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Grow up, Google: You're threatening IT growth

The Montessori School of screwing-up-your-IP-strategy

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Comment Google's stroppy-teenager ethos to intellectual property has been noted here before. But the company's truculent and immature approach is having really serious consequences on its home turf. Google now poses a serious threat to the future of the most explosive new sector in IT hardware: the consumer tablet. And if Google doesn't grow up – fast – Apple will be handed a lucrative monopoly for years to come.

Here's the background. In just over a year Apple has created a huge new hardware market, with its iPad grossing almost as much revenue as PC veteran Dell. This is remarkable for a machine with no killer app, or even a compelling use case. The iPad doesn't do anything a laptop can't – but it makes a lot of things a little bit nicer.

Apple has demonstrated huge demand. And where there's demand, there should be a growing market – with opportunities for rivals. Microsoft doesn't have an offering, HP and RIM won't license their own, and Linux is not quite as mature or polished as device manufacturers want it to be. (More's the pity, with Mark Shuttleworth's Ubuntu still chasing the wrong target, insisting on creating a PlayMobil version of Mac OS X instead). That leaves Google's Android. Android is the industry's choice; it's their best bet to try and grab a slice of this market.

And Google has made a decent, workmanlike effort to create a tablet platform. It's also predictably unoriginal. Like Microsoft, Google's singular innovation has been its business model for paid search advertising. It can't get innovation from its brilliant engineers out to the market, and so copies, and copies, and copies. Companies that copy, and copy, and copy tend to run into IP issues.

"Nyah"

The specific problem is, faced with a patent situation, Google has played the game ineptly, and refuses to shoulder the consequences. This week we saw Apple win an injunction against Samsung, and another against Motorola. That's the two biggest players locked out. Google knows it is in patent trouble, but it won't indemnify the Android licensees. The Oracle case against Google also looms large, seeding uncertainty amongst OEMs and investors in the platform. When patent issues struck Linux seven years ago, platform investors rushed to reassure licensees they wouldn't feel the blowback. Sun and HP promised to indemnify their users. But Google feels its responsibility ends at its firewall.

Actually, it is worse than that. Google treated building up a defensive patent arsenal as a joke. When Nortel's patents came up for auction recently, Google made a succession of bids that were mathematical in-jokes – culminating in a bid of $3.14159 bn.

This must have been hilarious at school, but treating it as a Montessori class isn't appropriate when an IT sector hinges on a Google taking its responsibilities seriously.

Google has a deep problem here. It hates the idea of intellectual property (except its own), and this hatred is part of the company's DNA. IP has no place in the utopian paradise Google thinks it stewards. So Google sponsors front groups, think tanks, academic's legal departments, all waging the fight against copyright and patents. Much of this is documented for the first time in a new book by Robert Levine, Free Ride. And it goes to the top. Levine tells the story of journalist Ken Auletta, who wrote Googled: The End of the World As We Know It. Auletta was speaking to Sergey Brin.

"Why don't you give your book away for free?" Brin asked Auletta. The journalist explained that cash would help research the book, edit it, and promote it from the sea of dross on the internet.

The "usually voluable" Brin fell silent, as if the thought had never occurred to him. Page is even more naive, and much more combative.

Now when it comes to software patents, I'll agree there's a strong case for urgent reform. There are problems with large companies using them anti-competitively against startups, and problems for startups protecting their genuine innovations cheaply and quickly, as they deserve. There's a nest of issues here – and addressing them is going to be a long-term slog. In the short term, Google is killing the tablet market.

It may be better for everyone if it falls to someone other than Google to lead the IT industry's charge into the tablet market. Android has turned out to be a barren ground for OEMs. Google's insistence on taking revenue share will almost certainly lead to Android forking in the smartphone market: and it's already forked on the tablets, as analyst Benedict Evans has pointed out.

What outsiders, particularly in the non-technical, policy-making elites, need to remember is that when Google comes to the table, it has an axe to grind. Just like everyone else. ®

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