Last week, a U.S. District judge dealt a serious blow to Google and Samsung by slapping an injunction on the Galaxy Nexus phone and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 in a patent infringement lawsuit.
Although Judge Lucy Koh hasn’t found Samsung guilty of patent infringement–not yet, anyway–she ruled that Apple would suffer irreparable harm if the two Android devices were found to infringe Apple patents and remained on sale during the trial.
The Galaxy Nexus is Google’s lead Android device, so Koh’s ruling is the biggest patent setback for Android to date. (Samsung has appealed Koh’s ruling.)
I’m not a lawyer or a shareholder in any of the companies involved, so I’m less concerned with the legal maneuvering than I am with the patent wars’ effects on consumers. Let’s take a look at what the injunctions and the greater mobile patent wars mean for the people who are actually using the products:
Are existing users affected?
If you own a Galaxy Nexus or Galaxy Tab 10.1, no one’s going to show up at your doorstep and ask for it back. Your device will continue to work, but there’s always a chance that Google or Samsung may tweak their software in future updates to work around claims of patent infringement. My Galaxy S II, for instance, lost its “overscroll bounce” effect in an update late last year, and I suspect this was done to avoid a patent claim that Apple has wielded against other companies.
The patents at issue in the Samsung case deal with universal search, predictive text, slide-to-unlock and the ability to select an action when you tap on certain types of text. It’s not yet clear whether Google and Samsung can come up with workarounds.
Can you still buy a Galaxy Nexus or Galaxy Tab 10.1?
I can’t find the original Galaxy Tab 10.1 online, aside from a few refurbished units, but the device is now a year old and not worth buying. I’m guessing most retailers had already stopped selling it. Instead, you can get the Tab 2 10.1, which remains on sale at Best Buy and elsewhere.
The unlocked Galaxy Nexus remains on sale on Google’s website, but we’ll see what happens once Apple posts a $96 million bond that’s required to set the ban in motion. (If Samsung prevails at trial, it will get that bond money to make up for lost sales.) A Verizon store clerk, meanwhile, told Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff that the carrier will sell its remaining Galaxy Nexus stock, but can’t import any more units.
(UPDATE: Google has removed the Galaxy Nexus from its online shop, but told The Verge that it’ll be back next week with the latest version of Android. Google also told All Things Digital that it’s pushing out a software patch that works around the patent that the temporary injunction is based on. Presumably, the patch will be included on the Galaxy Nexus when it goes back on sale next week, but Google hasn’t confirmed this. In any case, Verizon is still selling the Galaxy Nexus on its website.)
Are all Android devices now doomed?
Aside from Samsung, Apple has also sued Motorola and HTC for patent infringement. The U.S. International Trade Commission found HTC guilty of infringing two patents, and its latest phones were briefly held up at customs in May while the company’s workarounds were approved. Apple claims that the workaround isn’t good enough, so HTC’s not out of the woods yet, but at the moment HTC’s Android phones are widely available.
Motorola also seems safe for the moment, following U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner’s decision to dismiss the entire case of Apple v. Motorola. Posner said neither side could prove damages, and Apple couldn’t show that an injunction would benefit itself more than it would hurt Motorola. Apple will most likely appeal the ruling.
Are Apple products at risk?
Of course, Apple’s rivals have filed counter-suits. The problem for Samsung and Motorola is that they’re relying on “standard-essential” patents that are required for telecommunications, and must be licensed on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms. The Federal Trade Commission is currently investigating Motorola, which is suing both Apple and Microsoft, over its use of these standard-essential patents to score injunctions. If the FTC requires Motorola to license its patents, the company will lose its ability to get Apple products banned.