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Tech companies are playing hardball on smart phones, but Linux could gain the upper hand with Intel and Nokia going on the defensive with MeeGo.

To get you on Facebook while on the bus, play a tune, and - oh, yeah - make a call, Microsoft and Apple are finding new ways to rein in the competition on phones: they're using patent threats.

HTC last week accepted an offer it couldn't refuse from Microsoft: protection - called "broad coverage" - under Microsoft's patent portfolio for HTC devices running Google's Android.

The suggestion was that Google's Android Linux violated some claimed - but as yet studiously not named by Microsoft - Linux patents. Or was Microsoft acting the white knight, as some have suggested, by jumping in to defend partner HTC against prosecution by Apple?

That seems unlikely. Microsoft refused to comment on the details of its agreement with HTC, citing "confidentiality", but vice president and deputy general counsel of intellectual property and licensing Horacio Gutierrez made it clear Microsoft has a real problem with Android.

In a statement, Gutierrez cooed about the importance of patents and Microsoft's duty to shareholders and customers in denying competitors a "free ride," and held out the prospect of action against other companies building phones on Android. Those companies include Acer, Dell, LG, Motorola, and Samsung.

"We have ... consistently taken a proactive approach to licensing to resolve IP infringement by other companies, and have been talking with several device manufacturers to address our concerns relative to the Android mobile platform," Gutierrez said.

This is creating a great deal of confusion, leaving people uncertain about what patents are in question and whether or where Microsoft, Apple, or patent trolls will strike next.

It's also certain that the kind of trolls who buy and enforce patents and have only really concentrated on desktop and server Linux will follow the Applesoft radar blip onto the goldrush frontier of Linux on mobile phones and other consumer devices.

MeeGo, YouGo, WeAllGo

MeeGo, the latest mobile-Linux effort - this time from Intel and Nokia - reckons it might have a chance with patents, too. Only instead of chasing people for royalties, they will use patents to protect those who adopt MeeGo against opportunistic trolls and companies like Microsoft that might decide one day that the best way to make some easy money or to hobble your business is by claiming patent infringement in the MeeGo Linux you are busy using on your smart phones.

Ari Jaaksi, Nokia's vice president of MeeGo devices, told The Reg Tuesday that Intel and Nokia could "guarantee and promise" that MeeGo is safe from any and all patent claims because of the size and breadth of the companies' patent portfolios, and also because of the size of Intel and Nokia themselves. MeeGo is based on the Linux kernel and uses common components such as X-Windows and Gstreamer.

"Both Nokia and Intel have a huge patent portfolio and we have put our investment into the standard Linux-based platform. That's a guarantee and promise that it's safe for anyone to take this platform because we will look after your investment with our patent platform," Jaaksi said.

"With the big patent portfolios already backing up MeeGo as an operating system, that should make some of the concerns go away... we'll defend that with our patent portfolio."

While it's nice of Intel and Nokia to turn patents back on themselves, the challenge will be whether MeeGo will be around long enough for Jaaksi's promise to have a practical impact.

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