While there will be plenty of geeks at today's launch of Google Android's “Ice Cream Sandwich” software in Hong Kong, the most interested bystanders will be lawyers.
They will be asking whether Google (GOOG) has found a way to invent around patent claims by Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT) that are causing Android OEMs serious legal headaches and have them hedging their bets.
This is especially true for Samsung (SSNLF.PK) , which will be sharing the stage with Google representatives at a Wednesday morning (Hong Kong time) press conference.
A good indication of how bad the legal situation is will come after Motorola Mobility (MMI) (which Google is acquiring) releases its own Razr phone, probably running the new Google software, sometime tomorrow. Investors should eagerly await an Apple lawsuit against that phone and, if such a suit is filed, read those papers carefully.
The legal pressure has increased markedly over the last week, with Apple beating both Samsung and HTC on both offense and defense, and indicating it has “high-level patents” that will let it permanently differentiate its iOS products from rivals.
All this is complicated by the fact that Samsung supplies components to Apple. Fosspatents, a blog run by Florian Mueller, who has a consulting relationship with Microsoft, says the tipping point in the legal war has not yet been reached.
Apple is currently on a winning streak against Android in general and Samsung in particular, but Samsung won't be up against the ropes until Apple can enforce, on a permanent and not only preliminary basis, technically broad patents that can hardly be worked around.
Given that Samsung has sold over 30 million Android devices under the Galaxy brand it has every reason to keep fighting.
But it also has reasons to hedge its bets, which it is doing with support for Windows Phone 7.5 under the Onvia and Focus brands.
Google's aim with Android was always to do to Apple in mobile what Microsoft did to Apple on the desktop, that is: replicate what Apple was doing, at lower prices, through a host of OEMs. That remains the goal. But whether that goal can be legally achieved remains an open question, and so long as it is, AAPL and MSFT are safer bets for investors.