Upward Mobility: Microsoft’s Patent Arsenal Is Full of Blanks

Why innovate in the product space, when you can leech money instead?

It is with some amusement that your humble servant read this week of Microsoft’s lucrative business licensing their patents to Android handset makers. How lucrative? Evidently, over two billion dollars a year, five times their revenue from actual mobile products that the company produces. What is harder to discover, unless you do a lot of digging, is what the Android vendors are actually licensing. You have to dig back into the original suit between Microsoft and Motorola to find a list of patents, although they may have added to their portfolio since then through further acquisitions. The thing is that, unlike many parts of the software industry, the cellular portion actually has some valid patents lurking around. Cell phones have radios in them, and there are continual improvements in the protocols and technologies used to make data move faster. As a result, it is a perfectly reasonable assumption to make that Microsoft has acquired some of these cellular patents, and is using them as a revenue stream. Unfortunately, a look at the Motorola suit patent list tells a different story. Here’s a list of the patent titles cited in the 2010 court case:

  • Common Name Space for Long and Short File Names (under 2 patents)
  • Monitoring Entropic Conditions of a Flash Memory Device as an Indicator for Invoking Erasure Operations
  • Radio Interface Layer in a Cell Phone with a Set of APIs Having a Hardware-Independent Proxy Layer and a Hardware-Specific Driver Layer
  • Method and System for Managing Changes to a Contact Database
  • Flexible Architecture for Notifying Applications of State Changes
  • Context Sensitive Menu System/Menu Behavior
  • Method and System for Supporting Off-line Mode of Operation and Synchronization Using Resource State Information
  • Generating Meeting Requests and Group Scheduling from a Mobile Device

The file name length patent covers the DOS 8.3 filename mapping strategy, and is the oldest of the patents. As with all software patents, it is questionable how validly innovative any of these patents are, but Microsoft has been able to wield them with obvious effectiveness, judging by the amount of revenue they have brought in for Redmond’s favorite son. The fact that Microsoft has been able to leverage these questionable patents against so many manufacturers highlights a weakness of Google’s Android licensing strategy. Because Google does not produce a handset themselves, Microsoft has not brought a suit against them using these weak patents (although they have used their membership in the ‘Rockstar’ cabal to sue using a different set.) Further, since the Android market is fragmented among a variety of companies, no one company has had the motivation to challenge the patents, and instead they have all rolled over and shown their soft underbelly. It is telling that Microsoft has never attempted to use these patents against Apple, even though iPhones undoubtedly  “infringe” on at least a few of the patents in the Motorola suit. Almost certainly, it is because Microsoft knows that Apple would fight them with every fiber of their being, and might even end up being overturned by a court or the USPTO. So, Microsoft has declined to prod at Apple with the patent stick, and instead is supping well at the Android banquet.

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