Google released its Android 4.2 update yesterday, and among its list of features is support for multiple users on one device—with one caveat—they must be on Android tablets, not phones. This is certainly a curious limitation, given that there is little difference between the way tablets use Android OS and the way smart phones do. Techcrunch has a theory that it’s because a broad Nokia patent covers multiple users (with accounts and separate settings) on mobile phones, but not on tablets.
Google seems to have independently arrived at the technology and idea to allow multiple users to have accounts on the same device, so it seems logical that the reason this feature is not available on smart phones is that Google is seeking to avoid further patent litigation. This is just one more example of technology patents stifling innovation rather than encouraging it. Patents are intended to be granted only for novel ideas that would not be obvious to other inventors in the field or fields relevant to the patent, but an overexerted, underfunded US patent office simply does not have the time to give most patents more than a cursory review. This results in an astounding number of patents that should never have been granted in the first place (40% of patents that are litigated are declared invalid in court).
The benefits of having multiple user accounts on a tablet are obvious, but smart phones could likewise benefit from such a feature—especially in emerging markets where many users cannot afford to have their own phones but could share them. Unfortunately the current state of the patent system forces companies that could easily innovate without copying others’ ideas to hold themselves back because someone else got there first. It would be difficult to make an argument for how this state of affairs enhances innovation, and this development gives us one more reason to question whether patent law has kept pace with the times.