The mobile patent wars

Posted by Guy Wright

The Apple versus Samsung patent trial is now in the hands of the jury (heaven help them all) and tech reporters are waiting with bated breath for the outcome.

Speculation about the future of mobile devices, how they look, how people touch them, how much or how little devices of the future will be able to resemble/emulate/copy other devices all seems to hinge on this one case.

The mobile patent warsYet, I really don’t think it will make much difference one way or the other because all those horses have already left the barn.

For example, Samsung has already stopped manufacturing the device that Apple wants them to stop manufacturing and they’ve gone on to other designs.

Yes, there are still iPod-like elements in their new line of phones but there are iPod-like elements in most smart phones these days (and iPods have Samsung-like elements and Nokia-like elements and HTC-like elements and on and on).

There are so many bits of technology in any mobile device, developed by dozens of different companies that it would be virtually impossible to build a new device without licensing (or infringing) on literally hundreds of patents.

I read a story recently that claimed patent law suits in the mobile space had increased 25% over the past ten years and if you try to unravel the tangle of who is suing who for what you’re going to go crazy or blind or both. When you add in the fact that companies keep merging, selling their patent portfolios to other companies, and licensing or transferring their existing licenses to other companies then you’ve got a web of confusion so thick you could walk on it.

And it doesn’t help that patent licensing has become a major revenue generator for most of these companies and suing people for infringements earns even more money.

But none of that really matters. You can go out today and find twenty or thirty smart phones and tablets that look and work like an iPhone, iPad, or Samsung, or HTC, or whatever. And even if Cupertino wins this particular skirmish, there will be 20 or 30 more smart phones and tablets released in the next year that look and work pretty much exactly like Apple’s products - and they will be produced by companies who pop up and disappear overnight, or they will be so well hidden behind political and governmental walls that it will be impossible to even prove they exist let alone take them to court.

I would be willing to bet a lot of money that at this very moment, in some street-side stall in downtown Beijing, right between the stalls selling Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton shoes, you can plunk down 80,000 Yuan (about $13 US) and walk away with an iPhone, complete with an Apple logo, running a Windows Phone OS.

And with that phone you can download all seventeen of the Harry Potter books, next year’s entire season of Twilight, Avatar movies one through six, and the formulas for every prescription drug known to man.

Who ya gonna sue?