Patent madness! A timeline of the Android patent wars

A suit-by-suit chronicle of what companies have sued Android vendors and how Google has tried to counter such suits

History may look at Android as the tech industry's Helen of Troy: The OS that launched a thousand suits.

Every single week seems to bring new suits and countersuits revolving around software patents allegedly being infringed upon by Android-based smartphones and tablets. Because the history of the Android patent wars is so long and involved, we've created this handy timeline to give you a suit-by-suit chronicle of what companies have sued Android vendors and how Google has tried to counter such suits.

March 2010: Apple gets the ball rolling by filing a lawsuit against HTC for allegedly infringing on 20 Apple patents. At the time Apple says that the patents in dispute relate to the iPhone's patented "user interface and the smartphone's underlying architecture and hardware."

April 2010: Microsoft strikes its first major blow in the Android patent wars by announcing that it has reached a licensing agreement with handset manufacturer HTC to pay royalties to Microsoft in exchange for the right to sell Android-based devices. By this time Microsoft has also started negotiations with Android vendors such as Sony Ericsson about potential licensing deals.

BACKGROUND: Google lashes out at patent trolls with Motorola buy

August 2010: Oracle files a patent-and-copyright infringement suit against Google over the use of its Java programming language in Android.

October 2010: Microsoft takes off the gloves and sues Motorola for selling Android-based phones that allegedly infringe upon Microsoft patents. Microsoft general counsel Horacio Gutierrez says that some of the patents in dispute related to Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync while others relate to on-screen displays for signal strength and battery power. Microsoft also buys dozens of smartphone patents formerly owned by Palm, further strengthening its smartphone patent portfolio.

November 2010: Vertical Computer Systems becomes the next company to file suit against vendors over alleged Android patent infringements, this time against Samsung and LG.

March 2011: Microsoft grows even more ambitious in its patent litigation by filing suit against Barnes & Noble over its use of Android as the operating system of its Nook e-reader.

June 2011: Two minor hardware players, Velocity Micro and General Dynamics, come to terms with Microsoft on a licensing agreement similar to the one Microsoft and HTC forged more than a year prior.

July 2011: Google's headaches continue to mount as the company loses its bid to obtain valuable patents formerly held by Nortel to an industry consortium that included Apple and Microsoft. And Google doesn't just lose, it loses badly as its initial bid of $900 million for the patents is easily bested by the consortium's final winning bid of $4.5 billion. In all, Nortel sold more than 6,000 patents that covered technologies such as 4G wireless, data networking and voice.

And the bad news for Google keeps rolling in from there as HTC loses in the International Trade Commission's initial ruling in its dispute with Apple. If the ITC's judgment is made final later this year it could mean a ban on importing HTC's Android phones into the U.S.

The one bright spot for Google during the month is its acquisition of more than 1,000 patents from IBM that bolsters its overall patent portfolio, but that doesn't do much to blunt lawsuits against Android vendors since the patents mainly cover the architecture of memory and microprocessing chips rather than mobile operating systems.

August 2011: Google starts to get serious in its efforts to defend Android vendors when it pays $12.5 billion to acquire Motorola Mobility and its extensive portfolio of around 24,500 patents. Google CEO Larry Page says that the company's foray into the patent wars will benefit its Android partners since the company is still dedicated to keeping Android an open mobile operating system.

"This acquisition will not change our commitment to run Android as an open platform," Page emphasizes. "Motorola will remain a licensee of Android and Android will remain open. We will run Motorola as a separate business. Many hardware partners have contributed to Android's success and we look forward to continuing to work with all of them to deliver outstanding user experiences."

This still doesn't slow down worldwide patent suits against Android vendors, however, as Samsung agrees to not sell its Android-based Galaxy Tab 10.1 in Australia until it resolves a patent dispute with Apple and a Dutch court issues an injunction ordering the immediate halt of sales for Samsung's Android-based Galaxy smartphones.

September 2011: Samsung vows revenge against Apple by claiming that it will block sales of the iPhone 5 whenever it goes on sale in Samsung's native Korea. According to a report in the Korea Times, Samsung will sue Apple for alleged patent infringements against its wireless technology-related patents. Something tells us this will be far from the last Android-related patent suit to hit the wires by the end of the year.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

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Brad Reed

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