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Apple's patent bark is worse than its bite


Published: 11 November, 2011


The rhetoric of "Speak softly and carry a big stick and you will go far," is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, but might just as easily been said of late about Microsoft. Apple on the other hand carries a small patent stick, and so does not have the confidence to speak so softly. Both have mostly software patents, many of which may easily be undermined in a court of law, which today recognizes new definitions of what is patentable under US law, and outside of the US software patents simply cut no ice.

The patent wars of late all seem to be about software, while prior wars were focused on who invented which wireless technology, which mostly took in on-chip technologies. But while Microsoft is stacking up win after win, Apple is making friends with no-one and in its second major reversal against a wireless player (the first was Nokia) Motorola appears to have the power to stop Apple devices shipping in Europe prior to Christmas.

In these escalating patent wars, the main headlines have centered on the new mobile powerhouses, as they apply their huge software and web IPR arsenals to the handset and tablet world. As Microsoft, Apple and Google assert their power through lawsuits and acquisitions, the traditional power brokers in wireless IPR have been uncharacteristically quiet. No longer. Samsung has been far more aggressive in recent weeks about shaking its patent-laden iron fist at Apple's attacks. And now the 'MEN' (Motorola, Ericsson, Nokia) companies which laid the foundations of the mobile industry, gathering vast stores of IPR in the process, are starting to roar.

Most of the burden of those royalty fees rests with the equipment and device makers, allowing Microsoft and Google to remain somewhat aloof from the traditional bilateral negotiations with Qualcomm and co, which were a fact of life for the previous generation of mobile leaders.

In the new world, the situation is different - the device makers and their chip suppliers bargain over fundamental wireless IPR, while the software majors attack on different fronts, where those traditional mobile players are weaker. But the dividing lines are blurring. Google will soon be a handset maker itself, effectively making it into one of the MEN triumvirate, and while Microsoft may not actually decide to make its own phones, it has effectively joined that MEN table too by virtue of its close alliance with Nokia.

In this 2,600 word analysis it becomes clear that Apple has no stick. In many respects it is like HTC, as a newer device maker - it has a major mobile device business, but is essentially weak on basic wireless IPR. And the outcome doesn't look good.

For a full analysis of this subject go to and order this week's Faultline issue, otherwise you'll have about as much knowledge on the subject as an Apple fanboy.

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