There are few of us who actually understand the technology behind our smartphones and tablets. These devices contain a system of intricate hardware and software that enables us to complete multiple tasks.
However, for the past few years, the companies that make our mobile devices have been at war with each other. You could call it a patent arms race, and the goal is to either shut out the small players or make the big ones constantly pay out cash.
What Are They Fighting Over?
The question of what companies like Apple, Google, Research in Motion and others are fighting for is simple: the rights to certain mobile device features. However, how these companies claim ownership and achieve victory is not quite as easy to understand.
According to a data report from Lex Machina, the number of mobile patent-related complaints has gone up by at least 20% every year since 2006. Why is there so much bad blood? Our mobile devices include tons of patents that are claimed by different companies.
Gestures like swiping to unlock the phone or features like email delivery and syncing technology may all be claimed by different companies, even though they're on the same phone.
Reasons for Fighting
Companies that own the patents can collect money when other people use that technology or "borrow" it for their device.
However, this is where things start getting complicated. Companies can buy patents from other companies and then collect money from, or sue, another company for using their patented technology. Some companies don't even use the patents to create products, they simply buy the patents to sue other companies who are infringing on them. These companies are often referred to as patent trolls.
Not all tech companies that buy up patents are considered patent trolls though. Recently, Google paid $12.5 billion for 17,000 patents from Motorola. Microsoft also holds a number of patents that can be found in Android devices. According to PCWorld, Microsoft will earn $444 million from Android devices this year.
Impact on Consumers
OK, so companies fight over intellectual property. This isn't news. However, it can impact the price of the mobile devices we buy. When a few big companies buy up patents, smaller tech companies cannot compete with the patents or the lawsuits. Not only are smaller players kicked out of the game, but the companies that remain then have to pay other companies to use the patents. According to an article on ReadWriteWeb, when this happens the price of mobile devices goes up and product launches are hindered.
Last year, Apple kept some Samsung Galaxy Tabs and Galaxy S products off the shelves in Germany and the Netherlands because they claimed Samsung committed patent infringements.
The Bottom Line
The patent wars are not ending anytime soon. If anything, they will only intensify. Mobile Internet is still in its formative years, so it is difficult to gauge just how all of this will play out. However, you can be certain that consumers will not be the ones who come out ahead.