Nokia’s ace in the patent wars is the breadth of its portfolio. Nokia was central in developing GSM, GPRS, EDGE, W-CDMA, HSPA, LTE and Wi-Fi technologies, which are now bundled into most 3G mobile handsets. Nokia’s grip on mobile patents has been slipping recently — it had a far stronger role in developing GPRS and EDGE standards of Nineties than it does with the brand new LTE standard. Most 3G smartphones still have to employ older tech like EDGE to ensure connectivity in areas of spotty 3G and 4G coverage, however, and this could play to Nokia’s advantage.
In addition to the radio interface tech, Nokia also hogged a wide spectrum of patents in diverse areas such as mobile email software, antenna technology and power consumption. Many of those patents are anchored in the burst of creativity the company demonstrated around 1996-1999, when Nokia introduced devices like the Communicator, which offered email support and a full QWERTY keyboard in 1996.
Because of the intense R&D effort Nokia put into developing email phones in mid-Nineties, Nokia’s patent portfolio spans a variety of very specific segments such as retrieval of email attachments, dynamic menus and data encryption on mobile devices. Nokia’s early interest in Wi-Fi support and dual-use antennas also dates back to its smartphone development drive that began 17 years ago.
With patent powerhouses like Motorola Mobility and Apple, Nokia has reached a truce. Motorola possessed such a strong hand in GSM patents that Nokia had to cross-licence the bulk of its patent portfolio more than a decade ago. With Apple, Nokia was forced into a deal because Apple’s pivotal touchscreen manipulation patents are integral to modern smartphones. Yet despite Apple’s software patent prowess, the company will pay Nokia at least $3 to 6 billion in licensing fees over the next half a decade according to estimates.
The Motorola cross-licensing deal does not seem to have pass-through rights to other vendors, even after Google acquired Motorola. Google’s Asian partners remain particularly vulnerable because they started manufacturing smartphones and tablets so late they missed the entire late-Nineties wave of early 3G, Wi-Fi and smartphone software patents.
Companies like Asus have a tough time cobbling together patent pools that are diverse enough to create offsets for a combination of, say, Wi-Fi, power consumption and antenna engineering patents. The antenna and power consumption technologies that underpin the current smartphone industry were developed largely during late 1990s and early 2000s — and these patents are viewed as fiendishly difficult to bypass.
It could be argued that the most valuable Nokia patents date to the 1995-2000 period. After 2005 or so, Samsung and LG started aggressively pursuing mobile telecom patents, and their share of the overall pot increased sharply. At the same time, Apple’s software patents suddenly became hugely valuable as the industry entered the touchscreen era.
Nokia may be facing a “use it or lose it” scenario, where it now must either litigate Taiwanese, Chinese and Indian vendors aggressively or risk letting them slide by until key patents begin expiring. It looks like Nokia intends to employ the “use it” strategy — and HTC, ViewSonic and Asus are probably just the first wave of targets.
Image source: rolikeusch, Flickr