Google buys into the cell phone company Motorola. Competitors want to have banal innovations protected: the patent insanity in the smartphone market.

Exactly $10 kept the Italian Antonio Meucci from an entry in the history books. The poor fellow lacked exactly this sum to get his invention patented in 1871— the “teletrofono.” A certain American named Alexander Graham Bell, who coincidentally worked in the same lab as Meucci, turned in the same invention and became world famous.

One hundred and forty years later, Google bought the cell phone division of the cell phone company Motorola for $12.5 billion. Why? Theories abound. Google itself says it was because of Motorola’s 17,000 patents that in part protect essential cell phone and smart phone technologies. Now they belong to Google, the firm that presumably every school child in 100 years will praise as the inventor of the Internet.

Apparently it is a matter of the usual economic battles for markets and customers as they occur in every sector. Only, one listens in Motorola’s case because Apple and Google are sexy; the Russian firm VimpelCom, on the other hand, less so — even if it did buy the Italian Wind Telecom for $21.9 billion in 2010, without receiving much media attention.

Blown into War

At the moment, the greats in the market are going to war with trumpets and drums: Microsoft allies itself with Nokia; Google buys Motorola and distributes a smartphone operating system named Android with 33 other firms; Apple is no longer cute, but rather the most valuable firm in the world. And for the sake of completeness, the Canadian company Research in Motion with Blackberry is mentioned as the fourth war party.

They are all fighting for the market of the future: smartphones — portable minicomputers the size of a cell phone. Each of the parties wants to establish its own operating system in this next evolutionary stage of the teletrofono. Because whoever establishes his system will also establish his business model.

And who will win? The one with the best lawyers. No one will dispute that Bell and Meucci really invented something. In the modern market, however, everyone tries to patent everything — Apple, for example, the idea to unlock a smartphone with a wiping movement. If insanity in this form had existed 10,000 years ago, presumably the wheel would have been patented. Now Microsoft has 17,000 patents in its arsenal, Apple roughly 4,000, Google’s munitions stockpile increases from 600 before the Motorola deal to over 17,000 following it.

The Death of Innovation

It only conditionally has to do with the original idea — the protection of intellectual property. In principle, everyone sues everyone, in order to collect licensing fees for ideas that will occur to any reasonable person while sitting in the bathroom. Google, for example, is trying to patent its “Highlight All” button, a function that automatically highlights all hits of a search. Such patents kill innovations because every software start-up has to fear getting mail from a patent lawyer.

The strange thing about it is that Google itself demonstrates it also functions another way. In 1983, the so-called free software movement was founded, which wanted to hinder exactly this insanity. Anyone who wished was supposed to be able to modify, change, rewrite and copy the software. Today an abundance of models have emerged, with which software developed this way can be marketed.

Google itself has capitalized on this substantially; its founders are fans of “open source,” software in which every line of the program can be changed by anyone. Google’s smartphone operating system Android is also open source — anyone can download and modify it. Google uses it to place advertising and attract users. An effective business model: Use the knowledge of many and complain when others want to do the same.