Silicon Valley is getting lawyer happy. Last week, Facebook won a patent for the news feed, now an ubiquitous feature used, among other places, in Google Buzz. On Monday, Google won a patent for location-based advertising, the go-to business model for the budding location-based tech sector—a sector in which Apple is particular invested. And today Apple filed a suit against HTC for infringing on patents related to its interface. That’s a lot of paperwork for one week.
One reason for the legal melee is that the tech giants are becoming everything to everyone, and will inevitably step on each others’ toes. Google is now a Telecom (since promising to roll out 100mb networks), Apple is now a media company (since buying ad network Quattro Wireless), and Facebook has been an operating system since launching its platform for developers.
The playing field looks a little like pre-World War I geopolitics, complete with entangling alliances, military build-up and imperialism.
On Monday AT&T replaced the Google Search function on its first Android phone (Backflip) with Yahoo Search. That’s AT&T patting Apple's back (the two are together on the iPhone), because Google, since entering the mobile OS market, has become Apple’s enemy. It’s a particularly acute jab because Yahoo is allied via a search partnership with Google’s arch-enemy Microsoft.
Military Build Up
Jabs aside, all players are hoping to avoid all-out war by amassing stockpiles of weapons. It’s common practice for big firms to keep patents in their back pockets as defensive measures. As Kim-Mai Culter at VentureBeat points out, Google defied an Apple patent last month when it added mulit-touch functionality to its Android operating system. The location-based advertising patent it won Monday, (which was filed six years ago) may have given Google the confidence to step on Apple’s toes. There’s little doubt Apple will soon violate Google's location-based ads patent. Facebook may also want a piece of that ad technology, and can take it now that it has a news-feed patent to hold over Google's head (Buzz has a news feed in violation of Facebook's patent).
The App Store, Android Market and Facebook Platform: the Big Three have entire ecosystems of small startups dependant upon them. They all have a piece of the social territory, the geolocation territory, the news portal territory, the games territory.... Apple, for one, has shown it can be a rewarding dictator—it has the highest percentage of paid apps and brings the most wealth to its ecosystem of independent developers, but it can also be a severe overloard, shutting down apps when it suits the crown’s interests. Developers will grow in loyalty to one or two of the empires. Techies love to take sides.
For now, the balance of power appears secure, thanks to the mutual threat of crippling lawsuits, lurking like bombs tucked away in submarines beneath the placid surface of neutral seas.