March 21, 2011 11:36 pm

Microsoft and Apple step up patent clashes

The smartphone industry’s escalating patent wars spilt into new areas on Monday as Microsoft attempted to block sales of Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader in the US and Apple sued Amazon over the use of the phrase “app store”.

Both actions were aimed indirectly at Google’s Android operating system, whose success with smartphones has attracted a widening ecosystem of retailers and technology companies, extending it to a broader array of mobile gadgets and living-room devices.

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Microsoft filed a lawsuit against the Nook in Federal court in Delaware and asked the US International Trade Commission to block imports of the device, a common legal tactic used by tech companies, given the industry’s reliance on manufacturing in Asia to feed its large domestic market.

The cases targeted Barnes & Noble, the US bookseller behind the Nook, as well as Foxconn and Inventec, the device’s manufacturers.

Microsoft launched a similar action last year against Motorola’s use of the Google operating system in smartphones, with the case later extended to the company’s tablet computers.

The case against the Nook, which is also based on Android, takes the legal campaign beyond the traditional mobile computing industry. With Android now used on a growing array of devices, including television set-top boxes, one knowledgeable observer said Microsoft’s stance appeared to indicate a determination to assert its rights in a far wider array of consumer electronics fields.

The Microsoft claim is based on alleged infringement of five patents on technology designed to make it easier to use mobile devices and brings to 25 the total number of patents now covered in its Android claims. Barnes & Noble said it did not comment on pending litigation.

Apple’s lawsuit against Amazon, meanwhile, comes as the online retailer is reported to be close to launching its own online store to distribute apps for devices that run on Android.

An Amazon store would compete directly with one run by Google, and would extend the reach of Amazon’s digital markets beyond its traditional web site and Kindle bookstore.

An Apple spokesperson said that app store was a trademarked term and that the action, filed at the end of last week in Federal court in northern California, was being taken because use of the name would “confuse and mislead customers”.

Amazon claimed that it had used the term “Amazon Appstore” in communications with developers. It has yet to discuss its plans publicly and did not immediately return a request for comment.

“App store” has crept into common use to describe sites where lightweight applications can be downloaded, but Apple’s rivals have generally avoided using the term in their own services. Google calls its version the Android Market, while the app store linked to Microsoft’s mobile software is called Marketplace.

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