One of Microsoft's hottest new profit centres is a smartphone platform you've definitely heard of: Android.
Google's Linux-based mobile operating system is a favourite target for Microsoft's patent attorneys, who are suing numerous Android vendors and just today announced that another manufacturer has agreed to write checks to Microsoft every time it ships an Android device.
Microsoft's latest target is Wistron Corp, which has signed a patent agreement "that provides broad coverage under Microsoft's patent portfolio for Wistron's tablets, mobile phones, e-readers and other consumer devices running the Android or Chrome platform," Microsoft announced.
You won't find Wistron devices in a Google Shopping search or on Amazon.com, because the company builds components for other brands. The existence of both Android and Chrome in the latest patent agreement shows Microsoft is going after Google products on multiple fronts. Chrome OS laptops, or "Chromebooks," recently hit the market from Samsung and Acer and contain the Chrome browser running on top of Linux.
"We are pleased that Wistron is taking advantage of our industrywide licensing program, established to help companies address Android's IP issues," Microsoft general counsel Horacio Gutierrez said in a press release.
Microsoft has struck more than 700 licensing agreements since launching its IP program in December 2003, including at least five with Android vendors. Just last week, Microsoft announced Android agreements with Velocity Micro, General Dynamics and Onkyo Corp. Since Microsoft is making the announcements one by one, there could be more coming this week.
The biggest win, however, was a patent agreement struck last year with HTC, which has become one of the most successful smartphone vendors on the strength of its Android devices such as the Evo and Thunderbolt.
Microsoft reportedly receives $5 every time HTC sells an Android phone, leading some observers to conclude that Microsoft makes more money from Android than its own Windows Phone 7 platform.
Microsoft isn't done, either. After all, there are dozens of Android vendors. Motorola, another major Android device maker, is fighting Microsoft's patent infringement claims in court, but Microsoft recently received a ruling in its favor in the ongoing litigation, according to patent watcher Florian Mueller.
Microsoft is suing Barnes & Noble over the Android-based Nook, and has signed patent agreements with Samsung and LG, although it's not clear whether these agreements extend to Android, Mueller also notes.
Microsoft claims Motorola infringes on 21 patents, including 19 with Android, according to Mueller.
Microsoft's contentious relationship with Linux-based products goes back many years, of course, to CEO Steve Ballmer calling Linux a cancer in 2001 and a 2007 claim that Linux and other open source software violates 235 Microsoft patents.
The Android patent wars also extend a fierce rivalry with Google, with the two companies fighting on many fronts including search engines, operating systems, browsers, office software and of course, mobile devices.
Ironically, Google's Android is likely a bigger profit maker for Microsoft than Bing, which has failed to topple Google in the search market. Bing is part of Microsoft's Online Services division, which lost more than US$700 million in the most recent quarter.
Microsoft's Windows Phone revenue numbers haven't been revealed, but Android is well ahead of Microsoft in smartphone market share.