Google is prepping a workaround for the Android mobile platform to replace the technology at the heart of an Apple lawsuit against Motorola Mobility in Germany. A court in Munich ruled Thursday that Motorola's current handset unlocking technology infringed on an Apple patent governing the unlocking of a device by performing gestures on an unlock image.
Industry observers have noted that the court's ruling is a permanent injunction that Apple can now attempt to enforce if it posts a bond. Given that Motorola has the option of appealing the court's decision, however, Apple would face a financial risk if it quickly moved to block Motorola's handset sales in Germany and then lost an appellate court decision.
Furthermore, the immediate effect of Thursday's ruling on Motorola's handset sales in Germany would be minimal, given that Motorola is already introducing a new software workaround.
"Motorola has implemented a new design for the feature," a Motorola Mobility spokesperson said in an e-mail Friday. "Therefore, we expect no impact on current supply or future sales."
A Win For Apple
Still, Thursday's ruling by Munich-based Judge Dr. Peter Guntz could potentially end up having a significant effect on Motorola Mobility, which Google is poised to acquire once all antitrust reviews have been completed by regulatory bodies around the world.
"There's no question that [Motorola] can keep their products available by modifying them," noted FOSS Patents blogger Florian Mueller. "But even with the current scope, this is largely a win for Apple."
Google filed a new "input to locked computing device" patent application at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Feb. 9. The move suggests that the Internet giant had been anticipating an Apple victory well in advance of the Munich court's final judgment.
Google's own patent filing describes several new methods for enabling user inputs to unlock computing devices from a locked state. Among other things, Android smartphones equipped with personalized voice recognition software will enable users to unlock their devices vocally or by simply dragging and dropping one icon on top on another, according to the Patently Apple Web site.
The Noose Around Android's Neck
On the other hand, it remains to be seen just how this new technology will affect the user experience of Motorola's products, Mueller said. Motorola really needs to implement "a workaround that does not come with a noticeable degradation of the user experience," Mueller wrote in a blog.
For Google, the goal is to offer some tangible relief to other Android handset vendors such as Samsung, which is likewise being sued by Apple in several courts globally. Apple claims in a California court filing that Samsung's new Galaxy Nexus smartphone also infringes on Apple's slide-to-unlock technology.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has launched its own lawsuit against Motorola in Germany governing a "soft input panel system and method" reputedly used in Motorola's Android-based devices.
"The noose keeps tightening around Android's neck in many ways," Mueller said. "With more and more patents being asserted against Android in different courts, Google needs to come up with a better way to address its intellectual property issues."
This is first and foremost a concern for device makers who are on a treadmill to modify their software, when frankly most of them want to move on to other devices, noted Al Hilwa, director of applications software development at IDC.
"Altering software after devices have been released is a costly proposition," Hilwa told us. "In fact," he said, "the update problem is another issue for Android in that the velocity of unmanaged change in the device ecosystem leaves precious few resources for device makers to invest in updating older devices."