May 18, 2011

Skyhook vs. Google Lawsuit: The Missing Evil

I've been pouring through the newly released emails and other documents related to the Skyhook Wireless vs. Google lawsuit, searching for the "smoking guns" that many people sending me messages have assured me are there.

I have no inside information about this matter. But after reading through the mass of (generally lightly redacted) correspondence several times, I've been unable to find a reasonable basis for a lawsuit in Skyhook's concerns relating to this case.

To be sure, I personally might not have handled every aspect of this situation in exactly the same manner as Google did, but the overall thrust of events in context does not seem unreasonable, and in fact in significant ways is actually reassuring.

There are complex technical and policy aspects to all this, but let's start with a basic fact -- email archives are a highly imperfect mechanism for understanding the full scope of most situations.

Typically email represents only a portion of the whole scope in any decision-making process, with offline communications such as phone calls, video conferences, face-to-face communications, and so on also being involved.

And email is very easy to take out of context -- that's why I would urge anyone interested in really understanding this matter to take the time for a careful perusal of the entire email archive that's been made available, not just the "selected highlights" emails that have been getting most of the attention.

The importance of context is especially highlighted when we consider another important facet of email transcripts. Any healthy corporate decision-making process will often by definition include a complex give and take of ideas submitted but ultimately rejected, as participants better understand the issues and "home in" on formal positions.

In the Google case under discussion, this is what happened, and that's exactly as it should be.

By contrast, it's when complex questions instantly yield a chorus of compliant "yes, sir!" responses that one really needs to be concerned about corporate processes.

Skyhook's accusations essentially revolve around claims that Google unfairly acted to keep Skyhook's geolocation system off of Android mobile devices.

It's important to note at the outset that while Android is almost entirely an open source environment, "open" can't reasonably be used as an excuse for "chaos" when we're talking about extremely complex software and services ecosystems, interacting with complicated mobile hardware platforms and cellular networks.

This is especially true with Android, since most Android users don't view the operating system in isolation, but in conjunction with desirable Google-provided services such as Gmail, Google Maps, and various others.

Google doesn't charge manufacturers to use Android, but Google has a completely justifiable interest in not seeing Android fragment in ways that would significantly damage the user experience.

Similarly, it seems utterly reasonable that if manufacturers are going to make use of underlying Google-provided services (such as geolocation back-end processing), reasonable Google compatibility standards for the handling of associated data should not be undermined by those manufacturers.

This gets us to the heart of Skyhook's complaints. Since I want to keep this as non-technical as possible I'll be simplifying a bit, but hopefully the chronology will stay relatively clear. Again, this is my own interpretation, based solely on the released emails and associated docs.

Google became concerned when it suddenly learned -- reportedly primarily through public channels and without earlier warning -- that a major Android phone manufacturer was planning to alter a key part of the Android geolocation system to mainly use (or at least usually favor) Skyhook's Wi-Fi location system rather than Google's similar system that is already part of the Android environment.

There was also a public implication that Skyhook's geolocation technology was more accurate than Google's.

Google felt blindsided by this, and Google engineers argued that recent improvements and testing showed that Skyhook was not superior to Google's own system, and that Google had perhaps not been sufficiently proactive in terms of making this fact known.

There was also a major concern that the mechanism of this manufacturer's Skyhook integration into Android would continue to use the Google geolocation back-end processing services, but cut off Google from key data that was crucial for Google to continue providing and improving these services. There were also concerns that the Skyhook integration would commingle two different types of location information -- Skyhook Wi-Fi data and GPS data -- potentially contaminating Google's back-end database. These are valid technical issues.

The released emails show discussions among the various involved parties regarding how to best resolve this situation. Google apparently had not originally anticipated a manufacturer using a non-Google geolocation system in conjunction with the Google back-end processing, and felt that if a manufacturer wanted to use non-Google geolocation, they should not use the (expensive to provide) Google geolocation back-end in conjunction with the non-Google data, given the cutoff of important data to Google and the data contamination risks noted above. Google asserted that uses violating these principles was not in keeping with Android compatibility requirements.

It is important to note at this point that while Google employees involved in these discussions realized that compatibility requirements could exert strong controls over manufacturers' behaviors, it is clear in the full context of the emails that Google wanted to be sure that requirements had a strong engineering basis and would not be arbitrary.

Matters appear to have come to a head when it turned out (as I understand the events), that a different manufacturer was in a similar situation, and had already shipped a relatively small number of handsets that included a problematic Skyhook integration. When Google reportedly granted a "waiver" to the second company (which had agreed to quickly update the affected devices with new code), the other firm became upset that Google didn't want to grant a waiver for handsets that were not yet shipped (obviously, recalling already shipped phones is a much more expensive proposition than dealing with phones that have not already been shipped).

The first company didn't want to delay their shipping, and apparently decided that the most prudent course was to drop Skyhook for the time being, and get their devices out to market.

Skyhook was upset by this, so they sued Google.

That's my interpretation of the sequence, anyway.

Obviously, this is a complicated and multifaceted technical, policy, and even public relations situation. For me, the primary question is whether or not there is evil afoot, or bad faith behavior by any of the involved parties -- and I don't see any of these in this case.

What I do see is an extraordinarily educational example of the intricate and interrelated complexities of these technology ecosystems -- and of how the dynamics of corporate decision making and communications can be taken out of context in ways that in isolation may be spun to seemingly show bad faith when in reality none is present.

Above all, this matter demonstrates that even with the best efforts of everyone involved, these highly technical intercompany relationships will sometimes yield results that are not to the liking of all involved parties. Life doesn't always work out the way that we might have hoped.

I strongly believe that in many such situations in general, and in the case of Skyhook's complaints regarding Google in particular, such litigation is unnecessary, unwarranted, and in the end, likely to be highly counterproductive.

All the best to you and yours. Please take care everyone.


Posted by Lauren at May 18, 2011 04:08 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein