27 April 2012

Apple v Android Part IV: The IP Landscape

Lunar landscape. Photo - (c) NASA, Apollo 17We concluded Part III in this series with a chart showing the relative sizes of the relevant patent portfolios of some of the major players in the mobile marketplace.  This showed Apple to be substantially out-gunned by the likes of Samsung, Motorola and Microsoft, in terms of patent numbers.

But there is more to a patent portfolio than the sheer number of patents it contains.  It is also important to look at what the patents cover, since some will be strategically more valuable than others.  Of course, it is completely impractical to read nearly 60,000 patents to determine what each one of them is about.  Fortunately, there are visualisation tools, such as the ThemeScape mapping capabilities of the Thomson Innovation package, which allow us to get a view of the big picture, without the need to drill down into all the details.


The figures in the sections below show the results of patent landscape mapping based on the portfolios of mobile patents held by Samsung, Motorola, Microsoft, the Rockstar Bidco consortium, Apple, Oracle, HTC and Google, which were identified in the search described in Part III. 

The maps reveal the strengths and weaknesses of each company’s portfolio. In summary:
  1. The starkest contrast is between Microsoft and Samsung, which dominate completely different regions of the landscape, reflecting their strengths in software and hardware respectively.
  2. Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility will give its portfolio a profile that is very similar to Samsung’s, albeit on a smaller scale.
  3. While Apple’s portfolio is smaller, it has significant concentrations of patents in the critical region between the Microsoft-dominated software zone and the hardware zones which are heavily populated by Samsung, Motorola and Nortel.
The strength of Apple’s portfolio therefore appears to lie in areas that are essential to the user experience, including touch-screen and display technologies, image and audio processing, and user interaction – literally, as well as in the virtual geography of the map, at the interface between software and hardware. This is certainly an area in which Apple has contributed significant innovation and may well represent a strategic sweet spot in the mobile device space.

The Overall Landscape

The figure below shows a ‘ThemeScape map’ constructed from the patent families in the set described in Part III.
Figure 2 - Themescape map. (c) 2012 Watermark
Patent families are clustered according to similarity of subject matter, with denser conglomerations represented as peaks in the contour map. Broadly speaking:
  1. moving from north to south, and east to west, corresponds with a transition from principally software-based systems and applications to low-level hardware and communications components, via interfaces between software, hardware and users;
  2. the “island” to the northeast of the chart is occupied by documents relating to software systems, principally applications (including development and installation environments), client-side software and some web services;
  3. the “peninsula” jutting out from the main land mass towards the island comprises search and media content services;
  4. the northern region represents user interface technologies, including touch-screen and display systems;
  5. in the northwest there are clusters relating to handset hardware and antennas;
  6. the central regions largely represent mobile services;
  7. the southern, south western and western regions are primarily occupied by documents relating to low-level hardware and processing, including base station and mobile components, communications protocols, and signal processing.

Microsoft and Samsung

The figure below shows an overlay of Microsoft (yellow circles) and Samsung (red circles) portfolios on the overall ThemeScape map. The topography highlights the historically complementary interests of Microsoft – which, as a software company, dominates the northeast region of the map – and Samsung, whose portfolio is strongest in the southern and western regions.
Figure 3 - Microsoft Samsung. (c) 2012 Watermark


Below is shown an overlay of the Motorola Mobility portfolio on the overall ThemeScape map. Google’s acquisition of the company, along with its patent portfolio, will give it a similar patent profile (although smaller in number) to Samsung. Indeed, relative to the size of its portfolio, Motorola Mobility appears to have a greater density of documents than Samsung in the critical software and interface areas of the map in the central and northeastern regions.
Figure 4 - Motorola. (c) 2012 Watermark


The figure below overlays Apple’s portfolio on the overall ThemeScape map. The greatest strengths of Apple’s patent portfolio clearly lie in the regions corresponding with user interfaces, displays and touch screens. The two Apple patents which briefly resulted in the award of an interlocutory injunction in Australia are both located near the summit of the northern peak labelled “Touch Screen Interaction & Display”. However, Apple does not have this area of innovation to itself – as the preceding charts show, Microsoft, Samsung and Motorola Mobility all also have closely related patents and/or applications.
Figure 5 - Apple. (c) 2012 Watermark

In the fifth and final article in the series we will examine how the above patent portfolios relate to the fraught areas of industry standards and FRAND licensing obligations, and speculate about a resolution to the ongoing IP disputes.


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