Geoworks patent claim lobs grenade into WAP Forum
Looks like the Forum may have messed up big time...
Geoworks announcement that it will be seeking fees and royalties from WAP phone manufacturers and sites because a patent it holds (US 5,327,529, also filed in Japan, and granted in July 1994) is used in the WAP protocol, has thrown a cat among the pigeons. There are several worrying aspects to this, the least of which is probably the fee that Geoworks is seeking for a licence. The WAP Forum anticipated when it was formed that intellectual property rights could be involved in the protocol that it elaborated, since its charter documents requires members to notify any essential intellectual property rights, which must then be offered for licensing to other members "on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms". Geoworks was the first to do this, drawing attention to the "Flex UI" part of its patent that it says is included in the implementation of the Wireless Application Protocol and the associated Wireless Markup Language. Geoworks also says that other members followed suit, although the information it sent last May was only posted in the members section of the WAP web site. It would be interesting to know just what discussions have occurred between Geoworks and the WAP Forum in recent months. Can any Register reader enlighten us? The WAP site notes that WAP is "an open, global specification that empowers mobile users with wireless devices to easily access and interact with information and services instantly", which may well need revision so far as the "open" aspect is concerned. In contrast to trademarks, patent owners do not have to go to the same lengths to assert and defend the intellectual property, which partly accounts for the delay in Geoworks doing anything. However, the possibility of raising some cash this way may have been in Geoworks CEO Dave Grannan's mind when the company hired Don Ezell as COO and general counsel last summer. If it wasn't, then Ezell must have realised the potential, since he had been given special responsibility for looking after Geoworks' professional services consulting business and wireless information services. Geoworks has not enjoyed great success in recent years, reporting a loss of $994,000 on revenues of $2,294,000 in its Q2 ending 30 September, although the loss was about half that in Q1. Geoworks had $14.2 million in cash and marketable securities at 30 September, and went public in June 1994. The loss for the last FY was $14.8 million on sales of $12.9 million. Amazon.com invested $5 million for a 7 per cent stake last February (paying a $1 million premium over the market price), although it was believed at the time that Amazon's real purpose was to get access to 19 software types employed by Geoworks. Geoworks says that it is in licensing discussions with several key WAP Forum members, but no licences have yet been announced. Geoworks defined in a white paper nine WAP sub-markets that it says are potentially liable for infringement: WAP-enabled wireless telecom services; WAP-enabled mobile devices; WAP microbrowsers; WAP-enabled servers; WAP development tools; packaged WAP applications; custom WAP applications and consulting; WAP ASPs; and WAP sites. It's a list that is likely to raise hackles. A sign of Geoworks intention to exert pressure to license is that licences executed after 1 July may have different terms and higher fees. Geoworks is offering an application licence or a platform licence, both with a fee of $20,000, with the latter also attracting a royalty rate of 10 per cent of the price or a minimum of $1 per seat. Organisations turning over less than £$1 million will apparently not be required to have a licence. Geoworks came to fame with its GEOS operating system, and for x86 with Geoworks Ensemble (but with 1Mb of RAM of course) which was superior to Windows at the time. Needless to say, Microsoft's marketing power triumphed over technology. GEOS was later used in Nokia's Communicators, but Geoworks disposed of Geos to NewDeal some years ago. It looks as though there will be a furore in the industry about the assertion of this patent, as well as the WAP Forum's lack of foresight. It is all very well having a procedure to recognise and require the licensing of patents, but developing standards that include patents that are not transferred to the standards body are not a good idea. After all, Novell did surrender the Unix patent that it bought from AT&T to what became the Open Group, although whether the Open Group was in fact a good custodian is a separate issue. It is an open question whether Geoworks patent application disclosed all prior art, and whether the patent is sufficiently novel and non-obvious to withstand a possible assault by the Nokias and Microsofts of this world. WAP is of transitional importance for a few years until we get broader-band wireless communication, when it will either have evolved or be replaced by mainstream standards. It would be a bad thing if IP rights assertion were to get in the way of WAP, but any aggravation does not auger well for Geoworks' future. If there's a lesson to be had, it is that all IP in industry standards must be surrendered. That of course is also the answer for Java, and if Java, why not the grandfather of all proprietary systems: Windows? Are you listening, DoJ? ®
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