Google inches closer to patent showdown with Apple

Google (s goog) is apparently putting its new Motorola (s mmi) patents to work, transferring some of them to HTC, which has turned around and sued Apple for patent infringement. The move by HTC, first reported by Bloomberg, escalates the fighting between the Apple (s aapl)and HTC, who have sued each other over patent claims. But it marks a more aggressive stance by Google, which is applying its growing patent strength in an effort to shore up the larger Android ecosystem.

In its case filed in federal court in Delaware, HTC cited four patents, which came from Motorola. The Taiwanese device maker also amended its infringement case against Apple with the International Trade Commission to include three patents from Openwave (s opwv) and two that were originally issued to Palm (s hpq). Bloomberg said Google, which obtained the patents within the last year, transferred the patents to HTC on Sept. 1. It’s unclear, however, how exactly Google obtained the patents.

The move increases the likelihood of an eventual Apple-Google showdown. So far, Apple has chosen to file cases against Android manufacturers including HTC, Motorola and Samsung and not directly against Google. Now, it may just be a matter of time before the two go head-to-head.

Patent expert Florian Mueller writes that it initially appears Google is trying to shore up HTC, which hasn’t had much luck in fighting Apple or getting to a point where it can force a cross-licensing agreement. He said the more advanced state of HTC’s fight with Apple and the likelihood it might lose may have prompted Google to act. The ITC in July preliminarily sided with Apple saying HTC infringed on two Apple patents. The patents appear to be based on software built into the core of the Android operating system, which could have spelled trouble for Google and all Android manufacturers.

By working with HTC to sue Apple, it looks like Google is working toward a broader defense of Android. It’s unclear how successful HTC and Google will be, however. A number of observers have not been impressed with the strength of Motorola’s patents, and Apple knew about Motorola’s patent portfolio and still sued Motorola. But it shows that Google is wading deeper into this fight, as it probably has no choice now. If Apple keeps up the pressure, the patent claims could undermine a lot of the gains Android has made in the U.S. and abroad.

Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Army.