How Google's stealth support is buoying Samsung in Apple fight

The tech titan has been quietly providing support to several Android partners battling Apple patent suits, CNET has learned.

CNET

Google may have kept a low profile amid the legal clashing between Samsung Electronics and Apple, but the company hasn't abandoned its Android partners.

Rather, Google has been quietly lending support, coordinating with Samsung over legal strategies, providing advice, doing extra legwork, and searching for prior evidence, CNET has learned from people familiar with the situation. Last month, Google asked the U.S. International Trade Commission to intervene on HTC's behalf in its case against Nokia. In addition, many of the companies that rely on Google's Android operating system to power their handsets, coincidentally or not, have tapped Google's law firm of choice.

The steps Google has taken to aid its allies illustrate the tenuous line the company walks as Apple wages war against many of them. Though Google and its Android platform have a vested interest in Google partners succeeding, the company has yet to directly take on Apple itself.

"Google will want to stay away from this trial as much as possible," said Neil Shah, an analyst at Strategy Analytics. "They don't want to directly confront Apple."

Apple filed a lawsuit last year accusing Samsung of violating patents involved in the creation of the iPhone and iPad. The trial, which has captivated the tech sector, began last week and is expected to last late into the month (read CNET's full coverage here). The parties are due back in court this morning.

Apple's various lawsuits represent an attempt to slow the momentum that Android has enjoyed over the last few years. While the iPhone 4S remains a phenomenally successful single device, there are scores of Android phones constantly flooding the market, ever extending Google's reach with consumers. As of the second quarter, Android phones represented more than half of the smartphone market, compared with the one-third share for Apple, according to market research firm ComScore.

The squabble has centered on the look and feel of Samsung's phones, from the hardware to the software. The latter, of course, is Google's Android. Apple, however, hasn't accused Google of being a copycat in any litigation.

Instead Apple has hammered on Samsung for making changes to its software to make its products look more like the iPhone at a software level. And on the outside, Apple has accused Samsung of mimicking visual features like the metallic bezel and rounded corners. In turn, Samsung has responded by noting that the Android-specific buttons on the front of its phones offer ways to differentiate the companies' products from one another.

Other than that, Google's name hasn't come up much in the trial.

A curious link
Nonetheless, Google still has one important link to the case: Quinn Emanuel.

The firm representing Samsung has become Google's law firm of choice in matters of intellectual property. Quinn Emanuel lawyers have represented the search company in numerous patent and copyright cases.

It just so happens that Quinn Emanuel attorney Charles Verhoeven, one of the lead lawyers for Samsung, is also representing HTC and Motorola, two of Google's Android partners, in patent litigation brought against them by Apple. Quinn Emanuel also represented Barnes & Noble, which uses Android as the operating system for its Nook e-book readers, when Microsoft accused the book merchant of violating its patents.

That case was settled in April.

Maybe it's a coincidence that Google's Android partners favor Quinn Emanuel. But some observers are skeptical. In March 2011, The Am Law Daily, a trade publication that covers the law and litigation, reported that "while Verhoeven and Google won't comment specifically, lawyers familiar with the cases speculate that Google is providing Verhoeven's services under an indemnity agreement reached with its Android partners."

If true, that means Google might be picking up some of the tab for Samsung's litigation. A Google representative declined to comment.

Gearing up for the next battle
The case between Apple and Samsung being heard in San Jose, Calif., isn't even a high priority for Google, sources said. The parties are fighting over Samsung's essential wireless patents and Apple's design and feature patents, areas where Google hasn't much of a stake.

The litigation that is much more likely to draw Google and Apple into open confrontation is a second, somewhat related case between Samsung and Apple involving unified search functionality, three other patents, and the Galaxy Nexus. A federal judge has already ordered a ban on the Samsung handset , but the ruling was suspended temporarily pending the trial , which begins August 20.

Given the key feature in the dispute, Google has much more riding here.

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"I think the only time Google gets involved are over patents or things that are directly related to the core Android experience," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner.

Apple and Google are also likely to clash as a result of Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility and that company's library of patents. The purchase meant Google inherited a number of patent suits, including ones against Apple and Microsoft. Google is still thinking through what it wants to do about those, but the recently acquired company gives it several options; from lending patents out to taking direct action itself.

Coming to HTC's defense
Google had already set the precedent for doling out patents when it transferred two to HTC, which was the first Android partner Apple struck at in its legal offensive. HTC promptly took those patents and filed another suit against Apple .

HTC may have received more support from Google than any other company. Last month, Google had asked to be a respondent in a pending ITC case filed by Nokia. The ITC granted Google's motion to intervene on HTC's behalf, but denied its request to be a respondent, which is the equivalent of a fellow defendant, according to legal blog Foss Patents.

Google can draw on its own experience dealing with a patent infringement lawsuit brought on by Oracle as further aid, according to Deborah Sweeney, an IP lawyer based in Calabasas, Calif.

When Apple began its legal campaign, many saw HTC as the weakest link among the Android partners. Unlike Samsung or Motorola, HTC was a younger company with fewer patents for defense. The company attempted to protect itself with patents acquired from S3 Graphics , but the patents were deemed an ineffective defense against Apple.

HTC already lost a case against Apple, resulting in a temporary ban on products such as the One X and Evo 4G LTE.

Google can ill afford another loss, as a victory for Apple will mean more trouble for any company involved with Android.

Samsung could just be a warm-up for Apple.

CNET's Josh Lowensohn contributed to this story.

 

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