It’s a copyright court case where the alleged offender winning is good news for all of us.
In a matter that was closely watched by the tech world, Oracle lost in its claim that Google infringed its copyright by using the Java programming language for the Android operating system (OS). Oracle was seeking US$9bn in damages from the search giant, which uses a variant of Java for its smartphone OS, the most-used platform in the world.
The non-tech-savvy public can be forgiven for not caring about this latest patent feud, after a spate of them in recent years – including the ongoing squabble between Apple and Samsung – which all seemed to peter out in mostly inconsequential results. It’s been a bit like watching a cricket Test, filled with (short) bursts of excitement, lots of talk about strategy and far-reaching consequences, grown men behaving petulantly, and then it all ending in a draw.
So without boring those of you who don’t care whether a car has a carburettor or fuel injection, and just want to turn the key and drive off, here is a brief description of the latest copyright court case draw. And why it matters in the big picture.
Oracle, the maker of huge database management software and founded by eccentric billionaire Larry Ellison, bought a company called Sun Microsystems, which was the original provider of the powerful servers used to run the internet in the 1990s before the server market was commoditised. Sun also owns a software programming language called Java, which was a revolutionary idea in the heyday of desktop computing because it ran on top of whatever operating system your computer ran. Its mantra was “write once, run anywhere” because it allowed developers to circumvent so much of the software code needed to speak to the many different hardware components of the many different computers in the world.
But Java has found a much more important role in the world as a fillip to mobile operating systems – it was what South Africa’s remarkable messaging app MXit was written with – and is now the core of Google’s Android.
Android is to smartphones what Windows is to desktop computers. It’s market share far exceeds that of Apple’s iOS and there are rumours Microsoft’s excellent but tiny Windows Phone is headed the way of BlackBerry’s own equally superb but unused OS; which recently suffered the ignominy of Facebook withdrawing its app.
Privately-held Oracle, which has US$38bn in revenue in 2015, alleged that Google had infringed its copyright by using Java’s application program interface (API). An API is essentially a way for developers to write apps and interface with the application, to make it do a variety of other things. It’s actually a profoundly clever software invention that has enabled the coding world to do what it does – but think of it as a carburettor for now.
This highly strung two-week trial concluded late last month in Google’s favour, finding that is Java use was fair and didn’t infringe Oracle’s copyright. Google has created its own Android-specific way of using Java – to lure developers to write apps for its phone software and make their lives easier – and therefore evolved what Java does.
Had Oracle won this case, it could conceivably have sued Samsung, LG, Motorola, Huawei, Xiaomi, Lenovo and all the other phone manufacturers that use Android. It could even potentially have sued the 1.4bn people who use Android.
But Oracle, conversely has still “won” by losing. Its Java remains the programming language de jeur for Android – which Google would probably been forced to ditch had it lost – while developers who have spent years acquiring the Java skills and building up the code libraries has also come up on tops.
Sounds very much like a cricket Test match draw doesn’t it? Except no one wore white pyjamas to work.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail