Qualcomm Seeks iPhone Sales and Manufacturing Ban in China (Oct 13, 2017)
Qualcomm has announced that it’s filed lawsuits in China seeking a ban on iPhone sales and manufacturing in the country, the latest salvo in the ongoing dispute between the two over patent royalty payments. Qualcomm previously requested the International Trade Commission to ban the import of Intel-based iPhones into the US, and importantly the Chinese government earlier fined Qualcomm on antitrust grounds, so it’s not necessarily disposed to siding with it in this case. However, Qualcomm has been among a set of companies looking to curry favor with the Chinese government, so it’s possible that the Chinese government might look more favorably on such a request. On balance, though, I think it’s unlikely that Qualcomm will prevail here given its history not only in China but elsewhere around these antitrust issues, though of course a successful ban would be a huge blow to Apple in China, so it’s understandable why Qualcomm would seek it as a way to gain leverage in the case.
Qualcomm Fined $773m by Taiwan for Antitrust Violations (Oct 11, 2017)
Following existing investigations and/or action over antitrust issues against Qualcomm in the US, South Korea, and China, Taiwanese authorities have issued a $773m fine against the company over the same issues. The government’s Fair Trade Commission found that Qualcomm acted anticompetitively when it forced licensees for its standards-essential patterns to accept onerous terms as a condition of licensing. The fine relates to a 7-year period in which the FTC says Qualcomm was paid around $13 billion by Taiwanese manufacturers (presumably HTC and contract manufacturers like Foxconn). This antitrust situation is going more and more badly for Qualcomm, but the biggest outstanding case is of course its fight with Apple, which is withholding its own and contractors’ royalties from the company pending the outcome of various lawsuits. It’s hard to see this all going Qualcomm’s way at this point, and it feels like it’s mostly a question of how much the royalty rate will end up being reduced, and therefore what the financial hit will be.
Apple Wins First Small Battles in Court Against Qualcomm (Sep 22, 2017)
I haven’t seen much coverage of this today, but it appears that Apple won a first couple of small battles in its various lawsuits with Qualcomm. A California judge ruled that Apple’s supply chain partners don’t have to pay the royalties they’re currently withholding until such a time as the proper amounts to be paid have been determined, and Qualcomm was also denied its request to end the litigation being pursued separately by Apple in other countries. These are initial steps in what’s going to be a potentially long and complex set of court cases between the companies, but it’s possible that the companies will end up settling once it becomes clearer which way the legal wind is blowing, and they would then likely drop all outstanding litigation. By themselves, these first decisions aren’t indicative of which way things are going to go, but they do put increased financial pressure on Qualcomm, which has seen reported revenues drop as Apple’s partners withhold royalties, which will likely push it to move to settlement sooner rather than later, something that’s probably good news for Apple.
via Apple Insider
Google and HTC finally announced the deal that’s been rumored for a while and for which many details leaked yesterday. Google is in the end only acquiring 2000 employees and some non-exclusive intellectual property, for $1.1 billion, an amount over half of HTC’s market cap before the deal was announced. The 2000 are around half the research and design team at HTC (and a fifth of the total workforce), while the other half will remain and work on a streamlined portfolio of first-party HTC hardware including a new flagship already in the works. Google’s blog post about the deal is remarkably vague and unhelpful, and it’s equally remarkable that there’s no SEC filing or press release on Alphabet’s investor relations site about the deal given its magnitude. It’s almost as if Google doesn’t want to talk about the deal or its details, but HTC very much wants to, emphasizing both the financial boon – the money to be paid in cash once the deal closes in early 2018 – and its ongoing commitment to making smartphones and VR devices.
The deal has echoes of Microsoft’s bailout acquisition of Nokia a few years back – HTC is a far less important strategic partner to Google, but this very much feels like Google offering a financial lifeline to the very unprofitable and shrinking HTC in return for some assets it needs. Those assets are IP necessary to make Pixel phones without being sued by HTC or anyone else but also the research and design skills necessary to build those phones exactly to Google’s specifications and needs rather than having to work off HTC’s foundation and platform, originally built for other devices. That optimization and the integration with Android it should enable are going to be critical for Google to squeeze the most out of its hardware efforts, though it also needs to go deeper on the chips side, something it’s been reported to be doing separately.
