Apple’s lawsuit against HTC could be bad for … everyone

I’m not a reflexive enemy of the U.S. patent system.

But having spent the day mulling over Apple’s lawsuit against High Tech Computer (HTC) over smartphone-related patents, it still feels like the move is bad for consumers, bad for any smartphone-related company that isn’t headquartered in Cupertino-and quite possibly bad for Apple, too.

Apple had filed a patent infringement lawsuit Tuesday in the U.S. against HTC, claiming that the Taiwanese company is infringing 20 Apple patents related to the iPhone user interface, underlying architecture and hardware.

Now that this shoe has dropped, you gotta think that lots of other shoes are poised to drop all over Silicon Valley and Asia.

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Here are some questions I’m scratching my head over tonight. I suspect some people will maintain that the answers are obvious, but they’re not (yet) obvious to me…

1. If Apple wins, what does it mean for other companies’ phones?

Could rival makers artfully work around Apple patents and produce handsets that tippy-toe up to the legal line without crossing it? Or would there be a bunch of cool features that every other manufacturer would have to abandon?

2. What does Apple want?

The lawsuit says it wants the court to tell HTC to stop making phones that infringe on Apple patents, and to fork over a wad of cash to Apple of unspecified size.

But would Apple be equally happy collecting a royalty on every HTC phone and/or setting up some sort of patent cross-licensing agreement? Does it plan to sue every company on the planet that has anything to do with a phone that sports any feature outlined in an Apple patent?

3. What does this mean for future versions of Android?

At the crazy rate at whichAndroid evolves, there will be new versions out well before any sort of verdict. Will Google and phone manufacturers neuter them to avoid ticking off Apple even more, or will they continue on their merry way until a judge orders them to do otherwise?

4, What does it mean for Apple’s relationship with Google?

We already knew that the two companies were buddies no more. Now Apple is going after Google’s Android OS by way of the hardware manufacturer that embraced it first.

Can it continue to sell an iPhone 3GS with multiple bits and pieces of Google DNA, including Google as its default search engine, Gmail integration, Google Maps data, and a YouTube app? Will Apple find replacements? Will Google want to yank its stuff?

5. What about Palm?

Until now, it’s been the iPhone competitor that folks most often speculated might suffer Apple’s legal wrath.

Like I say, I’m not fit to render legal opinions on anything, but WebOS sure has features which feel similar to ones mentioned in Apple patents such as this. Will it get sued? Will it get scared?

6, Will other phone companies freak out?

They might decide to steer clear of features that feel even kinda-sorta like ones detailed in Apple patents, just to reduce the chances of winding up in court.

Even if the case agains HTC isn’t resolved one way or another any time soon-and maybe even if HTC wins.

7. What does this mean for Apple?

I tend to associate software-related lawsuits with companies whose hubris has exceeded their product-development chops.

(Lotus, a once-great firm, devoted much effort in the late 1980s and early 1990s to suing other spreadsheet developers-if it had focused on writing software rather than filing lawsuits, we might all be using 1-2-3 to this day.)

Apple remains the most inventive single producer of personal-tech products on the planet, but this just doesn’t feel like a great sign.

And here’s question #8: What are your thoughts about all this?

HTC defends itself

And here are the latest developments in the lawsuit:

HTC, on Wednesday, defended itself against Apple’s accusations of patent infringement, saying it develops its own technology.

The Taiwanese company is the world’s largest maker of smartphones that use Google’s Android mobile operating system, including the Nexus One.

It has been building mobile devices including smartphones for 13 years.

“…HTC is not only a mobile technology innovator, [we] also hold a large number of patents,” the company said in a filing to the Taiwan Stock Exchange.

HTC will work with the U.S. justice system to protect its own innovations and rights, it said, adding that it does not believe the Apple lawsuit poses a threat to its business in the short-term.

The immediate impact of the suit was to send HTC stock down 2 percent, or NT$6.5, to close at NT$323.5 (Can$10.10) on the Taiwan Stock Exchange.

Apple’s filing includes smartphones from HTC that use Google’s Android OS as well as some that run Microsoft’s Windows Mobile OS.

Technology companies often file infringement lawsuits against each other, sometimes for legitimate claims and sometimes as a ploy to harm a rival’s business. Smartphone vendors have been actively filing lawsuits against each other.

Nokia, the world’s largest mobile phone vendor, sued Apple last October over the alleged infringement of 10 patents. Apple turned around and sued Nokia over claims of its own.

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