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Apple forced to shut off push e-mail service in Germany

February 24, 2012: 7:15 AM ET

Motorola Mobility (and Google) give Cupertino a taste of its own patent medicine 

Following a loss three weeks ago in Germany's Mannheim Regional Court, Apple (AAPL) late Thursday informed German iPhone customers that e-mail would no longer be "pushed" to their phones -- BlackBerry style -- through their iCloud or MobileMe services.

Pending Apple's appeal, which could take months, iPhone users in Germany will have to retrieve their e-mail the old-fashioned way: by "pulling" it manually or by configuring their iPhones to check for new messages periodically.

It's the first time iPhone users anywhere in the world have inconvenienced by the ongoing smartphone patent wars.

At issue in this case is a Motorola patent dating back to the pager era -- one of 17,000 patents Google (GOOG) picked up when it acquired Motorola Mobility (MMI) for $12.5 billion last August. Lawyers representing Motorola claimed that Apple's push e-mail system infringed their patent and a German judge -- applying the relatively lax standards of the Mannheim court -- had to agree.

What makes this particular technology different from most of the patents Motorola has accused Apple of infringing, FOSS Patent's Florian Mueller explains, is that it does not appear to be essential to any industry standard. Companies are required to license standards-essential patents under so-called FRAND (fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory) terms.

Microsoft (MSFT) this week joined Apple in lodging a formal antitrust complaint with the European Commission for what they claim is Motorola's anticompetitive use of standards-essential patents.

Apple has been waging what Steve Jobs called "thermonuclear war" against competitors he perceived as having "stolen" proprietary -- i.e. not standards-essential -- Apple technology.

" I don't blame Motorola for seeking the enforcement of an injunction based on a patent that is not standard-essential," writes Mueller, who has been a vocal critic of Motorola's FRAND lawsuits. "This is fair."

"As a result of Apple's own enforcement of patents," he writes, "Android users see this happen all the time, with features either being removed or hobbled. For example, as a Samsung customer, I no longer get the overscroll bounceback feature on my device; I have to unlock my device with the inferior slide-to-unlock circle (last week, Apple won a German ruling against Motorola based on the relevant patent); and a few months ago, after I updated my firmware, I noticed that turning pages in the Android photo gallery was different (and less convenient)."

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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