Update: It appears Samsung sent out the update removing universal search from international Galaxy S III's mistakenly. I'd say the point still stands for the United States, though.
On December 1, 2004, a patent was filed in the United States naming Apple as asignee (owner). Its title is "Universal interface for retrieval of information in a computer system." This patent, which you can find here, has become Apple's most effective weapon in its fight to see Android dubbed an iOS "ripoff" by courts and consumers.
And effective it has been - Samsung just removed the local search feature from the international version of the Galaxy S III, having already removed it from the US versions on AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon. It didn't even have to. Samsung did it only as a precaution. And that shows just how much faith they have in Google to fix it.
This is the patent that resulted in the ban of the Galaxy Nexus in the United States. Then, Google claimed it would be sending out an update that addressed the issue, right before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily lifted the ban, allowing sales to resume. Google hasn't yet issued said software update, and has specifically said that the Jelly Bean update to the handset doesn't change any search functionality on the device.
Google's play here (no pun intended) is likely to push off any further discussion of injunctive relief until it is able to have Apple's patent investigated by the USPTO, presumably in an attempt to have it invalidated or narrowed by prior art. However, given that Apple's '604 patent has already survived scrutiny in various cases, this is far from a likelihood. Google would very much like to see this patent vaporized - but that just doesn't seem like something they should be betting on at this point.
Not Our Problem
In fact, Google almost seems disconnected from reality when it comes to Apple's patent allegations against Android manufacturers. Apple's ITC victory over HTC for its data-tapping patent resulted in the halting of at least 4 smartphones by US Customs - the One X, EVO 4G LTE, Amaze 4G, and Incredible 4G LTE (inferred through a not-so-mysterious one month launch delay). The One S was likely also affected, but T-Mobile may have had sufficient stock on hand to avoid a supply issue. So, what did Google do? Nothing. HTC issued software patches to the affected devices removing Android's "app picker" functionality, implementing a default app associations menu in settings that makes for quite a poor substitute. And now Apple says they aren't finished - demanding further bans under the same patent (the ITC dismissed the claim, but Apple is appealing), this time in Gmail.
HTC's "App associations" menu, found only on US handsets
As far as we know, no changes have been made to Android that avoid this Apple patent (there is a new app picker in Jelly Bean, but Apple's claim is on a highly technical underlying part of the system, not the mere concept).
And let's not forget the spat Motorola had with Apple over this same feature, which Motorola was lucky enough to have thrown out by a judge who disagreed with Apple's remedy demands on legal principle.
"Workaround" has become a euphemism for "removal," and make no mistake: it means Android is losing this patent war.
The biggest problem is that none of this is Samsung, Motorola, or HTC's fault. It's Google's. These are core Android features, designed and implemented by Google, and used by their handset partners as licensees. While Motorola is now a part of Google itself, Samsung and HTC can't be ecstatic about Google's response to Apple's legal onslaught thus far. As its partners pour millions of dollars into these legal entanglements and see device launches squandered by bans (in HTC's case), Google sits back and "waits it out."
I would hope there are developers at Google working on solutions that avoid these Apple patents, but given the amount of time the company has had to know that these were issues, its response has been woefully inadequate, if not downright pathetic. It has known about Apple's complaint against the Galaxy Nexus since February. It has known about the decision against HTC at the ITC since December of 2011. How difficult are some of these technical patents to work around? It's hard to say, but it certainly can't be impossible, and I think it's time for Google to be a little more vocal on how it plans on dealing with them.
The Middle Man
The counterpoint is that these are simply allegations, and not against Google. Why should Google start running around coding around things if the outcomes of these legal battles are uncertain, especially when it's not actually the party being sued? Isn't it simply an admission of guilt? Legally, no, it's not - Apple can't take Google's actions post-accusation and say "Ha! See what they did there? They knew they were in the wrong." There are obvious reasons for this (eg, cautionary measures), but then there's the matter of how that looks to everyone watching. And there's also just the domino-effect argument - if Google caves once and implements a workaround to an Apple patent, everyone will see that weakness and expect them to do it again and again, until Android is a useless, dumbed-down lump. That certainly is a risk, but I'd argue the immediate threat is greater: bans and feature-stripping are hurting Android right now.
Manufacturers have already started doing this dumbing-down for Google. They've caved in, removed features, even when they didn't have to, in Samsung's case. And that's bad. Google is Android, but to say the manufacturers are separate from that is delusional. Without the manufacturers selling these millions of Android phones, Android is nothing but a piece of software. And as far as most lay consumers are concerned, Samsung, HTC, and Motorola are Android. They could care less about an abstract concept like "software" - they know Android as the phone in their hand.
And when the BBC starts thinking that the removal of a software feature from a smartphone is newsworthy, it's time to stop pretending you have the situation under control.
So, what happens if Samsung loses that lawsuit against Apple on the unified search patent? What does Google do then? If its actions post-HTC are any indication, nothing. Expect Samsung to fix it, perhaps. But we know that's not what would happen. Because Google's Galaxy Nexus handset has been accused of infringement, they'll fix it. They'll work around it - and everyone will get access to that workaround in AOSP. They wouldn't dare remove a core OS feature from a Nexus device, certainly not permanently. Of course, if it's not a Nexus device being accused, then the outcome ends up being much less certain for the party on the receiving end of those accusations.
And if Google did issue such a fix, you can have reasonably certainty that it would actually be a fix. They won't strip a feature out, they'll come up with a way to solve the problem. Manufacturers, on the other hand, could really care less about doing it "right." Do you really think HTC is super concerned about the app picker as it's paying millions in legal fees, and millions more go down the drain in lost sales caused by delayed launches? Somehow I doubt it. Even if you think Google doesn't have a responsibility to deal with these problems, there's no denying that they're the only ones truly capable of fixing them.
Increasingly, consumers are being put on the front line of Android and Apple's legal wrangling, and that's simply the wrong way to deal with this situation. The last thing you ever want to do is have them feel the effect of a lawsuit they have nothing to do with. Google, as much as I'm sure it feels good to take the moral high ground and stubbornly refuse to code and design around Apple's thinly-veiled market share war lawsuits, I can guarantee the people actually using your software on a daily basis don't want any part of it.
I doubt anyone feels any better now that their Galaxy S III no longer has universal search, or that their EVO 4G LTE has a neutered "app associations" menu and arrived at their doorstep several weeks late, so long as it means Apple doesn't "win." And when HTC and Samsung do things like that, they're just telling us Apple is winning. If spending a bunch of time coming up with real workarounds to these patent allegations is what has to be done to get these features back, so be it. Even if Apple's patents are later invalidated, at least your users won't get a gimped experience.
Google, as much as I want to support you in taking a firm stance against the absurdity of what companies like Apple are doing, I think Kenny Rogers said it best: you got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. A compromise here and there isn't the end of the world.