One of the things I’ve been asked about by reporters over the last 24 hours or so is what effect this will have on other Android OEMs. The simple answer is that it clearly strengthens Google’s first party hardware capabilities, which for now aren’t much of a threat. But it’s not as if those OEMs can do anything about it – Android is the only viable open smartphone platform out there today, and if OEMs aren’t producing top-notch, differentiated hardware, Google’s efforts in the space are far from their only problem. One thing is notable: Android engineering head Dave Burke is apparently in Taipei – which is interesting because Google hardware has been said to run at arm’s length from Android team, like any other OEM, so there’s no real reason why Dave Burke would need to be involved in this transaction, and yet there he is in HTC’s home city as this deal is announced.
From HTC’s perspective, the cash infusion will give it breathing room to continue working on a strategy that can again provide sustainable profits in the long run, presumably with its Vive VR business at its core, given that even a shrunken smartphone team isn’t likely to be profitable at its current (or smaller, Pixel-less) scale. I do wonder why Google didn’t just buy the whole company – at under $2 billion market cap, Google could presumably have paid roughly double what it is and had the whole thing, taking what it needed, including manufacturing capability, VR hardware expertise, and other useful pieces, and shut the rest down. This deal is certainly simpler and less painful from an integration perspective, but I’m still not sure I see a viable future for HTC even with this investment and the attendant changes.
Apple Adds New Claims to Qualcomm Lawsuit (Jun 20, 2017)
Apple and Nokia Settle Patent Litigation (May 23, 2017)
In commenting on Qualcomm’s recent earnings report, I mentioned that if Apple and its suppliers continued to hold back royalty payments as part of their dispute, Qualcomm would be affected more severely in future quarters than in Q1, and that has now proven to be the case. In Qualcomm’s original guidance for this quarter, it had said that its guidance range didn’t include a scenario where it received no payments at all from these companies, but it now appears that’s the scenario that’s playing out. Apple has said it won’t make any payments until the dispute is resolved and new royalty rates set, which is a great way to put pressure on Qualcomm to either settle quickly or at least move the court case along swiftly, but means Qualcomm will be severely impacted in the meantime. It’ll be very interesting to hear Apple’s commentary on all this on its earnings call next Tuesday because it will have to set aside at least some of the amounts due as a contingency, and I’m curious to see how that affects its reported costs and margins.
Qualcomm Files Response to Apple Lawsuit (Apr 11, 2017)
Qualcomm has now officially filed a response to Apple’s lawsuit over anticompetitive practices and breach of contract, including both answers to the specific allegations in the suit and a number of counter-claims. One of the main counterclaims is that, by “inducing” regulators to look into Qualcomm, Apple breached the companies’ “Cooperation agreement” and therefore was no longer entitled to certain payments it had received previously. The document further alleges that Apple made many false statements in the course of both its own suit and the discussions it had with regulators, and tried to insert itself into relationships between Qualcomm and other Apple suppliers. Perhaps most interestingly, Qualcomm brings to light something which was covered in the press at the time but didn’t get much attention: the allegation that Apple deliberately hamstrung the Qualcomm chips in the iPhone 7 such that performance would be consistent with those models that had Intel modems, and then prevented Qualcomm from talking about it. On the face of it, that allegation has nothing to do with the broader allegations, but it’s an area where Apple’s public reputation could be vulnerable, and I’m guessing it’s been included in the suit to garner more attention than Qualcomm would get through focusing on the patent and other issues alone.
Google has today announced a patent licensing alliance which is intended to provide cover to member companies using each other’s patents. The idea is that any member can use any other member’s patents without fear of being sued, something that’s actually been quite common between members of the broader ecosystem over the last few years. The alliance has only nine members to start with, about half of which are smaller smartphone brands, but the members do include Samsung, LG, and of course Google itself, as well as Foxconn. Those members alone apparently have 230,000 patents between them which will now be freely available to other members within the context of Android devices. This is a fascinating move, and it’s impressive that Google was able to get Samsung and LG in particular on board without also having some of the other big Android vendors. Of course, none of this will stop these companies from suing those outside the Android ecosystem (or this alliance), but it might help temper some of the animosity that has sometimes characterized competition between Android OEMs.
What’s interesting here is that Microsoft is licensing patents rather than selling technology to Toyota – in other words, Toyota gets the right to use ideas patented by Microsoft, but not products or services built on top of them. That suggests that, while Microsoft has an impressive patent portfolio, it hasn’t necessarily built with those patents technology carmakers consider valuable. And that remains a big challenge for Microsoft in the connected car space – Windows and related technologies have been used in cars in the past, and Azure is being used as a cloud service behind some connected car services today, but Microsoft continues to struggle to build technologies carmakers actually want to use in cars, while other players continue to make headway in the space. I could certainly see Microsoft doing more deals like this – indeed, it describes this as a first for a new auto licensing program – but that doesn’t mean Microsoft is any closer to a stronger role in in-car technology.