With the tech titans fighting over IP, the Android platform is in danger of being suffocated

Mobile phone users worry over the future of the Android platform as Google and Oracle fight a high-profile turf war to establish monopoly.

Android, the most popular platform of mobile phone users across the world, is on fire. The ongoing battle for control over the platform between two companies — Google and Oracle — whose core business was not even remotely connected to the world of mobile telephony till recently, are now battling in courts in the U.S. to establish control over a platform that has always been “open” to the wider community.

This case — and the other ongoing dispute in courts across the world involving Apple, Samsung and HTC — are seen by many as instances of giant companies using IP (and more specifically, copyrights) to establish monopoly over what logically should be competitive markets. Both sets of disputes are instances of companies attempting to appropriate control over “fundamental” ideas that actually belong to the wider community.

What it's about

The Oracle-versus-Google fight is over the use of the Java programming language in the Android platform, which was initially promoted by Google.

The gathering pace of acquisitions by large IT corporations, aiming to build arsenals of IP rights to establish monopoly over large swathes of technological space, is fraught with serious consequences.

Ironically, Oracle, which is seeking outright control over Java, was not even in the picture when Java, which is used in a range of platforms, was being developed by Sun Microsystems.

Soon after Oracle bought Sun Microsystems in 2010, it stopped supporting the Openoffice.org project, which was an alternative to the proprietary office suite.

Although Java was a Sun Microsystems project, it has been Free and Open Source with most of the technologies licensed under the GNU General Public License. This helped the Java developer community to contribute towards making it one of the most versatile programming languages used in a range of platforms for varied applications.

Java applications are compiled to work on Java Virtual Machine (JVM), which enables application developers to develop applications just once, which could then run on any platform. This inherent trait of “write once, run anywhere” has been the most important aspect of Java's success, with more than 10 million users.

Oracle is suing Google for infringement of its copyrights on the Java programming language, specifically, for the use of various Java Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).

APIs are code-based specification, more in the nature of design elements used to prescribe the interaction between various software components. In essence, APIs are software-to-software interfaces, enabling applications to communicate with one another for sharing services without user intervention.

Oracle is also suing Google for infringement of seven patents. It has also alleged that the virtual machine ware used in Android, Dalvik VM, uses Oracles's copyrighted content.

Google's defence

Google defends itself, claiming it has only used Open Source technology to develop the Android platform. It maintains that it has not infringed any of the copyrights or patents on Java.

It is not mere coincidence that Oracle, after falling flat in its own attempt at entering the smartphone market (it tried buying Palm and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion), is now suing Google for infringing IP. Unfortunately for Google, Sun Microsystems, which had openly sanctioned the use of Java for Android, now has another master who does not have a track record of a close association with the Open Source community as its old owner, Sun.

K. Gopinath, professor, Computer Science and Automation Department, Indian Institute of Science, says: “Expression of ideas can be copyrighted but not the ideas themselves. What Oracle is now trying to do by claiming copyright over Java APIs is in effect trying to copyright ideas.”

Android's future

With the tech titans fighting over IP, the thriving Android platform is in danger of being suffocated to death. If Google were to lose this lawsuit, then the terms of distributing Android will have to be changed to accommodate inherent support to Oracle's Java, which currently is not wholly possible with the Android releases. This will mean that applications built for Android cannot directly be run on Java platforms, although Android itself is based on Java.

Oracle perhaps fears that Google's modified Java may render the native Java obsolete.

To bring about full compatibility to native Java, the Android platform and the applications running on it will need to incorporate extensive changes, which might retard the development and hamper the Open Source ecosystem built around the Android platform.

Software development

Beyond the impact on Google's Android, the bigger threat this trial poses is to the software development ecosystem. Until now, there have been very few attempts to copyright entire computer programming languages. Hitherto, copyrighting only specifics such as libraries or standardisation of software interfaces have been possible.

Prof. Gopinath expresses concern on the impact this trial could have on the Indian IT industry. “Historically, most of the contracts for Indian IT companies have been to design interfaces based on published specifications. If Oracle wins this lawsuit and specifications (Java APIs in this case) are copyrighted, the whole scenario of specification-based software production will change,” he says.

The mind boggles at the consequences of an Oracle win. If it becomes acceptable to ring-fence ideas in software, the notion that concepts in mathematics can be copyrighted would only be a small step away. This case, therefore, is not merely about the interests of corporations or consumers but about the much bigger question of how humankind acquires and builds a body of knowledge. It would be a pity if this were to be sacrificed at the alter of profit.