World and Nation

Patents case puts Apple closer to fight with Google

SAN FRANCISCO — Steve Jobs minced no words when talking about Android, Google’s mobile operating system, which he saw as too similar to the iPhone’s. He told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, that Android was “a stolen product” and said, “I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”

But so far Apple has not gone to war with Google, at least not directly. Instead, Apple has sued the cellphone makers that use Android in their products — like Samsung, which was hit with a claim of more than $1 billion in damages Friday when a jury found that it had infringed on some of Apple’s patents.

Now, though, the war is drawing closer to Google’s doorstep. Google is increasingly making its own hardware, thanks in part to its acquisition of Motorola Mobility, or playing an integral part in designing it, as it did with the Nexus 7 tablet. And the jury in the Samsung trial found that features built into Android, and not just features added by Samsung, violated Apple patents — potentially forcing Google to adjust its software.

“Apple’s desire is to be able to put Google on that hot seat, but they need a path to actually be able to do that, and so far all they’ve seen is a way to go after actual hardware-makers,” said Charles S. Golvin, a mobile industry analyst at Forrester.

Google could end up more squarely in Apple’s sights if it doesn’t take precautions, Golvin said.

“What it means for the Android folks is a very careful review, back to the drawing board, including a close examination of Apple’s stable of patents to weed out anything that looks risky in terms of violating the Apple portfolio,” he said.

Apple and Microsoft have both sued phone makers in large part because it is far easier to calculate the damages those companies could owe from the sale of patent-infringing phones.

Google gives the Android software to manufacturers at no charge. Instead, it makes money on Android indirectly, by selling mobile ads, along with apps and media in its Google Play store.

It would be difficult for Apple to prove that Google is benefiting financially from patent infringement, or that Google, and not the hardware manufacturers, is directly responsible for potential damages caused to Apple, said Robert P. Merges, faculty director of the Center for Law and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley. That could change as Google makes or designs more products itself.

If Apple really went after Google, Merges said, it could end up hurting its own products. The iPhone includes a Google search bar in its Safari browser, and Google offers some popular apps, like one for Gmail, in Apple’s App Store. A direct attack could compel Google to remove such features from the iPhone and make it a less attractive product to consumers, he said.

That kind of relationship has not stopped Apple in the past, though. Samsung, for instance, is a major supplier to Apple of iPhone parts like chips and screens.