The face-off between Oracle and Google has played out in a copyright court case, and it is an instance in which the triumph of the alleged offender is good news for the rest of us.
In a matter that was closely watched by the tech world, Oracle lost its claim that Google infringed upon its copyright by using the Java programming language for the Android operating system (OS). Oracle sought 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. There has been a spate of them in recent years — including the ongoing squabble between Apple and Samsung — which all seemed to peter out with mostly inconsequential results.
It’s been a bit like watching a cricket test match, filled with (short) bursts of excitement, lots of talk about strategy and far-reaching consequences, grown men behaving petulantly, only to end 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 SA’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. Its market share far exceeds that of Apple’s iOS and there are rumours that Microsoft’s excellent but tiny Windows Phone is headed the way of BlackBerry’s equally superb but unused OS.
Privately held Oracle, which had 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. The court found that Google’s use of Java was fair and didn’t infringe on 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 jour for Android — which Google would probably have been forced to ditch had it lost — while developers who have spent years acquiring the Java skills and building up the code libraries have also come up on top.
Now you can see the parallels with a test match that ends in a draw. Except in this case, no-one wore white pyjamas to work.