monetary award. These workarounds are likely to materially degrade the Android user experience relative to the user experience on Apple’s iOS operating system.”
* Google itself may start talking with Apple about some kind of way to avoid litigation. Wells Fargo Securities’ Maynard Um told investors in a note today that the $250 million or more that Apple could get in licensing fees from Samsung–not to mention additional fees from other device makers that may settle or lose in court as well–would be significant enough for Apple to be worthwhile. Add Google in there, and it may be a cash flow Apple can’t resist. After all, it apparently already offered a royalty deal to Samsung, whose rejection led to Apple’s suit.
One might wonder why Apple would feel the need to deal. …