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Mobile patents war shifts to email

Major IP landgrab

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Battle for mobile email

Behind all these debates over the principles of royalties, there is a major landgrab going on for patents in areas that are seen as critical to revenue growth in mobile systems. Vendors are seeking intellectual property not just to generate new revenues but to disadvantage their rivals as they race after new and lucrative markets. Most prominent among these is currently mobile push email, and beyond that, cellphone-based integrated messaging incorporating email, voicemail, instant messaging, presence capabilities, SMS and future techniques like videomail, under a single telephone directory and user interface.

This is seen as a major driver of mobile data revenues in both the enterprise and consumer markets and is being hotly chased by the handset majors and by the companies that are extending integrated messaging strategies from other platforms such as the internet PC. Microsoft, in both its Windows Mobile and MSN guises; the internet players Google, Yahoo! and AOL; Nokia with its quest for the mobile enterprise space; Qualcomm seeking to make its CDMA platform more attractive to operators; and the specialist RIM are all fighting for the sector from different angles (see Wireless Watch November 21st issue). One key element of their battle, and one that highlights the more general issues surrounding patents in the mobile world, revolves around intellectual property.

So, earlier this month we saw Nokia acquiring Intellisync for its push email technology. There were some obvious motivators – allowing the Finnish giant to sideline RIM and control its own platform in this crucial market being the key one. Since Intellisync is mainly implemented by carriers, with Verizon Wireless its largest customer, it also gave Nokia a welcome foothold in its weakest base, the CDMA operators, which could drive future sales of high end CDMA handsets. But as an added bonus, and helping to justify the $430m purchase price, Nokia not only gains Intellisync’s store of 60 patents to add to its existing hoard in this market, but also wins control of the platform on which archenemy Qualcomm has built its own mobile email offering, Eudora2Go. Nokia could potentially force its rival to re-engineer Eudora2Go around a different technology, losing it valuable time to market, or charge it high fees for licensing.

The patent holders

But there are other patents in this area that are up for grabs. Of course, there is the long running saga of RIM’s battle with patent hoarder NTP over some core push email intellectual property. RIM claims it has devised a workaround, and if it has, this would certainly boost its value and potentially, the likelihood that a larger company will acquire it as it sees its huge market share start to dwindle. RIM has leveraged its own patents to try to keep other minor players out of the space it pioneered, and its IP remains attractive if it can be freed of legal burdens.

Then there is Wireless Science, the intellectual property sister company to mobile content specialist Wireless2Web. This company claims to have 1,600 patents or pending patents, including the LinkPush user-controlled content mechanism, and has indicated that it is keen to gain an acquirer or exclusive licensee for them. It works in areas including push email, mobile multimedia, voice-email integration, music download and others.

Microsoft could be on the look-out for acquisitions in this area, although it is relying on its own market weight rather than patents to spread its integrated communications platforms, including its new DirectPush email function – now the basis of future offerings from the other surviving major independent alongside RIM, Palm. The giant has no significant patents in this market, but does, of course, license its Windows Mobile Media Audio and Video technologies to third parties, such as Qualcomm and various phonemakers, which use these partly to underpin multimedia messaging and other data services.

If Wireless Science’s patents are as valuable as the company claims, they could be a good purchase for a handset maker, providing a headstart in an increasingly pivotal and competitive market and a way to keep other rivals out. All of which shows that patents are becoming more, not less, important to the way that vendors compete in the mobile market, and that the royalties issue will not be easily solved. Rather than relying too heavily on the slow processes of the European Commission and standards bodies, the cellcos may do better to emulate Japan’s NTT DoCoMo and Korea’s SKT and acquire some IP of their own, so that they too have something to trade with the increasingly royalty- dependent equipment makers.

Copyright © 2005, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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