Thomson’s ThemeScape maps employ a visual analogy with geographic contour maps, to present large quantities of complex information as a two-dimensional ‘landscape’. As part of some ongoing research for an article likely to be published in the coming months in IAM Magazine, we have been working with our colleagues in the Information Services team at Watermark Intellectual Asset Management on some ThemeScape mapping relevant to the ongoing disputes in the ‘smartphone/tablet’ space involving companies such as Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Google and Motorola. The preliminary results of this research are extremely interesting, so we thought we would share a few insights as a taste of what is to come in the final article.
In essence, what the results show so far is that the mobile technology patent landscape is dominated on the ‘hardware’ side by the major traditional manufacturers, such as Samsung and Motorola, and on the ‘software’ side by Microsoft. And while Apple’s portfolio is small by comparison, its recent successes in various courts around the world are strong evidence that the patents Apple does hold are of particular strategic significance.
THE THEMESCAPEIn a ThemeScape, documents are clustered based on their thematic similarity, which the software estimates by analysing the text for similarities and differences. ‘Dense’ areas, where there are large numbers of similar documents, are represented as snow-capped ‘peaks’, while relatively sparse areas are represented as blue ‘lakes’ or ‘oceans’. The absolute positioning of each peak and valley is not important, only relative location – the closer together the peaks are located on the map, the more closely the corresponding technologies are related.
In the ThemeScape maps presented here, the underlying ‘landscape’ is made up of a very large number of patents and applications (numbering in the tens of thousands) relating to mobile device and communications technologies, and assigned (originally or currently) to a range of companies including Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Google, Motorola Mobility and Nortel.
For purposes of the present discussion, the notable features of the landscape are:
- a number of peaks located around the periphery of the map, including cluster in the ‘north-east’, which correspond generally with various hardware and telecommunications technology elements of mobile systems; and
- a central region of peaks and valleys, which correspond generally with software functions and user experience features of mobile devices.
SAMSUNG’S HARDWARE DOMINANCESamsung dominates the ThemeScape. Indeed, without Samsung the patent landscape would look very different. Its patents contribute significantly to almost every peak on the map. The only area in which Samsung’s yellow dots do not obscure the geography is within parts of the ‘software zone’ in the central regions of the map.
This is consistent with Samsung’s history as a major player within the hardware space, as a manufacturer of handsets and other mobile devices, as well as integrated circuits implementing various aspects of the mobile communications protocols which can be found in many devices made by other companies (including Apple’s iPhones and iPads).
As a developer and manufacturer of communications chips and devices, Samsung has also been a major contributor to the technical standards governing wireless telecommunications systems, which means that many of its patents cover technology essential to the implementation of those standards (see FRAND Obligations to be Aired in Australian Court for further discussion of the implications of this).
MICROSOFT’S SOFTWARE DOMINANCEUnsurprisingly, Microsoft’s red dots dominate the central ‘software zone’ of the map.
In particular, Microsoft has the central ‘sea of software’ almost entirely to itself. As noted above, this is not a region with an insignificant number of patents. However, they virtually all belong to Microsoft!
Overlaying the Microsoft and Samsung data results in almost complete coverage of the entire landscape. If all patents were created equal – in technical quality, and strategic significance – then Microsoft and Samsung between them would rule the mobile world, and none should pass within its borders without bringing their own patents and/or license payments to the gatekeepers!
APPLE’S STRATEGIC PLACEMENTAs most readers will be aware, Apple’s patent portfolio is not insubstantial in size, but as the purple dots on the map show, it is not even remotely in the same league as either Samsung or Microsoft.
Again, if all patents were created equal, Apple would be paying the piper, not obtaining injunctions barring the piper from playing his own pipe!
But Apple’s patents sit in strategic zones of the map. The densest areas of purple are gathered near the boundaries between the software and hardware regions, in the fertile hinterlands of the user experience!
GOOGLE’S PROBLEM, AND ITS ‘SOLUTION’As the blue dots on the map show, Google (and, by extension, Android) faces a serious problem in the mobile space, where it has managed to occupy only a small amount of real-estate.
To make matters worse, the territory Google does hold does not appear to be of great strategic significance – the areas in which Google has most patents are generally even more densely populated by Microsoft.
This updated map represents ‘Googorola’ – a combination of Google’s existing patents, and those which it will acquire along with Motorola Mobility (see Google Joins the ‘Hardware Club’ While Microsoft Whines).
Clearly, the acquisition of Motorola Mobility will place Google in a similar class to Samsung, and while it will obtain the benefit of all of those ‘hardware’ patents, it will also be encumbered by similar obligations to license standards-essential patents on ‘fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory’ (FRAND) terms. The strategic value of the acquisition therefore remains to be seen.
THE FRAND FRUSTRATIONOne thing that is very clear from the maps is that ‘hardware’ companies, such as Samsung and Motorola, have invested large sums in developing, and protecting, telecommunications technologies and devices, some of which have been deemed sufficiently practical, robust and effective to be incorporated into the very standards – such as those associated with 3G mobile broadband systems – upon which an entire market has been built.
Arguably, their return on this investment has been the market leadership that comes with the special insight they have into the standards and their implementation, which is why Samsung components find their way into competitors’ products, such as Apple’s iPhones.
However, integrated circuits are commodity items. Volumes may be high, but margins are very low. The real value-add in a smartphone or tablet lies in the software with which its users interact, and the ecosystems which support the devices with apps and content.
It is therefore understandable that companies like Samsung want to be in this space. And yet they are now finding that it is already staked-out by Apple, which could not have developed the market it has without building on the advances in broadband wireless communications in which Samsung and others had invested.
It is therefore ironic – and some might say more than a little unfair – that Apple should be in a position to frustrate Samsung’s attempts to compete against its iPhone and iPad products, while the FRAND obligations associated with Samsung’s much larger patent portfolio leave it in a strategically weakened position.
In this context, it is hardly surprising that Samsung is in the Federal Court of Australia arguing that it should not be barred from obtaining an injunction against the iPhone 4S on the basis of the FRAND status of the patents which it is asserting against Apple.