With the recent news that Motorola won a sales and  import ban against Microsoft in Germany (effectively removing Microsoft Xbox and Windows 7 products from that market), and is poised to repeat the ban here in the US, the circle is complete.

Rewind

Video and Audio Compression technologies have been developed by a host of companies over the past decades, and the result is a somewhat murky product development pipeline requiring patent licensing and cross licensing deals, the likes of which would make an LA freeway interchange look like a lonely unpaved road through the dustbowl. Add to this the fact that IP&L (Intellectual Property & Licensing) is the cash cow of many technology giants, and the prevailing practice is to develop patents for everything that can be thus recorded, in the hopes that there may exist licensing revenues somewhere in the future. These are the given circumstances for the present dance featuring Microsoft and Motorola Mobility (now under Google’s wing).

Battle Lines

As is often the case, much sabre-rattling has been going on, and clashes in court have ensued. Each side hoped that, when the dust settled, they would emerge with the upper hand. Nobody expected to outright win, but that’s not what IP conflicts are about, when the licensing giants are engaged in battle. It always looks terribly bloody and violent, and enormous (to us) sums of money are dispensed via legal teams. However, these sums are paltry, when compared to the licensing sums at stake. What’s a million or two, when one stands to gain tens and even hundreds of millions?

However, in this particular case, both sides gained and both sides lost, and now it falls to the lawyers and IP negotiators to assess where the bargaining chips have fallen, before progressing with the next stage of battle: the truce.

All In A Day’s Work

Motorola made a valiant effort to push Microsoft back on to its heels, successfully getting the tech giant kinda-sorta booted out of Deutschland (of course, it’s never quite so cut and dried). The company, recently acquired by Google, further strengthened their position when the ITC threatened Microsoft with major market restrictions and penalties in the US.

In the meantime, Microsoft successfully attacked Motorola’s flank, when the ITC ruled in its favor, on another licensing issue (another related article here).

Now that both camps hold trophies, they could either choose to continue attacking one another, if they believed more trophies were in the offing, or they could begin the next phase of a process all too familiar to large tech companies today: negotiation of a cross-licensing truce.

Instead of negotiating from the outset in good faith, companies today have discovered that negotiation under duress, even if that duress is mutual, tends to deliver greater savings. I’m not sure I believe it anymore, but the trend is to sue until the pot is sweet enough to settle.

As far as the Microsoft/Motorola Mobility clash is concerned, this could be a good time to trade trophies, and settle on a cross-licensing agreement that would allow both companies to get on with the business of selling their products to consumers (albeit at a slightly increased price point, necessary to cover their legal costs). However, now that Google has just purchased Motorola Mobility, the search-and-everything-else giant may opt to bloody its bitter rival a little more, and Motorola Mobility product sales may become collateral damage in the even larger battle between Redmond and Mountain View.

It would all be rather silly, were it not for the millions of dollars, hundreds of jobs, and possible legal precedents at stake…

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Now that everyone who couldn’t bear to wait is feverishly pawing their new iPad (or not), I want to take a few moments to explore the possibility of alternatives.

I’ve admired Apple for the longest time, largely for its design and brand marketing savvy. The company’s innovative techniques have forced the hardware and software industries alike to eschew complacency, at the risk of alienating a very demanding consumer-base. However, I believe that the iPad, while it will certainly not damage Apple’s bottom line (Apple  apparently sold more iPad units on its opening day than it sold iPhone units back in June 2007, when that device was launched*), may well contribute to some overdue redress of the perception of the brand, versus the reality of its product line value.

There’s no denying that Apple has made some innovative products, and its oligarchy has ensured that attention to detail and robust design standards have remained mainstays in the development of all hardware and software offerings. However, the company’s commitment to closed systems, proprietary elements, and “walled garden” disdain for open standards has served to goad competitors into an increasing frenzy of responsive innovation. The result has been that the gap between Apple innovation and mainstream industrial emulation has narrowed sufficiently these past few years, so as to position several competing brands almost neck and neck with Apple on this, their latest release.

Blackberry, HTC, Motorola, Palm, and Google have all come out with multitouch interfaces for their handheld devices, in the wake of the iPhone. While few of these brands offer a truly competitive alternative to the Apple iPhone OS, with respect to UI and application experience, this gap may no longer exist with the Tablet. Here below are a few possible competitors to the early bird iPad:

WePad

Neofonie’s 11.6” display has much going for it, and is *apparently* going to hit the European market in less than a week. however, the absence of any video footage of note makes one pause…Here are some pictures, at least:

 

Lenovo IdeaPad U1

For those who can’t decide between a netbook and a tablet…there’s an app a device for that:

HP Slate

Competitively priced, and with some of the features that lots of people are moaning are lacking in the iPad:

Microsoft Courier

If Ballmer is able to deliver on the promise held within these demos, things could get really exciting:

Dell Mini 5

Multitasking, small form factor, data AND phone AND camera…:

Dell Mini 5 walk thru

ExoPC Slate

They call this a “finger driven PC”, and it certainly has some interesting specs:

ICD Tablets

Innovative Converged Devices has created a full size (called the VEGA), and a mini tablet (the ULTRA), depending on your carrier preference (the VEGA will be sold via T-Mobile, while the Ultra will go to Verizon). The full size gets my motor running more so than the mini, but the mini is certainly worth a look, if portability is one of your top priorities:

Notion Ink Adam

Saving the best for last, Notion Ink has managed to accomplish what I have been dreaming was possible: to marry the text reading superiority of the Kindle (e-ink), the user flexibility of the iPad, and the multitasking capability of some of the the other tablets mentioned above:

So where does this leave Netbooks? Given that companies like MSI, best known as netbook manufacturers, are set to launch their own tablet devices later this year, I predict that with the rise of tablets, we will see a relative decline in netbook sales. It won’t happen overnight, and devices such as Lenovo’s IdeaPad will certainly cater to those of us who want a little bit from both worlds, but as Android and other mobile OS technologies evolve, and multi-touch and resistive interface technology refine themselves, I think netbooks and laptops will be left with greatly reduced market share.

Yet, just when we think that there are enough worthy alternatives out there to permit ourselves the luxury of making a choice, along comes Google (again!) to suggest they may be releasing their own Chrome OS-based tablet

I guess it’s like car-shopping these days: if you need one, get one. If you don’t need one, wait a bit.  Everything seems to change dramatically on a weekly basis, so whatever you buy this week will be trumped in no time. The firm of Amdahl, Nielsen and Moore is hard at work…