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.
Just a quickie here – Apple has now sued Qualcomm in the UK too, on top of its existing suits in China and the US. There’s not a lot more detail in this article or, apparently, in the court filing itself, but the thrust of the UK case seems to be the same as in the other cases already filed.
Uber’s self-driving unit quietly bought firm with tech at heart of Alphabet lawsuit – Reuters (Mar 1, 2017)
This is an interesting angle on the Uber-Waymo lawsuit over the alleged stealing of LiDAR technology by Anthony Levandowski – it appears Levandowski’s Otto acquired a company which specialized in LiDAR technology before it was itself acquired by Uber, providing an alternative theory for how the company was apparently able to get up to speed so quickly on the technology. One of Waymo’s key arguments in its suit was that Levandowski appeared to make unreasonably rapid progress on LiDAR following Otto’s founding, and that the only explanation was theft of ideas, designs and so on from Waymo. As an interesting side note, see also this newly-released October 2016 interview with Anthony Levandowski from Forbes, in which he somewhat bizarrely volunteers the information that he didn’t steal any IP from Google when he left. He also talks through his long history with autonomous driving technology, which raises a key point here: clearly Levandowski learned a lot about this technology over the years, and taking that knowledge with him to a new employer clearly isn’t stealing. So how does Waymo prove in court that Otto/Uber used the documents he allegedly downloaded rather than his personal knowledge (or technology from somewhere completely different) in designing LiDAR systems? If you know the best way to build a LiDAR system because you’ve done it before, are you obligated to act as if you have no idea how to do it when you move to a new employer? I’m not a lawyer, but I think some of these questions are fascinating, and are likely to be critical in this case.
Qualcomm Comments on Apple Complaint – Qualcomm (Jan 21, 2017)
This is Qualcomm’s official statement on Apple’s lawsuit filed yesterday in San Diego, and it predictably pushes back on the key points in Apple’s filing. It argues that Apple has been the instigator of the various investigations of alleged anticompetitive behavior by Qualcomm in various jurisdictions, and that Apple has been misleading in its statements to the various authorities involved. Unlike some patent disputes, many of which are ultimately settled out of court, this one looks set to go the distance, given the sheer acrimony involved and the fact that this goes beyond a mere dispute over royalties. Combined with the FTC and Korean case, Qualcomm has plenty on its hands here.
First we had the FTC taking action against Qualcomm, and now Apple is joining the fray, and I’d argue that’s not at all coincidental. Apple would obviously dearly love to pay Qualcomm less money for licensing and chips, and the FTC has given it the perfect ammunition by highlighting alleged wrongdoing on Qualcomm’s part. Intriguingly, it appears that Qualcomm has been withholding rebates due to Apple in retaliation for Apple assisting the South Korean authorities with their recent investigations into anticompetitive practices by Qualcomm. But Apple is also going a lot further, by making some of the same arguments put forth in the FTC case about overcharging for essential FRAND patents. This is going to get ugly. I’m seeing – both in this Bloomberg piece and elsewhere – suggestions that this lawsuit stems from high pressure Apple feels around iPhone growth and margins, but that’s nonsense – Apple will always try to get the best margins possible, and when it’s given a way to apply pressure to a supplier, it’ll do so. The FTC action provided just such a way, so that’s the proximate cause here, not any sort of crunch on the Apple side.
Apple Pulls All Withings Accessories From Apple Online Store Following Nokia Lawsuit – Mac Rumors (Dec 23, 2016)
Apple clearly doesn’t appreciate Nokia’s recent lawsuit over patents, and is choosing to let Nokia know by dropping its Withings products from its stores. This will have a minimal impact on Apple’s retail operation, but Apple retail is a great premium channel for Withings, so this is a nice way to put some minor pressure on while the lawsuit is underway.
Apple and Nokia have a long history as competitors in the smartphone market, but since Nokia’s sale of its phone business to Microsoft, the relationship has changed. It appears Apple now wants to renegotiate terms, and Nokia doesn’t. This will probably end in a settlement of some kind, perhaps court-facilitated.
America’s Big 5 tech companies increase patent filings, Microsoft holds lead in AI technologies – IPWatchdog.com | Patents & Patent Law (Dec 22, 2016)
Interesting and valuable analysis. But clearly an oversimplification to make patents held the arbiter of a “lead” in AI. Ultimately, whether you lead in AI comes down to the customer benefit you drive from it, not the patents themselves.