Patent fever has gripped the blogosphere as, on the heals of Facebook’s News Feed patent, Google won a broad patent for, “Determining and/or using location information in an ad system.” (The story appears to have been broken by VentureBeat, which discusses it here.) Much of the chatter is focused on the question of whether Google (or Facebook) will begin using patents to chill innovation among potentially competitive start-ups, a possibility I find unlikely given both companies’ vulnerability to – and penchant for attracting – negative publicity. The story worth watching, however, is the effects on the Google-vs.-Apple mobile advertising conflict, which is now taking on dimensions of MAD.
To review: both companies, within months of one another, bought mobile advertising networks (AdMob to Google and Quattro Wireless to Apple), and then Apple rattled the developer community by hinting that it wanted to keep location-based advertising on its platforms for itself:
If your app uses location-based information primarily to enable mobile advertisers to deliver targeted ads based on a user’s location, your app will be returned to you by the App Store Review Team for modification before it can be posted to the App Store.
It’s easy to see Google’s Location-Based Advertising (LBA) patent in this context as a strong deterrent to any designs Apple might have to use its app store approval process to squash LBA competition on Apple devices; in such an event, Google could use its patent to add friction and pressure to Apple’s aspirations, while positioning itself to win the PR-war by using its patent to protect the “freedom to innovate” on behalf of developers and LBA start-ups.
It’s also worth remembering that Apple is also no stranger to broad, ad-related patents, with potential competitive implications. For example: Advertisement in an Operating System claims a method of disabling an operating system in a device while displaying an ad, and re-enabling it when the user responds; techniques to monetize an OS with ads sounds more like Google than Apple.
Microsoft, as well, has staked a broad claim in computer-based advertising: Advertising Services Architecture (not yet issued) broadly describes “A computer-readable medium having computer executable instructions for implementing a method of targeting and delivering advertising on an electronic device.” Nor is Google the first to target LBA in a patent: last year Palm filed System and Method for Providing Advertisement Data to a Mobile Computing Device, which claims “A mobile device, comprising: a processor; and a memory coupled to the processor and configured to store user-specific data; wherein the processor is configured to access data indicating a position of the mobile device and provide advertisement data based upon the position of the mobile device and the user-specific data.” (italics added.)
While excessively broad patents (and companies that abuse them) have been a perennial threat to innovation, there are at least three positive aspects to this state of affairs: first, the balance of power appears to be creating beneficial competition; second, the social internet is as sharp as ever at smoking out and socializing threats to innovation, which were once invisible until it was too late; and third, let’s not forget all the lawyers and clerks for whom such a climate provides steady employment.
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