Apple on Tuesday took aim at Google's smartphone as it accused Taiwanese handset manufacturer HTC, which makes Google's flagship Nexus One, of violating 20 of Apple's patents, some of which were issued in the mid-1990s.
As many as 10 of those violations involve the Nexus One, Apple said in a complaint submitted Tuesday to the U.S. International Trade Organization (ITC). Apple also filed a similar lawsuit in federal court in Delaware that cited 10 different patents. That lawsuit, however, did not specify the HTC-made phones that allegedly violated Apple's patents.
In the complaint to the ITC, Apple grouped a dozen HTC smartphones that rely on Google's Android operating system, including the Nexus One, Pro Touch, Touch Diamond, TouchPro 2, Tilt II, Pure, Imago, T-Mobile G1, myTouch 3G, Hero, Droid Eris, and HD2. Lumping the phones into what it called the "Accused HTC Android Products," Apple claimed that the collection relied on its technology.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs hammered that point in a statement Tuesday. "We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We've decided to do something about it," Jobs said. "We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."
The oldest of the 10 patents in the ITC complaint was one awarded in 1996 to NeXT, the firm that current Apple CEO Steve Jobs founded in 1985 after he was forced out of Apple. In 1996, Apple bought NeXT for $429 million, bringing Jobs back to Apple. Much of Mac OS X is built on the OpenStep operating system developed at NeXT.
Like most others cited in the ITC complaint, patent 5,481,721 involves operating system technologies, a fact that many have seen as an indication that Apple's fight may be as much with Google, Android's creator, as with any hardware maker.
"Apple's not in the business of litigation," said Barry Cohen, a patent and intellectual property attorney at Thorp Reed & Armstrong LLP. "Only lawyers are in business to litigate. Apple has a bigger purpose here, but whether it's to shut down HTC or to go directly after Google is unclear at the moment. Do they have a plan to subsequently [sue] Google? Possibly."
Cohen said that if Tuesday's filings were only a the first step toward taking on Google directly, he expected that Apple had set its strategy and was following a game plan. "Apple is a smart company," he said.
One unknown, Cohen added, is whether HTC and Google have an agreement that would require the latter to help the former defend any patent infringement claims that relate to the Android operating system. "We don't know what, if any, agreements are in place," he said.
But a clue to the relationship between HTC and Google, and the latter's involvement in any patent defense, may come when HTC either files a countersuit or answers Apple's complaints. "If HTC hires a law firm that's known for working with Google, that would be a hint," said Cohen.
Apple did not name Google in the federal lawsuit or in the complaint filed with the ITC.
This is not the first patent infringement action Apple has taken against iPhone rivals. Last December, Apple countersued Nokia after the Finnish handset maker accused Apple of violating its patents. At least five of the 20 patents listed in Tuesday's complaints were also cited in Apple's countersuits against Nokia.
Subsequently, Nokia filed a second lawsuit, asking a federal court to block Apple from importing virtually any current Apple hardware into the U.S., including products in the iPhone, iPod and Mac lines.
Apple also revealed that it was among the first customers to purchase a Google Nexus One. To prove it had examined the device, it bought the smartphone on Jan. 5, 2010, the first day Google put it up for sale on its Web store.
"Apple has a great lead with the iPhone, but now all kinds of companies are jumping on the bandwagon," said Cohen. "If Apple is worried that [it] will erode its iPhone market share, it's not going to sit back, especially if it believes its intellectual property is being violated."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.