The battle for control of the mobile computing market rages on

I’m sure you’ve got a mobile phone; I’d be willing to be it’s a smartphone too. It’s one of the most popular modern day gadgets, ranked 13 in Stephen Fry’s Top 100 Greatest Gadgets. It’s in every pocket and the first thing people get out when they get together. With the depth of penetration of these mini ‘computer-in-your-pocket’ devices it’s no wonder that the big technology corporations are locked in a struggle to the death for control of the market.

The two key players in this scene are Apple and Samsung, who until recently were playing nicely and making money from each other quite happily. Apple’s recent spate of legal attacks on its competitors such as Google, HTC, Samsung and Nokia , to name a few of the many (estimated to be 46 as of March 2011) have sparked some support from Apples ever loyal fanbase, cries of outrage from those looking for open technology platforms and more importantly a raft of counter suits against them.

So why is Apple so keen to shut down the competition? Could it be they feel threatened by Android and Googles ever steady march on their market share? I think so. If you discount the iPod and iPad which are mobile, but aren’t phones, then Android accounts for 43% of the market. This is a skewed view I know, what with the boom in the tablet computing market, but the prevalence of smartphones over tablets, for me at least, gives this statistic weight. I think you’d be hard pushed to find a company who doesn’t want to be in everyone’s pocket, next to their wallet or purse no doubt.

With this realisation we arrive at the crux of the matter. If your competitor is putting its software on a device which people are buying, it’s going to be much easier to shut down the device than it would be to shut down the software. So this is where Apple is attacking, the soft underbelly of Google, its phone manufacturers. Thus the lawsuits against companies like Samsung and HTC, to tackle the manufacture of the device and thus blocking Google from being able to ship Android.

Samsung have recently announced that they are looking to block the sale of the iPhone 5 in South Korea and Europe, just as Apple have done with the Samsung Galaxy Tab in Europe. These pre-release lawsuits are part of Samsungs new stance against Apple’s continued aggressive protection of its technology. For me, as a fan of open technologies, I think this is all much of a muchness as they are all using the same base technologies in order to create the devices that the consumer wants to buy. Wouldn’t it be better to have an open standard for these technologies which could be shared amongst manufacturers and thus enable a collaborative enhancement of the technology rather than a childish playground antics we see at the moment? Well, yes, it would be marvellous but unfortunately the large technology companies spend millions of dollars developing these specific tweaks and features in order to try and edge out the competition and thus are not willing to share anything with anyone. If you thought you owned your phone, I’d be willing to be you’d be wrong. You’ve probably got a license to use the technology from the manufacturer.

So why is this hugely expensive and petty legal chess game now so popular? It’s certainly popular enough for companies to buy whole companies just for the patents. This summer saw Google lose out to a consortium of Apple, Microsoft, RIM, EMC, Ericsson and Sony for the company Nortel, and more importantly its portfolio of 6000 patents worth $4.5b, a little too rich for Google’s top bid of $4b. So you can see why Apple don’t have many or any, that I can find, lawsuits against its consortium buddies, and has thus focused its Sauron-esque gaze upon Google. Google’s time did come in August, when they announced the purchase of Motorola Mobility for $12.5b and with it a patent portfolio of 17,000 patents with which to battle its legal challenges.

Another team to consider is Microsoft and Nokia who brokered a deal in February to work collaboratively to drive the Microsoft mobile operating system forward with Nokia manufacturing the phones and Microsoft providing the software support. We’ve yet to see anything from this partnership other than a handful of Nokia Windows devices, and some information about Windows 8, and its tablet capabilities.

The speed at which this new mobile computing market is moving is truly staggering and it shows no signs of slowing down. It certainly seems that if you don’t already have the money to compete you’ll either get bought, shut down, or end up in court on patent infringement. Let’s hope the market does open up and we can see some unhindered innovation.

Written in memory of Palm WebOS.