SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Apple Inc's increasingly effective patent war against rivals like Samsung Electronics may mask its real target: arch-foe Google Inc.
The maker of the iPad and iPhone has sued three of the largest manufacturers of Google's Android-based devices -- Samsung, Motorola and HTC -- for multiple patent infringements across multiple countries, pointing out "slavish copying" of design and "look and feel."
And the courts are beginning to listen: recent success in blocking sales of Samsung's latest Galaxy tablet in most of Europe and Apple's challenges to the Korean giant in Australia reflect an aggressive effort to defend its top position in the red-hot mobile market from the runaway success of Android.
While the lawsuits don't take direct aim at the operating software -- yet -- many of the features under contention are connected to and enhanced by it. Apple CEO Steve Jobs once referred to the software as being the soul of any device when he introduced the company's iOS 5 system in June.
Brian Marshall, an analyst with Gleacher & Co, said Apple is starting to flex its patent muscle with some early success but its real battle is with the Android software. "Apple doesn't really care too much about the actual OEMs."
Apple's lead is now under siege in smartphones from Google's free Android software, already the world's most-used mobile system with 550,000 devices activated every day.
Its momentum could be hampered by successful patent infringement lawsuits against adopters like Samsung.
"The way Google gets sucked into it is through the marketplace," Ron Laurie, managing director and patent consultant at Inflexion Point Strategy, said.
Any injunction won by Apple, if enforced, could mean that Android may be forced to take out the offending feature from its software design. "That would make it less attractive and people would go elsewhere," Laurie said.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has said rivals are responding to Android's success with lawsuits "as they cannot respond through innovations."
At stake is a booming one-year-old market that analysts are already predicting will eclipse the decades-old PC market in a matter of years, a market that Apple fears Google's software could eventually dominate the way it now leads the smartphone arena.
The tablet market is expected to grow from under 20 million tablets last year to over 230 million in 2015.
While Apple is still the leader by far in the tablet market, research firm Informa expects tablets running Android to catch up with Apple's iPad and surpass it in 2016.
Samsung, experts say, has the best chance of attacking the iPad's commanding hold on the market. Apple's 75 percent share is expected to fall to 39 percent in 2015, when Android's will grow to 38 percent, according to Informa.
A less visible benefit of Apple waging and winning patent battles against the likes of Samsung, HTC and Motorola would be that Android may effectively no longer be free because of potential licensing costs that need to be paid to Apple.
Android's major vulnerability lies in the patent arena. Being a fairly new entrant in this market, Google hasn't built up enough intellectual property in the way Apple or Microsoft has.
"All this will end up making Android less 'free', Jean-Louis Gassee, venture capitalist and a former Apple executive, said. "But by how much? Five dollars a handset, no problem. Fifteen dollars -- then it is trouble."
Apple knows the power of licensing -- from the losing side as well. It recently forged a cross-licensing patent deal with Nokia, agreeing to make a one-time payment in hundreds of millions of dollars and pay continuing royalties.
But it is Google that had been caught off guard in the patent battle, being historically and philosophically opposed to gathering them as a defensive or offensive move. But that is changing with Google now in the hunt for key patents.
This has sparked an expensive arms race between technology giants as they try to outbid each other to stockpile on valuable patent portfolios up for grabs.
In the high-profile tussle for 6,000 wireless patents from bankrupt Nortel Networks, Google kicked off the tug-of-war with a stalking horse bid of $900 million -- far greater than anyone expected. But Apple -- allying with Microsoft, Sony and others -- swooped in to snap them up eventually for $4.5 billion, a price tag that sent shockwaves through the industry.
Google's chief lawyer, David Drummond, last week lashed out against Apple and others, accusing them of "a hostile, organized campaign against Android by Microsoft, Oracle, Apple and other companies, waged through bogus patents."
In the wake of the injunction against the Galaxy in Europe, Apple is seeking a similar ruling against Motorola's Xoom in German court. It won a preliminary ruling last month from a U.S. trade panel that HTC infringed two of Apple's patents.
But Apple is not the only one enforcing patent rights on Android mobile devices. Microsoft recently settled a suit with HTC over the Taiwanese company's Android devices. Oracle is seeking billions of dollars from Google for infringing on Java patents through its Android system.
Analysts expect Apple to continue to be the aggressor.
"It's clear that the tablet wars are going to be fought on many, many fronts," Michael Gartenberg, technology analyst with Gartner. "Clearly lots of companies are seeing opportunities here who don't plan on ceding the market to Apple, and Apple is using everything in its arsenal to defend itself."
Reporting by Poornima Gupta; Editing by Edwin Chan, Gary Hill