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Microsoft, Google, Apple and IP Oh My!

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A funny thing happened on the way to smart phone domination… Warfare makes for strange bedfellows… My enemy's enemy…

Looking at the battlefronts being drawn between Apple, Google and Microsoft, the drama is surely getting curiouser and curiouser.

Just take a look at the latest intellectual property alliance coming from Microsoft and HTC, setting competitive differences aside to sign a new, patent partnership. The deal covers a broad group of patents in Microsoft's portfolio "for HTC's mobile phones running the Android mobile platform." Huh?? Read that again: Microsoft and HTC signed a patent sharing agreement covering phones running a mobile operating system from Google!

Why?

Go back several weeks in smart phone history, and harken back to the IP lawsuit filed by Apple against HTC. That sweeping suit was widely seen as a prelude to a forthcoming action by Apple against Google and its Android mobile operating system. Conventional wisdom suggested that Apple was going after HTC first, which wouldn't be able to afford too long a battle, and ultimately settle with Apple, which could then use that settlement as a basis for an action against the far deeper-pocketed Google. Apple has claimed that HTC violates 20 patents.

But here's what's so potentially interesting about all this: With the new HTC deal, is Microsoft suggesting that Android is violating Microsoft's patents? That certainly seems to be the case. So is HTC the one that's out there violating everyone else's patents? Or is Google the culprit? Seems that Google might have some issues on its hands here. For one, Apple is suing HTC for violating everything from hardware to user interface to architecture. The kernel of HTC's software is, of course, from Google. By entering into a partnership with Microsoft, whereby HTC will be paying Microsoft royalties, it would seem that Microsoft now has the goods on Google as well.

A further problem for Google: This may not be merely be about just Google, and Android. This might be Microsoft's attempt at a more aggressive position against Linux, its perennial, open-source bugaboo. Of course, that's the basis for Android and if Microsoft starts to see some progress on that front, Android could face some very serious problems indeed.

Also interesting: Apple has legally made a move against HTC; Microsoft has now partnered with HTC. Both Apple and Microsoft seem to be trying to protect their intellectual property, and Google seems to be indirectly the target. Yet Google hasn't filed anything against anybody. Why? Is it because Google merely hasn't gotten around to it? That nobody is infringing on its patents? Or could it be that it's not going after anybody because it has no IP of its own to protect?

Don't underestimate the importance of these cases, these partnerships, and the competitive tone they'll set in tech's most dynamic sector. This becomes a problem, especially as Android's market place momentum only seems to be accelerating. If for some reasons handset makers start to get spooked that they might become a party to the long, legal arms of Microsoft and Apple, do they start to turn their back on Google? I know Verizon decided not to carry Google's Nexus One for reasons other than intellectual property concerns, but it just goes to show that Google isn't bulletproof.

And finally, one other thing: All of these questions surrounding intellectual property from Microsoft and Apple and Google might have an unintended consequence, by bolstering the value of Palm , its extensive patent portfolio and its webOS operating system. Android had been a worthy alternative to handset makers looking to move away from Windows Mobile, Symbian, Research in Motion and Apple. If clouds start to gather around Android, Palm might be a nice option.

At this point, it seems Google may have a problem in its hands. And the more Android sells, it's possible that the bigger Google's problems might become.

Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com

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