Google Desperately Seeks an Android Patent Nuclear Option

Last Updated Apr 4, 2011 5:41 PM EDT

In a blog post today, Google (GOOG) general counsel Kent Walker announced that the company had bid for Nortel's patent portfolio. The $900 million offer makes Google the so-called stalking horse bidder: one that sets a high enough bottom line to keep others from low-balling the auction.

This is a major change for Google and an overt declaration that it will use its cash to obtain patents that could make life unpleasant for litigious competitors. Expect that the exploding IP litigation in mobile will only get larger as Google angles to buy the mobile-patent equivalent of a thermonuclear device.

Google rivals have lined up to target the company and its hardware partners with patent lawsuits over Android, putting the search giant at a major disadvantage. Although it owns patents, its portfolio is light where handsets and mobile communications are concerned. That's not good when the likes of Microsoft (MSFT), Apple (AAPL), and Oracle (ORCL) take aim at your mobile operating system. At the moment, Google has very little to fight back with.

Microsoft and Apple, in particular, have created a difficult climate for such hardware vendors as Motorola (MMI) and HTC that have used Android. Just two weeks ago, even Barnes & Noble (BKS) found itself on the wrong side of a Microsoft patent infringement lawsuit because of the Nook e-reader. Why? Because with the fluidity in the mobile market, there's no telling where the next bit of innovation or competition will come from, and B&N seemed on the path to a general function tablet. And Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, and EMC are still trying to acquire Novell's patents for even more weapons of IP destruction.

But the last straw must have been the credible-sounding rumors that Motorola was hedging its bets by developing its own Web-based operating system. Not what Google wants to hear from one of its more successful OEMs.

So Google is now shopping for a few file cabinets worth of patents to give it a bigger club in negotiations and litigation. Nortel sits on a stack of 6,000 patents, the latest of which were granted just last week, according to records at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

So this isn't some musty old pile of irrelevant paper. According to Nortel, the patents cover "wireless, wireless 4G, data networking, optical, voice, internet, service provider, semiconductors and other patent portfolios," and touch many areas, including social networking and Internet search.

Nortel had its intellectual finger in a lot of pies that could affect not just a mobile device or software vendor such as Apple or Microsoft, but their carrier and services partners. Depending on what exactly is in the portfolio, a successful acquisition could let Google make business difficult not just for Apple and Microsoft, but for their business partners as well, echoing their strategy. And with patents in semiconductors, networking, and the Internet, Oracle might not find itself beyond touch, either.

Related: Image: morgueFile user blackbird.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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