September 26, 2023

Suit Opens a Window Into Google

Android is Google’s gateway technology to a lucrative new arena for mobile advertising. Google provides the Android operating system free to handset makers, and allows them to tailor the open-source software somewhat, yet limits their freedom to tinker.

Android phones must adhere to a “compatibility” standard determined by Google. In an e-mail on Aug. 6, 2010, Dan Morrill, a manager in the Android group, noted in passing that it was obvious to the phone makers that “we are using compatibility as a club to make them do things we want.”

Whether that club is an anticompetitive weapon is an issue in the court case.

Yet industry analysts see another motivation as well. In the smartphone market, they say, Google faces the challenge of being the creator of a popular operating system that must work smoothly with hardware and software made by other companies. In broad strokes, Google’s predicament echoes the past.

“Google has the same problem today that Microsoft had 20 years ago, when Windows started to take off in the personal computer market,” said David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “It needs to maintain the integrity of its technology, and control it.”

The e-mails in the case, filed eight months ago, recalls another parallel with Microsoft. Big high-tech companies, in particular, are run and knit together with electronic communications, which can leave a minute-by-minute trail for lawyers and litigants to mine.

In the Massachusetts court, Skyhook Wireless has alleged that Google used its control over Android not to maintain the quality of its technology, but to squelch a competitor.

The Boston-based Skyhook, founded in 2003, has been a pioneer in location-based services for use in mobile phones, developing a technique for combining location data from Wi-Fi hot spots with other sensors to pinpoint a user’s location.

Last April, Motorola chose to use Skyhook’s service in its Android phones instead of the free location data service offered by Google. Motorola reversed that decision in July.

“After we announced our deal with Motorola, Google went crazy,” said Ted Morgan, Skyhook’s chief executive. “That’s when Google went looking for compatibility compliance issues.”

Skyhook had reached a similar agreement with Samsung in April, which was also reversed in July.

Google and its lawyers declined to discuss the case or the e-mails, released along with a ruling in Massachusetts Superior Court allowing discovery of evidence to continue and witnesses to be deposed.

But in a court filing in April, Google’s lawyers called the Skyhook suit “a baseless complaint” and its requests for Google documents and e-mail a “thinly veiled fishing expedition.” In the filing, Google notes that Motorola, in terminating its agreement with Skyhook, did not mention technical compliance issues, other than Skyhook interfering with Google’s “contractual rights to collect end-user data.”

In the past, Google has portrayed the Skyhook suit as the desperate tactic of a small company trying to sell location services in a market that has changed abruptly, especially since Google offers its location services free.

The Google e-mail messages released by the court, some heavily redacted, begin on April 26, 2010, when Skyhook announced that it had reached an agreement with Motorola.

Vic Gundotra, a senior vice president, forwarded a link to a news article on the Skyhook win, to Steve Lee, an Android product manager.

“First I’d heard of it,” Mr. Lee wrote, and then suggested two possible reasons for the deal.

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